What is a World Changer?
A World Changer is a phrase or sentence that alters the reader’s perception of the story world.
When a writer begins a story, he introduces the reader to the world of the story. That world can be today’s reality; it can be a specific, faraway place in the past; it can be today’s world with magical or supernatural elements; it can be the future; it can be a new and fantastical creation; it can be today’s world with an unexpected element.
It is the writer’s duty to reveal the rules of the story world. A World Change happens when a twist or revelation exposes the reader to a specific, unusual aspect of the story world. A shift in what the reader thought they knew about the story world is the result.
Here’s an example:
Harvey stopped at the edge of the field and listened for Mama and Pa. After a moment, their voices lifted over the freshly plowed field. Harvey slouched against the fence post. They were arguing, again. He couldn’t stand it anymore. He turned around and ran toward the tree line.
What does this tell you about this story world? Harvey is a child who lives on or near a farm. His parents argue, a lot. This bothers him. Now see what happens in the next line:
Harvey ran over and between the clumps of dirt thrown up by the plow, his quills bouncing as he picked up speed.
Quills? Harvey has quills? Okay, so now we know Harvey is an animal. A porcupine? Hedgehog?
He ran toward the bushes beneath the trees and dove into his favorite dugout to hide. He rolled into a ball and tried not to cry.
Chances are, we’d know from illustrations or cover copy that Harvey is a hedgehog. Without these aids, however, Harvey sounds like any child who gets upset by his parents’ arguments. He just happens to be a hedgehog child. Quills or no quills, his emotions are real.
Now consider this:
After a little while, Harvey unfurled himself and shook off the dirt from his spines. It was almost dark and tonight was The Coronation.
He reminded himself of his duty as prince. No matter how much his parents argued, he had to be present–and presentable–when the responsibility of the kingdom was placed upon him.
Oh. So Harvey is a hedgehog, and a prince, so his parents must be the royal family.
This is a somewhat absurd example but you get the point. With each sentence, we learn a new detail about Harvey that alters what we think we know about the world of this story.
Here’s something different:
Jacqueline walked along the boardwalk, wondering if she should touch up her sunblock. Her shoulders felt tender and hot. She glanced around the crowd, stopping at a handsome blond guy with no shirt leaning against the beach fence. He was licking a chocolate ice cream cone. Slowly. For a moment, Jacqueline swayed, imagining his cool, chocolate flavored tongue licking her hot shoulder.
The voice cried out a micro-second before a woman slammed into Jacqueline’s side. The woman grabbed onto Jacqueline’s arm for balance, and Jacqueline gasped. Violent images shot through her brain—a pipe crashing down from overhead, over and over.
She pulled away, her arm as hot as if she’d stuck it in a bonfire.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, but Jacqueline could only nod mutely and wince at the scars running from the woman’s hairline to her temple, where the pipe had come down.
Jacqueline is a woman at the beach on a hot day, made hotter by her quick fantasy about a handsome guy. But the world changes when a strange woman crashes into her and Jacqueline gets hit with a scene from this stranger’s past. Now we’ve learned Jacqueline is an empath, a person able to feel another person’s emotions or experiences through physical contact.
Now, what if their quick encounter had ended this way?
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, but Jacqueline could only nod mutely and stare at the woman’s head. No scars. No bruises. It hadn’t happened–yet.
Now we know a new rule of the story world: Jacqueline can see the future. This is a character skill Stephen King used so effectively in The Dead Zone.
A final example, to show how a World Change can be used in a contemporary story that doesn’t include quills or special powers. This is from Catering to Nobody, the first in Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schulz mystery series. Book one opens with Goldy in the kitchen. We learn through narrative she has a jerk of an ex-husband, her new catering business is struggling to stay afloat,and she has a best friend who calls to complain–humorously–about this, that and the other. In the world of mystery novels, the response to those three story elements might be, well, who doesn’t? And then comes this line:
I looked down at my right thumb, which still would not bend properly after John Richard had broken it in three places with a hammer.
Ah. This is different. We just learned Goldy was an abused wife. The jerky ex, the struggle to be independent, the reliance on a good friend–all of those details got kicked up a notch with that world changing line.
How do you write an effective World Changer?
1. Weave it into the narrative in an organic fashion. That means show, not tell, in a live scene.
2. Do it boldly. Harvey’s quills bounced as he ran. Don’t over explain, “As a hedgehog, Harvey had quills. They bounced as he ran.” No. Keep it quick and dirty: Harvey’s quills bounced as he ran.
3. Sprinkle changes in to give readers time to process. First we see Jacqueline get hit with the violent images. There is a break as she pulls away and the woman apologizes. Then we learn something new, that Jacqueline sees the past (or the future). That little break gave the reader time to digest one new story element before being tossed another one.
4. Make sure the World Change does its purpose in exposing or refining the unique aspects of the story world and is important to the story. If you are writing a World Change because it’s fun but it doesn’t affect the plot or the character, why are you making me work harder to learn something I don’t need to know? Don’t toy with your readers.
Have you changed your story world today?
Tomorrow’s topic: How to Avoid Overpopulation