A Guest Post by Joyce Alton
Which comes first, the story or the world-building? How much world-building should you include?
There isn’t a correct answer to the first question. It varies among writers. So no pressure there.
I have seen two problems dealing with this issue in unpublished manuscripts, however. The first is where someone comes up with a great plot and after writing it down finds they need to come up with some world-building to make their plot stand out from all the other similar plots out there. The second issue is where someone dreams up a rich, fascinating world but has little to no story to go with it.
The ideal is to create both the world and story together because they will propel and enrich each other. Incidentally, stories like these usually go on to be bestsellers. Huge lesson to be learned right there.
Compelling characters by themselves don’t get the job done. You need all three elements: plot, world, and characters. They feed off of and grate against each other.
Let’s break this down a bit more.
If you’re struggling with world-building, step back from your story a little bit. Think about what you like and what you hate in both settings and cultures. Think of all the books you’ve read in your genre and what is typical and what has stood out. You want to stand out. Avoid the lazy route of picking the exact same things as everyone else. For instance, who says you have to have a tavern in your medieval world? Who says a king must live in a castle? Who says aliens have to drive spaceships to get to Earth? What if doors were built in ceilings instead in walls?
Jot down all the ideas that you like and play with them. Stretch that imagination. Surprise yourself and you will surprise your readers too.
Next, think about culture(s) for your world. Suppose you’ve chosen a tropical setting instead of the usual plains and mountain bit for your medieval fantasy. What different crops and foods will the people there eat? Will the creatures be different because of the climate? What about what everyone wears? How do they pass their time in a place where seasons never change and fatal illness is a mosquito bite away? What rules would your kingdom have to keep people safe or under control? What’s the policy on looking for missing persons who might have been attacked by a crocodile?
Now, how does the setting and the culture affect your protagonist and antagonist? What works for them? What works against them? What world-building details can you use to make plot points happen, or better yet, change them into something new and wild you didn’t think of before?
Say originally, your hero walks into the local tavern and someone picks a fight with him. He’s left battered and robbed in an alley. A precious heirloom he’s had since childhood was taken. It’s the key to claiming the inheritance his grandmother told him about in the scene before.
Okay. Now your setting is tropical and you chucked out the tavern because that’s been overdone. Instead your hero heads to an enclosed market where streets are lined with thick adobe walls and there is a lot of shade and netting to keep out the bugs. The narrow streets are packed, vendors yell above the crowds, it’s easy to have your pocket picked or be knocked down and trampled. While searching for a chemist to mix up his ailing grandmother’s medicine (she was bitten by a lethal mosquito) your protagonist finds he has to jostle for one of the last vials with a handful of frantic other people. There’s a medicine shortage, a breaking epidemic. There’s a fight. Someone steals the heirloom because it’s gold. Money can buy medicine the chemists hoard for the wealthy.
You see how culture and setting changed a simple, typical scenario into something with more twists and turns? Something that gives you ample chance to bring the reader into a world that escapes their own. Details will come readily to you. Details can foreshadow better than dialogue.
The trick to world-building is to use your imagination. I know it’s tempting to whirl off a story and get it to market ASAP. Don’t. You’re shortchanging yourself. Get a notebook, open another file on your computer, pull out the drawing paper and pencils and get to work making your world extraordinary.
Now we get to the second question: how much world-building do you include? Write it all down in that separate file then only use what you need.
Remember that you as the writer have the bigger picture and the omniscient truth about everything in your world. Your characters don’t. They have limited knowledge of other people and places and that will warp how they perceive their world. This gives you an opportunity to prove them wrong or justify their presumptions as the story unfolds. Surprise is a good thing.
Backstory is great but dangerous. Filter it in; don’t unload it all in a prologue or opening chapter. What the protagonist already knows is a great place to start, based on what is happening in her life. If she sits down to breakfast pondering what she learned back in grade school about warring races, you’re stretching things. If she heads to market and a person of another race tries to cheat her, that gives you an opening to share the biases going around about that race.
So you’ve created an entire system of magic and how it works. Fantastic. You don’t have to turn your novel into a textbook to educate the reader. Show us how that magic works. Show us how it’s needed and what problems it causes. Use that piece of world-building to propel your plot and make your characters grow.
