I read a trilogy recently that had me so captured, so invested, that there were times I felt I couldn’t read quickly enough to find out what happened next. I was frantic in a couple key scenes. I can still hear the voices of the characters, still remember their expressions, still clearly picture the world in which they lived. I’ve already purchased more books by the author, even though I think the writer made some missteps in the trilogy’s final chapters.
See, I had to force myself to pay attention to what was supposed to the big climactic scene of that trilogy—not because of the frantic can’t-wait-to-find-out feeling, or because it was a bore to read. No, I felt adrift and disconnected during the climax because the writer had dumped so much “Cool Stuff” in at the end.
Cool Stuff is the unique collection of setting, culture, character and magic that make our fantasy stories fantasy. Presentation of the Cool Stuff—aka worldbuilding—makes or breaks a novel within the first chapter or two. Too much Cool Stuff at once, and the reader doesn’t have enough of the familiar to anchor her; she will spend too much time figuring out the world, and not enough time connecting to story and character. And once the Cool Stuff is established, the reader trusts the writer to maintain it. It must be as consistent as from which horizon the sun will rise. Proper use and introduction of Cool Stuff enables the reader to accept the magical and spiritual, and invest the rest of her reading time connecting with characters.
If the Cool Stuff was the most important factor, everyone would buy Guide to the Ring’s Power rather than Lord of the Rings.
So there I was—happily reading along, thrilled with the world, loving the characters, feeling both thrilled and anxious as the trilogy’s characters prepared for the final confrontation. Then all of a sudden, this non-industrial world gained a cool underwater city with elevators and cool bits of technology disguised as natural vegetation. And the grand revelation of the Story’s Whole Point was pretty cool, too.
Even though the ideas were awesome, they were revealed at the worst possible time. I wanted to know what the characters were thinking, feeling, hoping and fearing. Instead, I got characters extrapolating about how this Cool Stuff must have come to be, what it might mean, and how it might work. I got descriptions of all these new things punctuated with bits of action–action that was more difficult to envision because nothing about the setting was familiar.
Totally dissatisfying. The characters—their fears, losses, challenges and victories—all took a backseat to integrating new Cool Stuff into an existing and stable (and fascinating!) world.
On the other hand, I recently beta-read a novel by one of my VPXV classmates. It was filled with Cool Stuff from page one. I had the same urgency to read it as I did with the trilogy mentioned above, and I approached the climax with the same anticipation and excitement. The writer delivered a final confrontation that was engaging and satisfying and filled with Cool Stuff. But no new or special or astounding Cool Stuff was introduced. Instead, the characters confronted variations of existing Cool Stuff, and used their Cool Stuff skills in special and astounding ways. That left me, the reader, free to engage with the character at his most critical moments.
And what do we really read fiction for? Character.
I think there’s a writerly temptation to “save the best for last,” holding back what we think are the most awesome pieces of our imagination until the Big Special Moment when we will just blow the reader away. But what really blows the reader’s mind isn’t the Cool Stuff. It’s how the characters use/confront/transform the Cool Stuff. Cool Stuff is a tool, and a true craftsman doesn’t admire tools for their tool-ness, but for what the tools can help create.