DFWCon Panel: Worldbuilding in the First Pages

So, the next DFWCon panel was about worldbuilding!  Mostly, how to do it, and do it well, in your introductory pages.

(I’m realizing, as I type up my notes for you all, that a lot of DFWCon was geared towards your first pages.  Coincidence…?)

Let’s talk about worldbuilding.

So, the panelist (Dantzel Cherry) first brought up the Iceberg Principle, which is apparently a super well-known term for worldbuilding… one that I missed entirely.  Luckily for me, Ms. Cherry let someone explain it for the group.

It boils down to this: in worldbuilding, show 20%, infer 80%.  

Basically, to create a good world, the reader only needs to see 20% of that world.  We don’t care about the world’s colorful history, or future politics, or natural events.  We don’t really even care about the geography or the races.

Unless, of course, it pertains to the story.  And not the sweeping generalization of the story–we want to see what directly affects your character.  So wasting your time telling us about a city that floats on water is useless unless your MC goes there.  Keep that in mind.

The second part of the Iceberg Principle is more applicable.  It says that, although the reader only wants to see 20% of your world, your character needs to react to the other 80%.  So if there is a floating city, even if your MC never goes there, he would willingly accept that a floating city can exist after all, and that might influence his dialogue when talking about the properties of water.  Get it?


Moving on!

We focused on first lines next.  After reading some sample pages, we were able to see how the first sentence is a “lens through which the entire book is focused.”  Which means a great first line:

  1. Illustrates the theme of the book
  2. Raises (good) questions
  3. Develops character, setting, and tone
  4. Holds the key to the resolution

#4 might sound a little weird, but let me explain.  Ms. Cherry used Pride and Prejudice as an example.  We’ve all heard that legendary first line before.


Right there in the first sentence, Jane Austen establishes that this is a book about marriage.  And more than that, it reveals the key to the novel’s resolution: that a rich man will be getting married at some point.

There’s a few other things you should accomplish in that first page, too.  In order to be successful, you need:

  • A protagonist with one strong, defining trait
  • Strong, clearly-conveyed motivation
  • Interesting, easily understood conflict
  • Polished writing
  • A twist at the end of the scene

Through worldbuilding, you can create a truly unique opening for your novel.  But remember the Iceberg Principle.  We don’t want your world’s history shoved down our throats.  It’s all about tact.

Ms. Cherry talked a bit about prologues, too, and what they need to be successful.  I’m going to preface this by saying that MOST agents don’t like prologues, because most writers do them wrong.  But if you insist on adding one, here’s the list of ways to make sure it’s successful.

  • Start with a defining moment in the protagonist’s backstory.
    • EX:  When Batman’s parents were killed
  • Start in the future, with a person reflecting on their life.
    • EX:  Snowflower and the Secret Fan begins this way, with an old Lily reflecting on her poor choices in life.
  • Start with a different POV
    • EX:  Mulan begins with the Hun invasion, which is a catalyst for the plot
  • Offering background.  (THIS IS THE RISKIEST OPTION, since it tends to drag, and offers little relevance to the plot until much, much later on.
    • EX:  Maleficent (in the movie version) establishes her young persona, and we see her lose her wings.
    • This option ONLY works if it ties into something deep.  It must have a purpose beyond just showing us the MC’s history.

So there you go.  I was a little disappointed that this panel didn’t focus so much on worldbuilding as building your first pages, which again, I’d heard plenty of by this point.  But it did include some good information, and hopefully something here will help you!

How do you worldbuild?  Any special tips or websites you want to share?  Let me know in the comments!


4 thoughts on “DFWCon Panel: Worldbuilding in the First Pages

  1. How have you never seen this iceberg floating (get what I did there? XD) about Pinterest? http://cuddlebuggery.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Cultural-Iceberg-opengecko_thumb7.jpg

    That is a bit disappointing that it was so focused on the first few pages, worldbuilding can be such a fantastic topic!! Do you think that there were so many workshops all on the same topic because there wasn’t enough detail-level organization? (IE, they set the general topics and let the presenters choose the details but without any policing later to make sure that the same topic–the first pages–wasn’t repeated over and over and over again?)

    Also, small thing, why didn’t you mention Lies of Locke Lamora at all? 😥 This was that workshop, right????

    Also also, I would argue that that wasn’t a prologue in Maleficient but was rather her “normal life” and instigating incident. It’s actually a pretty long part of the story and since she’s the MC, rather than the antagonist, it doesn’t feel like a backstory prologue to me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that might have been the problem with DFWCon. No policing, no one looking over topics to make sure repetition wasn’t an issue. Although it could have gone the other way, where they realize there are five panels every hour, and you can’t attend them all. So maybe I just got lucky and hit all the ones about first pages? 😛

      Otherwise, yes, this was Locke Lamora! That was the “sample page” we read. 😛 I totes mentioned it. Totes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s