So you’ve created an entire new language for your world. Awesome. You don’t have to use that language heavily in the story. The reader isn’t looking to take a language course. Choose a few words, especially those for which your real-life language has no corresponding word, and use them in context. Save the language course for a page on your website.
So you’ve bent the rules of science and must overcome reader disbelief. Plan it out without including lecture tangents in the story. I’m sure there are places on the web for people to spout their science-fiction theories and structures for fun or debate. A novel isn’t the ideal place. Or again, save it for a website page. Know the ins and outs of what you’re bending and find ways to show it at work. Showing alleviates reader disbelief better than a lecture any day. The same goes for doubting characters. People can argue until they are blue in the face but it’s harder for someone to dispute what they actually experience.
So your character must undergo a period of training in order to hurdle the climax. Okay. Consider whether that character experiences a lot of internal change while that is going on. Does a vital new character come into play? Does a big mistake happen? Then show a scene or two where those factors drive the training scene, not the training itself. Play-by-plays of martial art or fencing moves are for YouTube videos. Of course, be sure to include whatever necessary training facts or discoveries the character is going to need to twist fate in his favor later on. Work them in subtly rather than force the reader to trudge through an obvious “this is how it works, and here’s the rule breaking clause so you can predict the ending.”
And so we jump back to problem number two: world sorted out, no plot. If you’ve merely created a series of exotic landscapes, you haven’t fully developed your world. Consider hiring an artist to draw these landscapes or see if you can’t inspire a game engineer to use them. You see, you really want to experience a place not share a story. A fully developed world will include issues and problems. That alone should spark some serious plot-making. You would have already speculated on who lives in your world.
The cure to excessive world-building info dumps: characters. Focus on them. What does your protagonist want? What is she feeling in that opening scene? What happened to her ten minutes before the scene started? What keeps her from getting what she wants? What is her plan to get what she wants?
When those questions are figured out, it’s easier to see which setting details a character will notice in that scene. Think about how the setting works against your protagonist. What in the setting reflects her mood or gives her aide? Is she more likely to notice the cracked vase or the bouquet of roses inside it?
Another thing to remember: how commonplace is this setting to the principle character? Is this his home? If so, he’s not going to walk through the door and study everything. He sees it every day. The only time commonplace settings deserve some extra detail is if something is wrong or has changed. I’m not saying you shouldn’t describe the setting for the benefit of the reader. Fill in details based on what the character is likely to notice and what suits his moods and needs. Let it flow with the action of the scene.
If the setting is new to the character, pretty much the same advice applies. What will the character notice first and why? Those are the details to bring out. Also consider how much time they have to gawk. If there is ample time to describe everything from the tile flooring up to the toothed molding on the edge of the ceiling, you can probably cut the entire scene because nothing is going on.
To close with a couple of published examples, let’s talk about the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. First off, I really enjoy them, so don’t think I’m tearing them down. I want to point out that Baum loved world-building. So much that he had a hard time tearing away from the travelogue through fantasy land scenario in each of the books. It was a fun novelty in The Wizard of Oz. By the time you get to Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz the pattern is predictable: something cataclysmic happens, a young girl or boy travels through quaint and strange lands meeting extraordinary fairy people and collecting traveling companions only to end up in Oz where they meet all of the old friends and traveling companions they or others have had, and then have a party. Baum does grasp better plots in some of the books yet never without the travelogue. His imagination is wide and inspiring when it came to world-building. His finesse in making those people and places not only relevant but necessary—well—is somewhat lacking.
On the flip side, look at the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Rowling created a rich and well-planned world, created characters equally detailed and well-understood, then used them to take a simple set of plots to new heights. She interwove all three elements to play off each other. She used details when they mattered and for foreshadowing. Her nodes of conjunction are study-worthy. And it’s not as if she created genuinely unique settings or characters. She kept to some expected archetypes while leaping out of the box in other ways.
You can do the same. Have a solid plot. Go beyond creating settings. Build a world with culture, rules, and conflicts. Stretch your imagination, not your readers’ patience. Use details where they are needed, not just because you created them. Don’t take the lazy path of predictability. Know your characters needs and issues for every scene. Don’t let your story’s past suppress the present. Each story element alone is fuel, not the flame.
Joyce blogs at http://yesternightsvoyage.blogspot.com/ stop by and check out her blog.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing.