When author Fonda Lee sits down to write a story, she makes no apology for the pretend worlds she’s building. As a sci-fi author, she’s not exactly invested in truth telling. In fact, it’s safe to say that her entire livelihood rests upon her ability to tell the most outlandish stories.
When I think about what Fonda is able to do, here’s what makes me stop in my tracks: Fonda makes her living building make-believe worlds, and everyone who reads her stuff KNOWS they’re reading lies.
But they keep reading anyway. . . and I can’t help but wonder WHY.
According to Fonda, it’s because we’re pulled in by the illusion of real >> We don’t care if the world isn’t real. We just need to be convinced that it could be real.
And it’s creating this illusion of real that Fonda Lee has brilliantly mastered – because she knows that if she wants to keep her audience hooked, she can’t just dream up a wild world and call it a day. Instead, she’s got to find a way to relate to her audience, invite them into her new worlds, and make them feel like they belong (even inside a world that looks nothing like them).
To do this, Fonda uses 3 storytelling tools that belong on any storyteller’s tool belt, including YOURS and MINE (as the storytellers of our brands).
And if we want to build worlds that welcome our audience to explore and grow, then we need to be sure we’re leveraging these three principles.
Fonda gets it.
Her worlds are filled with galactic worlds and alien lifeforms, but rather than allow herself to get carried away by her otherworldly ability to create other worlds, she keeps herself anchored in the reality of who her audience is and what they need.
“The reader believes in the fictional world, not because of what is different about it, but because of what is similar,” she says. “They will grasp onto things that are relatable and things that are universal.”
For Fonda, those “things that are relatable and universal” are rooted in the shared experience of our humanity.
It doesn’t matter to Fonda if her character is living on some magic island. A person is a person, no matter how big or small, and that means her characters are still going to face basic, universal needs like hunger, fear, economic struggle, oppression. It’s these basic needs that allow her real audience to connect and identify to her pretend world, and once that happens, it doesn’t matter how crazy her imaginary world is. Her readers have stepped into it with both feet and fully embraced it as real.
Important note: Fonda says that her trick to creating similarity is by focusing on what’s broken and what doesn’t work. Real worlds are anything but uniform and perfect, so when she’s building them for her audience, she avoids the trap of perfection.
As writers, we hear this one a lot.
Specificity matters because, typically, we don’t want to create too many gaps for our reader to have to fill in on their own. Instead, we want to create a detailed picture in our readers’ minds so they’ll know exactly what kind of world we’re inviting them into.
As brand leaders and business owners, this idea of specificity can be hard to embrace because we want to be inclusive and cast our nets as wide as we can. It can feel like vague descriptions and loose ideas are the safe option, but the reality is, if we’re not being specific, we’re not building any kind of world worth entering.
“Specificity,” says Fonda, “does the heavy lifting of world building for you, without being noticed.”
Lemme give you a real-life example:
Which description best places you at the scene?
Option 1: We stood by the gravesite, and mom asked if anyone wanted to say a prayer.
Option 2: We stood by the gravesite, no one quite sure what to say. When a tear finally trickled down my cheek, I wasn’t sure where it had come from. Was I grieving the loss of my 85- year-old grandfather, or were my unspoken words finally forcing their way out through the stinging stain of salt water? I had spent a lifetime watching mom pray for her father’s salvation, and now that he was gone, she could only damn him to hell, his deathbed confession more like a slow drip of poison in her childhood wounds.
I’m hoping you chose Option 2 – because it didn’t make you work to understand the emotion. It didn’t leave fill-in-the-blank gaps. Instead, it gave you hints, signposts, image scraps that helped you step into the moment with me. And hopefully, in that moment, you became like an imaginary avatar, exploring a world that didn’t belong to you but felt completely real.
The power of specificity is that it invites our audience into our emotions, our struggles, and our victories – often without ever having to whisper an explicit detail about those experiences.
3. SELECTIVE DEPTH
When you’ve lived a lot of life, it can be hard to let go of everything you know.
I see this often with the business owners that I help.
They have so much story and so much life, and figuring out what and what not to share is often the biggest obstacle that stands in their way.
My job is to help you build real and inviting worlds for your audience, so I show up like a storyteller with a point chisel, helping you cut away what isn’t helpful so we can start to shape and sculpt the story that matters.
It’s selective depth actively at work because we’re parsing through everything you know to uncover the information your audience wants and needs to know. The idea is to stay narrow but go deep – because real worlds are deep, and when an audience senses depth, they know it’s finally safe to jump in with both feet.
How are you using similarity, specificity, and selective depth? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.