Worldbuilding Considerations for the Children's Writer
by Eugie Foster
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The length limitations of children's literature require that writers be able to create compelling characters and engaging storylines in a shorter space than for grown-up works. While some people might argue that it's unnecessary to do worldbuilding for kids' stories, believing that setting and background descriptions can be cut out or glossed over, that's simply not true. A large percentage of fiction for children falls within genre boundaries--fairy tales, myths, legends, etc.--requiring writers to be able to establish rich settings and evocative moods in that limited space in order to immerse their young audiences. Also, editors expect and demand that facts and details, such as historical events, geographic descriptions, and scientific particulars, be accurate. After all, a young audience is impressionable, and a writer or editor who presents a falsehood to them as truth is being irresponsible and is also risking the ire of teachers and parents.
Furthermore, research evidence involving picture books1,2,3 indicates that children are more, rather than less, receptive to greater narrative complexity--i.e., setting and worldbuilding elements--than adults. Writers often believe that in order for kids to be able to follow complex narratives they need to acquire a certain level of developmental maturity. But interviews with children indicate that they're capable of comprehending difficult subject matter at far younger ages than most people suppose2 and frequently notice details that adults routinely miss3.
However, it means that children's writers face an especial challenge: How to effectively introduce and convey a wholly realized fantastical realm within such rigid space considerations?
Worldbuilding Basics: Avoid Infodumps
Infodump - Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper or "Encyclopedia Galactica" articles inserted in the text, or covert, in which all actions stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures4.
Common Types of Infodumps:
- Frontloading - Piling too much exposition into the beginning of the story so that it becomes so dense and dry that it is almost impossible to read4.
- "As You Know Bob" - The most pernicious form of infodump. In which the characters tell each other things they already know for the sake of getting the reader up to speed4.
- Author Needs You to Know - Dialogue or action that blatantly has no purpose other than to educate the reader about some important story detail. Usually a failed attempt to smoothly work in an infodump; cousin of the As You Know Bob4.
- E.g., "Do you really need it spelled out?" Bob ranted. "We [followed by explanation]..." Or, "So, boss, remind me what time I'm supposed to whack the president?" Or, "Say, Captain, do we have enough fuel to reach Tau Ceti, our destination, in our scheduled time of six months?"
The same complexities exist for the children's lit. worldbuilder, that of maintaining readers' suspension of disbelief, as the adult lit. worldbuilder, but we have less time to establish credibility and consistency, the keys to upholding a reader's trust. And the sin of committing an infodump is even more egregious in works for children. Writers have to be very selective in what details they employ to describe their setting, and each word has to carry its own weight.
- Show, don't tell. Avoid writing scenes whose sole purpose is to explain something about your world. Intersperse narrative with dialogue or action, or preferably both.
- Don't stop the action. Your story should always be moving forward, progressing your characters through the events of your plot.
- Stick close to the action and your protagonist. DonŐt allow yourself to drift into lengthy expositions and digressions. What's a "lengthy exposition"? Too long and just long enough are subjective and circumstantial, but if you find it tedious to write, it's a good bet that it's too long.
- If you create a wholly fantastical world, establish laws upon which to lay the groundwork of how it works. And use your setting and characters to show (not tell) how things works through cause and effect, creating plausible actions and outcomes. The technical construction of your new laws of reality should be based, however loosely, upon what we know about the real world. And when you veer away from the real world, have a reason for it.
- Stringently maintain logic of circumstance. Avoid introducing coincidences and deus ex machina. The exception is a coincidence that is to the detriment of your protagonist's goals. Bad coincidences are believable because they do not further your (and your story's) target: to get your character to the resolution of his or her story in a satisfying manner. Coincidences which create new obstacles that your hero(ine) must overcome are interesting . . . up to a point.
- Your characters must be "real" people, no matter how many extra limbs, antennae, or exotic abilities they might have, with understandable emotions, motivations, and goals that kids can relate to. Believable characters are ones that grow and change as a result of their experiences.
- Anchor the unfamiliar with the familiar. Even the most fantastic worlds are based--to greater and lesser extents--on the real one. This provides a necessary frame of reference in order to ground understanding. Use figurative language--similes and metaphors--to draw parallels between the fantastic and the mundane. But keep them tangible and salient. Metaphors that refer to sensory objects are better than ones that use abstract concepts or ideas.
Kids are wonderfully imaginative. If you don't give them a reason to get pulled out of your story, they'll stay rapt with you and your characters to the end.
1Lewis, D. (2001). Picturing Text: The Contemporary Children's Picturebook. London, New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
2Bromley, H. (1996). Spying on Picture Books: exploring intertextuality with young children. In V. Watson & M. Styles (Eds.), Talking Pictures: Pictorial Texts and Young Readers. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
3Styles, M. & Arizpe, E. (2003). Children Reading Pictures: Interpreting Visual Texts. London, New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
4Shiner, E. & Sterling, B. (Eds.). The Turkey City Lexicon: A Primer for SF Workshops 2ed. http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/turkey-city-lexicon-a-primer-for-sf-workshops/.
Copyright © 2007 Eugie Foster
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Eugie Foster is a short-fiction writer specializing in genre and children's literature. She has sold more than a dozen stories to the Cricket Magazine Group, including Spider, Cricket and Cicada, as well as to an assortment of other children's magazines including Dragonfly Spirit and Story Station. She holds an M.A. in developmental psychology, has co-authored a textbook on child development, and is a frequent speaker at Dragon*Con's Young Adult Literature Track. She is a member of the SFWA and managing editor of Tangent (http://www.tangentonline.com). Foster maintains a list of children's SF/F magazine markets at her website, http://www.eugiefoster.com.
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