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What kind of world is your story set in?

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Here's something I see often in stories:

The story appears to be set on modern Earth. Everyone looks and acts like people in the real world, and there's modern technology.

But there's also something anomalous: one character is a being from another milieu, such as an ogre, a Neanderthal, an alien, a dragon, an elf, a vampire, a pixie, a mutant, or whatever. And the story is generally told from the point of view of someone (such as the anomalous being, or a friend of theirs) who doesn't find that strange; and there generally aren't any ordinary members of the general public around to give us a reaction.

And for the first half or more of the story, there is no clear indication of whether the anomalous being is considered normal in the world of the story or not.

I find it really distracting; it means that for at least the first half of the story, about half of my attention is on trying to figure out what kind of world the story is set in. As soon as I know that (for example) in this world, the Awakening ten years ago led to creatures out of myth appearing all over the world; or that in this world, nobody but the anomalous being and the protagonist believe in pixies; or that in this world, aliens have been around for centuries and are an accepted part of the world--as soon as I know what the world of the story is like, I can stop focusing on that and enjoy the story.

Sometimes, of course, the slow revelation of the worldbuilding is a major part of my enjoyment of the story--The Golden Compass comes to mind. And sometimes, as in some later Heinlein, there's a neat little twist in the middle when we discover that the setting isn't what we thought it was--that it's an alternate universe instead of the future, for example. But neither of those is really what I'm talking about. I'm talking about stories in which the author seems to think that it's clear and/or unimportant whether this particular kind of anomalous being is known to the world or not, and so doesn't bother to say anything about it.

This is, really, a specific subcategory of the more general category of stories that don't give the reader enough grounding at the beginning to let the reader get their bearings. But if I go off on that I'll never finish this entry, so I'll stop here.

4 Comments

That actually surprises me a great deal, because "The Girl From Another World" is exactly that kind of story. *g*


Sounds like a reading protocols problem to me! I think you need to consult Jay Lake's Handy Guide to Genre Distinctions again.


Leah: When I read "The Girl from Another World," I assumed that girls from other worlds were quite unusual in the world of the story. You don't explicitly tell us that the line cook, the salad cook, the other waitress, and the other secondary characters in the world of the story would be surprised or upset or disbelieving to be told about the girl from another world, but I saw no reason not to fall back on my default assumption that the story was set in essentially our world. And although the protagonist took the girl from another world more or less in stride, I didn't get the impression that the protagonist was used to running into girls from other worlds all the time; quite the opposite.

In the kind of story I'm talking about, the anomalous character is usually obviously visually anomalous, so that anyone seeing them would know they're not a normal human, but there usually aren't other people (besides the protagonists) around to react, so it's hard to know. If you have a dragon walk down the street and nobody bats an eyelash, that answers the question I'm getting at; likewise if the dragon walks down the street and everyone freaks out about the existence of dragons. But if the dragon is sitting talking, alone, with the protagonist, who doesn't seem to care that the dragon is a dragon, then I want some kind of hint as to whether the protagonist is used to seeing dragons all the time or whether this is their first dragon. And again, if the author has some reason to make that ambiguous, that's often different from the author just not realizing it's not clear.

David: I don't think this is a genre-distinctions issue; I have the same reaction whether the anomalous being is a dragon or a robot (or turns out to be a hallucination). But yeah, I suppose it's sort of a reading-protocols issue, at least in the general sense that I want authors to do a better job of setting up reading protocols at the start of the story. Or am I misunderstanding your comment?


Well, when I summarized this post for Ben, his response was something like: "So he's saying he doesn't like Kelly Link stories?"

I have a feeling I haven't understood exactly what it is you're objecting to, because there's a whole genre (subgenre?) -- I don't know a good name for it; "American magical realism"? representative authors being Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Doug Lain, Alan DeNiro, Meghan McCarron -- that seems to consist largely of the sort of story you're complaining about: arbitrary unexplained intrusion of the unreal into quotidian middle-class America, without explanation or context.

But I'm pretty sure that's not your complaint, so I guess I'm not sure what your complaint is. Stories that start out like that and halfway through turn into something more X-Files-ey or Shadowrun-ny, clunky and explicit?


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