While reading Erin Bowman’s debut novel Taken last week, I got to thinking about how writers of fantasy or dystopian worlds pre-plan. Do we start with the world and how it came to be or do we start with the premise and expand?
Warning: I will be discussing the world within Taken and this does include some spoilers.
Taken begins with the premise of a community called Claysoot from which boys are taken–heisted–on their 18th birthdays. Nobody knows who/what takes them or where they go and most assume that they die. A few question it but most accept it and live their lives within these circumstances. As the main character Grey, a third generation of the community, begins searching for answers, the world expands beyond Claysoot exponentially.
Top-down, or biggest to smallest, we learn that after World War 3, the United States was split into East and West because of the resulting civil war. West created five communities as experimental soldier breeding grounds. Claysoot is one of those five.
Thus, my question: Did Bowman begin with the idea of Claysoot or of war-torn America. Did she begin small and expand out (as we experience the story) or start big and add details?
My opinion? I think it was probably some combination of the two. The heist premise is engaging enough that it could have been what sparked her idea but I assume she had an idea from the start about the world they all lived in. If she started with just the premise, it would have taken a ton of editing and revising to create a world so intricate. Either that or she got to watching M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and wondered what if someone else put them there, with monsters outside, instead of the people inside doing so. Kidding, of course.
Regardless, this made me question how I plan and how I can improve that process. What do I do? Do I plan top-down or inward-out?
Cinders began with the idea of a place where teens with a magic based on the elements were captured in a concentration camp. I refined the details, basing it more on genetics than magic, but for the most part expanded outwards. My question for myself is how much better of a world Maisara could be if I had taken the time to consider things from the other direction.
Now that I am working on the next trilogy, set fifteen years after the first and in different circumstances, I am taking a cue from Bohman and taking a step back. I am having tons of fun with the premise but I am also considering the big picture and why everything came to this. I am asking myself about motivations and considering how everyone would react to certain things, what they would do as a result, and what others would do because of that. It can be all consuming but I already have new pathways and understandings as a result. I guess I’m a little bit more Brooks than King1.
1Terry Brooks believes in planning thoroughly ahead of time and Stephen King begins with a premise or a character (or an opening line and lets the characters lead.