Worldbuilding, Genres, and Reader Expectations

by Jami Gold on August 16, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Image from header of Melinda Collins's blog

After I agreed to do a guest post for my friend Melinda Collins, she suggested I write something about worldbuilding. Despite being a paranormal author who continually invents worlds slightly different from our own, I haven’t written many posts about that topic yet, so I sat down to brainstorm ideas.

Okay, my beta readers have said good things about my worldbuilding, and an editor gushed about it, so I must be able to build worlds for my stories. But short of saying, “Let it grow organically” and “Don’t info dump,” I didn’t think I had much advice to share.

However, I’ve also run into problems with some readers expecting a completely different story from the one I wrote, and talking about what I learned from that experience sounds more interesting. (Yes, it’s easier for me to write about my failures than my successes. Er, yeah… Let’s not analyze what that says about me too closely, okay?)

Recently, I received some odd feedback on one of my stories. The reading group was disappointed with the focus of the story. This wasn’t a minor deal. Their suggestions to line up the story with their expectations would have changed the world my characters lived in and the entire premise.

That wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, and that wasn’t the reality of the story world. So I made the changes that did make sense for the story and tried to figure out where the disconnect had occurred. And the problem started with me.

Just as with everything else in writing, the reader can only interpret what we tell them. And I’d unintentionally given those readers a description for the story that implied a different tone from the reality. As usual, the feedback had something to teach me if I was willing to listen. *smile*

So I’m heading over to Melinda’s blog today to share some tips on how to give readers an accurate impression of what to expect from our stories by using the correct genre labels and worldbuilding details. Those of us who mix genres need to be especially careful about the labels we use. I’ll also share how, after a re-read of that story, I decided on a way to describe it that will hopefully prevent future disconnects. Please join me over there!

Have you ever had readers misinterpret or be disappointed by a story because of its description? Have you ever received feedback that seemed to belong to a different story? How did you handle it? Were you able to find a solution?

18 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee August 16, 2012 at 7:20 am

Well, I had a “short story” available for several months that was actually a vignette. It took some frustrated reviewers for me to get the clue stick. I knew what the story was, but I’d for whatever reason started marking it as a “short story”, so folks who didn’t like vignettes were upset with what they got.

I considered changing all the labels to “vignette” rather than “short story”, but it was a free flash fiction piece, anyway, so I decided to pull it. Eventually, I’ll put it as a bonus somewhere. I also wrote a blog post that explains why.

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Jami Gold August 16, 2012 at 9:47 am

Hi Carradee,

Oh, good example! Yes, the structure (especially plot-wise) is very different between those two. That disconnect makes sense. Thanks for sharing and for the comment!

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Chihuahua Zero August 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm

I’m stuck about what label to use for my psychics-and-spirits WIP. I’ve been using Urban Fantasy, but it doesn’t have that sense of “supernatural society” until later in the book.

On the other hand, “Paranormal Romance”…doesn’t fit what I consider is the core of the story.

Maybe I’ll to with Urban Fantasy.

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Jami Gold August 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Hi Chihuahua Zero,

Oh yes, that’s a tough one. What’s the tone in the first half of the book? Does it still have supernatural elements? If yes, urban fantasy would probably work. If not, maybe think about what you’d call the tone of the first half and add “with urban fantasy elements” or something.

I’m certainly no genius when it comes to this, however (witness my failure story in the post–LOL!), so you have to go with what feels right to you. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc August 16, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Jami, so far, I haven’t received that sort of feedback for my stories, but if it makes you feel any better, I just received my third rejection for the novel I just completed.
I’m glad to say the rejections haven’t come from the agents that had requested the novel, or by agents I’m dying to land, but it’s still disappointing none the less:}
I wish you the very best of luck with your novel, and I’d be honored to take a look at it.
Let me know if you need, or would like another beta.
Have a great evening,
Tamara

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Jami Gold August 16, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Hi Tamara,

I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you! 🙂 And yes, I’ll probably be looking for betas soon. Thanks for the offer and the comment!

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Addy Rae August 16, 2012 at 7:08 pm

I’ve had feedback that was out in left field, but that person seems to misunderstand most of what they read, so now I just don’t ask her to beta. (In the most recent case it was a long complaint that my magic system wasn’t well developed… and a post apocalyptic novel with NO magic at all. I’m not sure we were even talking about the same book.)

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Jami Gold August 16, 2012 at 11:44 pm

Hi Addy,

Wow! Even my feedback wasn’t that off. I’m sorry you had to deal with that. At least we both know we aren’t alone, right? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jordan McCollum August 16, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Side note: it’s easier to talk about your failures because you’ve learned from them, Jami! Most of my series on writing craft were inspired by needing to work on X aspect of my craft.

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Jami Gold August 16, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Hi Jordan,

You’re absolutely right about that! Plus, I just plain love sharing what I learn. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins August 16, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Hi Jami!

Thank you so so so much for guesting on my blog today! I love what you posted about – it is so incredibly helpful with creating a label for our story that sets that tone and expectations for the readers. 🙂

As always, you are awesome and the post is amazing! Thank you again! 😀

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Jami Gold August 16, 2012 at 11:46 pm

Hi Melinda,

Aww, thank you! And I’m glad I was able to come up with something for your blog. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Kerry Gans August 18, 2012 at 9:39 am

Just had this happen, actually. Got my ms. back from a developmental editor, and she noted several disconnects like yours. Going to brainstorm with her today on how to make the story I ACTUALLY wrote line up with the story I THOUGHT I wrote. I’m looking forward to the session, and hopefully will have an epiphany to keep me from having this problem in the future. The editor says it happened because I raised the wrong/too many questions with my inciting incident, so the story structure wasn’t focused properly. I agree! Now to fix it…

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Jami Gold August 18, 2012 at 9:43 am

Hi Kerry,

Ooo, good example! Yes, having a strong focus on the right story questions throughout is important. I’ve have that problem before in a different story. 🙂 So much comes down to realizing that just a few words here and there can change how readers interpret our work or form an impression.

Thanks for sharing and good luck with fixing it!

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Carradee August 20, 2012 at 4:37 am

That’s why I write the “query” first, even when I’m not going to submit the story to publishers: It helps me narrow the story to what my primary focus needs to be.

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Jami Gold August 20, 2012 at 8:53 am

Hi Carradee,

Yes, the story I had that problem with was the one I wrote before adopting the “query first” technique. 🙂 I’ve learned my lesson. LOL!

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Serena August 22, 2012 at 7:30 pm

I especially agree with the “let it grow organically” advice. When I write, I never think of it as “world building”, I think of it as “world discovering” instead. So all the details of that world are like skeleton bones that I have to dig up eventually so I can piece the whole dinosaur together. So I pretend that this is a world that existed before I even started writing, I just need to find out enough about it to tell the story. This “assumption of a pre-existing world” strategy seems to work for me, so I’m not *forcing* anything onto the canvas, and everything feels more natural and convincing.

Have you heard of any other writers who like to think of world building as “world discovering” rather than “world creating”? And who find that this assumption helps their writing?

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Jami Gold August 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm

Hi Serena,

“World discovering.” Ooo, love that!

And I like the way you described it too. Yes, that’s very much how I write–which is one of the reasons I consider myself a pantser at heart. I often write like I’m walking through fog that doesn’t clear until I get close. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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