There’s one primary rule I keep in mind when I’m not sure whether to include/delete/change something in a story. I imagine a reader complaining about whatever the story element is, and I think about what my initial reaction would be. Would I think, “Okay, that’s fair; people are always going to dislike something or other. But I stand by that story element; I’m glad it’s there”? (Or possibly, “Whaaat? How could someone so thoroughly misunderstand my book?”) Or would I want to tell this theoretical reader, “Yeah, I know, that really shouldn’t have been in the book. But I thought readers would expect it/my writing group thought it would be good/I was worried the book wouldn’t make sense without it”?
If it’s the former, I add it (or keep it in, depending). If it’s the latter, it goes. This is how I stay true to the story.
And I’m honest with myself. I know the difference between “This wouldn’t be true to the story” and “But I don’t want to do all that work!” The story has to come first – it has to come before laziness, and it has to come before the insecurity that might cause me to make changes that aren’t right.
Ever since I wrote the original version of The Torturer’s Daughter... no, ever since I first started writing in the world The Torturer’s Daughter is set in… I’ve struggled with the worldbuilding. I knew I wanted a dystopian society. I knew the type of dystopia I wanted – the feeling, the tone, the style of oppression. I knew I also wanted it to feel a lot like the real world. But I didn’t know the specifics. I didn’t know how the world had gotten that way, or what the government was like, or what their relationship to the rest of the world was.
I answered some of those questions for that first story, but it just… never felt right, somehow. It never stuck. In The Torturer’s Daughter, both versions, I pretty much ignored the question entirely – mainly because I was so wrapped up in the story that I forgot about that part. When I did remember, I told myself I’d do it later. Until a couple of months ago, when I was reading through what was almost my final draft and realized, with a feeling of vague bewilderment, that I still hadn’t pinned down the answers to those larger questions about the world. How had I managed to get that far without something so crucial?
I came up with a few possible ideas. But when I tested them against that hypothetical reader’s criticism, the answer was always the same. None of them were true to the story.
I went deeper. Took a harder look at the story, at the world I wanted, at why none of my ideas fit. And what I realized was this: No matter what answers I came up with, they wouldn’t be true to the story. Answering those questions wouldn’t be true to the story.
The story isn’t written from the perspective of, “Such-and-such change happened, and it altered the world like so.” It isn’t written from the perspective of, “If such-and-such real-world trend continues into the future, these bad things will happen.” It’s written from the perspective of, “This is our world, but with a totalitarian overlay.” The more specificity I give the world, the more I define its relationship to our world and its identity separate from our world, the more it weakens the world’s central purpose. The more it becomes “The world after such-and-such happened” or “The world x years in the future,” the less it’s “Our world, but totalitarian.” That kind of specificity also brings the world into the foreground more (and gives it more of a sense of change), and thus creates the expectation that the story is about changing the world. It’s not. The story is about Becca and her changes, and so that’s where the focus should stay.
(That’s not to say I’m ignoring worldbuilding. I’ve made sure the world has internal consistency and abides by its own logic, and I’ve got plenty of specifics – on my head and on the page – about how, for example, Internal Defense works. Few things will pull me out of a story faster than a world that doesn’t make sense, and I’m not about to make the same mistake with mine. It’s the bigger things – the the history, the global context – that would be problematic. Glossing over the little things would actually be just as problematic, because I’m not going the stylized-and-allegorical route with this dystopia. I want the everyday-life aspects to feel as realistic as possible.)
This realization makes me nervous. Will it look lazy? Will people be unsatisfied? Dystopias are supposed to be set in exotic stylized worlds, and they’re supposed to be about fixing those worlds, and some people even argue that a book can’t properly be called dystopian unless it’s trying to get some sort of message across, and now here’s this dystopia that doesn’t do any of those things.
But the story comes first.
Incidentally, I intentionally didn’t tell my writing group about any of this when they started reading the story, because I wanted to get a sense of whether readers would find the way the world background was handled to be jarring. I waited for them to ask. And… they didn’t. As best I can remember, I haven’t gotten a single comment saying the book needs more information about the world.
I think that’s a good sign.