On World Building

Occasionally, while reading or listening to a story, I’m struck by a sentence or a paragraph that is just . . . so perfect, it makes me want to throw out everything I have ever written. Or, alternatively, to fix everything I’ve ever written so that it comes closer to what I have just read/heard.

Today, on my way to work, I was listening to the Glittership podcast, episode 6: “And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness” by Lisa Nohealani Morton (@lnmorton).

The first two paragraphs of the story are as follows.

After the Collapse and the Great Reboot, Lila moved into the city and opened a barbershop.

Great things were happening in the city: spaceports and condominiums and public works projects outlined their soon-to-be-erected monuments to great men and women and superior city living in holographic glows. Angels patrolled the sky, resplendent with metal wings that sparkled in the sun when they banked for a turn. Everyone seemed to be full of exciting plans for the future, but Lila came from a long line of barbers and her humble shop only seemed fitting. She called the shop The Lion’s Mane, because there were lions, once.

It was at this point that I completely lost the story. Not because it was boring or because something had kicked me out, but because of the stunning simplicity and beauty of the world building behind the phrase “because there were lions, once.” My mind wandered, imagining this story’s world. Something called the Collapse and something else called the Great Reboot are hinted at, but the single phrase “because there were lions, once” conveys important things about the character and the world and her relation to it.

It’s wistful and sad (to me, at least), and stated so matter-of-factly that there is no question in the reader/listener’s mind that the character feels this loss deeply. So deeply, in fact, that she has named her barber shop The Lion’s Mane in honor of the once-proud beasts. It tells us that lions are going to matter in this story.

The lion has long been a symbol of strength and wildness. If lions — the apex predator of an entire continent — no longer exist, what kind of world do these characters live in? I personally experienced a sense of loss upon hearing that phrase, as though lions really had been announced to be extinct. (I love big cats probably above all other animals.)

I missed the next half-minute of the story and had to rewind to that point, and nearly zoned out again, but pushed through, and listened to almost all of the rest on my remaining commute. I’m almost done with the story, and the promise of that phrase “because there were lions, once” is being fulfilled. I knew that from the get-go, of course, but this is how a skilled writer does it.

If you’re not already listening to Glittership, consider subscribing. Keffy R. M. Kehrli is the host of and editor behind the podcast. I’ve been enjoying it as I catch up.

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