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The Big Organization - Can an alternate world exist without it?
Mara Kaan
Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 6:02 PM
Joined: 3/9/2011
Posts: 4


In any sort of alternate history book, there needs to be something that is the driving force for the differences in modes, culture, and behavior in the other world.   When constructing my own alternate (not sci-fi or fantasy) world, it was difficult to get the information to the reader without having first established an organization that functioned as a central, huge, vaguely threatening force in people's day-to-day lives.   Is there any other way to introduce alternate norms without having to write paragraphs of explanation on every element you introduce?
Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 1:15 AM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90


If your alternate history is organic, sufficiently plausible, I don't see how you should have to write paragraphs of explanation. I don't think any book, any story, requires paragraphs of explanation for the reader to understand what's going on. I believe in trusting the reader.

One thing I used in a story some years ago, and then read that Philip K. Dick also used in his The Man in the High Castle, is having a character try to imagine a world like ours and talk about that. In Dick's book, the Nazis won WWII and there's a character trying to imagine what the world would have been like if the Nazis had been defeated. Nice trick. I kinda thought it went on too long, though.

Readers love making inferences, we love feeling like we're figuring things out. I try to treat writing like conversation--if a particular bit of backstory *comes up* in the flow of narrative, seems relevant to the conversation/story at hand, then I might say a few words about it without totally derailing the conversation/story. Sometimes, I admit, l enjoy a good digression and take great pleasure in some tangent or other, but in that case I try to make it payoff for my audience either by being particularly amusing in its own right or staggeringly relevant down the line.

I think there's a weird kinda myth that only writers buy into saying readers need to know a bunch of stuff concerning the worlds they read about or they won't like the world. We only need to know about the world to the extent that the world is directly and significantly affecting the characters' actions. That's the *need* to know. Then there's the *like* to know which is dependent on style and charm and winning the reader over. Everything else is for the writer's benefit, not the reader's.

My WIP is near future SF, near enough to be somewhat familiar, but it's also massively changed on some pretty subtle, and not so subtle levels. At this point, I'm still revealing major aspects of the world 6 chapters in. It's not that these aspects don't affect what's happening before chapter 6, they do, but they haven't come up yet, so to speak.

One of the things that's happened to people, in just the hundred years from next week, is they no longer believe that people actually dream in their sleep. By then, pharmaceuticals have so interfered with natural sleep that no one in the "civilized" world has remembered their dreams for generations. So, it's become a myth, something "primitive" people used to believe in, but it's no more real to civilized folk than telepathy and ghosts. Of course, my MC starts remembering dreams and has no way to integrate that reality. He thinks there are people in his house, dead people talking to him, he's going crazy, etc. It informs a lot of what happens in the first 70 pages of the book but I don't reveal it until my MC starts dealing with it directly.

It helps the world building issue you're talking about that my main character's a cop (or what passes for one a 100 years in the future). So he's pretty intimate with the workings of his society--in the belly of the beast, as it were--and I construct the plot so he has to deal with the major institutions in his world. It would be harder and less convenient to describe the inner workings of his society if he were, say, a barista. Or maybe not, depending on the plot.

-Kevin
Mara Kaan
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 1:34 PM
Joined: 3/9/2011
Posts: 4


Kevin, thanks for this fantastic set of tips and insight into your own writing. It all makes perfect sense.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 7:06 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416


My WIP is near future SF, near enough to be somewhat familiar, but it's also massively changed on some pretty subtle, and not so subtle levels. At this point, I'm still revealing major aspects of the world 6 chapters in. It's not that these aspects don't affect what's happening before chapter 6, they do, but they haven't come up yet, so to speak.


Heh, my own work is the same. I have a massive backstory built up, and keep dropping bits and pieces. Its simply KNOWN to everyone that the united states no longer exists, that Canada, the US, and most of Mexico are part of the North American Commonwealth, that most large cities have swallowed their suburbs and are now autonomous city states, and that the commonwealth is a part of the American Union, which contains all of North and South america. But its just been obliquely mentioned. Its not important.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 7:09 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416


To respond to the original post, nothing that drastic is neccesary. Imagine how different the world would have been if, say, Columbus was killed by his crew and they turned back, just before reaching the Caribbean. If the retreat at the potomac didn't go as planned, and the redcoats took out General Washington and crew. COMPLETELY different world, no major presence required.
Ava DiGioia
Posted: Friday, March 25, 2011 4:44 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 39


Kevin -- Thanks for the insights in your post.

I have been struggling with how much background history to reveal in my current WIP and your thoughts helped a lot.

Alternate history is one of my favorite settings. I think the organization depends on how much of a departure from real history is happening. I'm dealing with both a world about 500 years future and an ancient alternate culture. For the future world, I used what I call the Jetsons Principle. In our current world, a lot of things are similar to technology used on "The Jetsons", but there are things that still haven't been invented like flying cars or Rosie the Robot Maid (still waiting for that one!). For my ancient culture, the daily life and beliefs of the people are the same as history, just a lot of the tools and technology are different.

I think actions of the characters, names of items and dialogue can be used to reveal a lot of an alternate world without having to resort to extensive paragraphs of narrative background.

Now that I've said that, it will probably end up as one of the main criticisms of my book.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 1:27 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383


I've actually got the beginnings of a SteamPunk series published, and a review keyed in on a point related to this one.

The action thus far in the series is all set in the south of France in an alternate history / steampunk universe. There are differences, and I'm introducing them a few at a time. The time period is late Edwardian, with an early-onset WWI. Some references to actual historical figures to place the time (roughly) and some geographic ones to place the setting (equally roughly).

I wasn't dinged on my changes - I was dinged on not giving enough setting information regarding the real-world setting I was using.

So don't be surprised if you get mixed responses no matter what you do.

That said - don't infodump. Don't infodump, don't infodump. Indigestible expository lumps are bad.

However, it doesn't hurt to have a pedant and an ingenue in your cast.
Joe Selby
Posted: Friday, April 29, 2011 4:51 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 30


"In any sort of alternate history book, there needs to be something that is the driving force for the differences in modes, culture, and behavior in the other world."


I agree that there needs to be "something" but that something may be as simple as a person choosing B when in reality they chose A. You don't need to explain to the reader what the driving force is as long as you the author know what it is and can pattern its ripple effects appropriately.

I am currently writing an alt history story where Benedict Arnold did not betray the colonial army and Napoleon fled to New Orleans rather than Alba. I know the reasons both these events happened but the reader will never know them. They will know that Arnold and not Washington earned the monicker, Father of Our Country, and they will see the ripple effects when Napoleon tries to form his new empire in the new world.

As long as you are consistent in the changes you've made and the effects of those changes, the reader can do without an explanation as to why. They've suspended their disbelief. They want an immersive story.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 11:43 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356


Bumping this up for new members to see!

 

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