Today I'm guest blogging over at Writing From the Padded Room. Drop by and share your thoughts and questions regarding world building.
*The above link no longer works. Here is the article I wrote:
*The above link no longer works. Here is the article I wrote:
I intend to go down one world building road today, only one. This road is probably the brightest and most fantastic of them all, yet fraught with some of the darkest perils for a writer. Like anything else, you can wield it as a mighty tool, or be destroyed when it backfires on you. Ready to take that trip with me?
You have a story idea, or even a rough draft done. Maybe a draft two or three and you’ve realized that your story sounds too much like what has already been done. Maybe agents and editors are saying the same in their rejection letters. World building is one way to make your story stand out from anyone else’s. They say there are only so many plots one can write by. Gimmicks and twists can change those up only so much. After awhile, agents are tired of seeing another love story about—vampires! Or wait—demigods! No? Um…mermaids? Secret fairy spies? Aliens? Once a gimmick has trended, it gets worn through for a number of years. But that’s a whole other subject.
A unique world can take your plot, its gimmicks and twists to new levels.
The first stop on our road, indeed, the very first step, is to hike up your sleeves, put on your biggest thinking cap, and let your imagination fly faster, farther, and wilder than it ever has before. Be uninhibited. Have paper and pen or an open document up on your computer.
Start with something basic, like where the protagonist comes from or is at the start of the story. What is this place like? How does it affect the protagonist’s view of their world, what they like, what they hate, what they are capable of, what obstacles are in their way? That one little blip of world building can open up more twists to your story. You may even change your mind about what the protagonist’s internal conflict is.
The same can happen the longer you jot down ideas, play with them, toss out the most obvious ones, and latch onto ones you had to think longer and harder about. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to write down my ideas for something (say, what magical rule is going to trip up my heroine the most,) then write down five more after that, then another five more, and five more again. Then choose the last thing I thought of. We think of the most obvious clichés and tropes first. The same ones other writers are thinking of or using.
Ever get frustrated when you see a book or movie come out that used an idea you’d been carefully crafting for the past year? *Raises hand.*
Have fun with your world building, let it work for you. And now here comes the dangerous pitfall: don’t fall in love too deeply with your newly crafted world. It’ll be hard not to.
Here’s what happens when your world becomes your beloved. The plot takes a back seat. The characters take a back seat or become grafted to the scenery.
Because good world building is time intensive and you invest a lot of effort into it, the temptation is to use it all. We visualize this place so well that all we want is for readers to see it exactly the way we do. This often leads to:
1. Over describing. Every. Little. Detail. About. Everything. Every. Step. Of. The. Story.
Pitfall: The reader is now bored. The reader skims. The reader has failed to catch your enthusiasm.
Remedy: Keep to character. What details will your character notice at that moment, in their present mood and circumstances? If they’re wounded, they’re not likely to enjoy how plush the carpet is beneath their feet or wonder what the runes in the crown molding might mean. If they’re hungry, they’ll be noticing things that either make them feel hungrier or looking for a solution to satisfy that hunger. If they are angry, they are more likely to stomp on the flowers than smell them. Remember, this needs to come from your point of view character, not you as the writer and world builder.
2. Info dumping.
Pitfall: Too much too soon (I’m looking at you, lengthy prologue.) The reader starts to skim. Or worse, the reader closes the book due to slow pacing.
Remedy: Keep your plot in the forefront of your mind, especially at the beginning of a story. What is your inciting event, the happening that sets the story in motion? That needs to be as near the front as possible. Not all the backstory on how your space station was constructed and why. The real trick to backstory and especially world building backstory, is breaking it up. Filter it in throughout the book. Weave it. Say three chapters in, your hero gets into trouble with the high command and is brought before a disciplinary council. This would be a better spot for him to bitterly recall how he’d once sat on that council when it was first organized and how inner-politics ousted him from power. Keep it brief and to the point. It’ll also add punch to the scene by including internal development and motivation for the character.
3. Too much show and not enough tell.
Pitfall: You’re now saying “What? We’re supposed to show not tell.” Here’s the problem, dear writer, and one I’ve had to learn the hard way. The show, don’t tell rule is primarily for characterization. Let me emphasize that again: The show, don’t tell rule is primarily for characterization. It is bad business to use when world building. Here’s the primary problem: you know the ins and outs of your world, your readers do not. And if you never take the time to explain things, you lose your readers. You can show them over and over again your characters actions and reactions, but if the reader isn’t grounded in why your characters are behaving that way or why these types of strange things are going on, they can’t be invested in your world.
The second big pitfall with this one is word count. Speculative fiction gets extra space for word count because of world building. This is our lucky break. Don’t blow it. Showing everything and not leaving some things to simple summary bloats your word count to unacceptable lengths. Again, you can fall prey to over detailed description, backstory, flashback, and too much side plot when all you do is show.
Remedy: Stick to your basic story and characters. Know your key scenes. Know what needs to forward the plot. Keep the extra stuff out or down to short explanation.
Trust me on this one. It’s a bear to fix and can derail your book completely.
4. The writer is caught in another land.
Pitfall: You’ve enjoyed your world building so much that all you want to do is stay in that world. You don’t think you can put forth the same effort into another world for another story, or you simply don’t want to. So you create a never ending series of book ideas in this world, regardless of whether you have the right sort of characters to endure so much or enough well-thought out plot to ply readers with.
Remedy: The first step is accepting you have this problem and step away from this world for awhile. I don’t mean a week or two. Try a year. Force yourself to work on something else, situated in somewhere else. It’ll be hard at first but worth it. Use your experienced world building skills to spin a new world, make sure it’s very different from your first one. Better yet, try your hand at writing something that takes place in the actual world. It’ll give you more ideas for when you create your next world.
5. The writer becomes bitter at reader reaction.
Pitfall: This is probably the darkest and most dangerous of them all because this one deals with real emotions and real people. I’ve known writers, really good writers, who fell into the world building pit and when others have tried to pull them out have reacted badly. They develop a huge chip on their shoulders. They refuse to try to fix the errors because they are in perpetual denial. They believe that world building is the top priority of writing. Then they go about tearing down other writers’ worlds and stories because they can’t find many readers for their own. This is self-destructive behavior and a quick way to become ostracized from the writing community.
Remedy: If you find yourself feeling bitter or thinking that everyone doesn’t get your world, pull away from that world right now. Take a long break from it. Read outside your genre. You don’t have to throw away all your years of hard work. You just need to get your focus back. You’re part of an ancient tradition, first done orally, then in the written word. Storytelling. If you’ve lost your storytelling focus, then you aren’t really writing something story readers want to read. Story comes first, no matter what the genre. And if you buried story in favor of building a world, you’ve lost your focus.
So there you have it. The euphoria and despair of world building. It’s a skill that needs fine tuning, patience, and the right vision. You won’t become an expert over night. Like all aspects of writing, it is a necessary tool in the writer’s arsenal. Here some other online resources to help with world building and to share some perspective:
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Fantasy World Building Questions by Patricia C. Wrede