Part 1 – crucial & tedious work, definitions
Part 2 – “X” marks the starting point, or identifying procedures
Before we begin, I want to share some good articles on worldbuilding that I found helpful. What you will find, are individual attempts to tackle world building. Here are some resources: Chuck Wendig, Tad Williams, Jerry Jenkins, the writing practice, vantange point, the write life, masterclass, world building school, now novel, writer’s digest, reddit.
I’m allergic to info dumps. Period.
I, as a reader, will chuck a book through the room and never open it again for spoon-feeding me information, for shoving my face into data-dumps. That’s a no-no. I don’t like it, and that’s an understatement. There is a stack of books in the shame corner, for precisely this reason. They sit in book-jail, modestly, unassuming, setting on a coat of dust, awaiting my most bottomless boredom to put up with them again.
I want the necessary details to be slipped by me effortlessly. I want subtext, secrets, hints, a literary heist happening around me, and be clueless about it. So please, dear writers, bamboozle me! That is your mission. I like your stories to immesh me, to trap me, to take me hostage.
Of course, as a writer, this is a different kind of story. I, too, am guilty of using info-dumps when I haven’t thought things through. I know the struggle between telling the reader just enough that they are compelled to enter and engage the story but not too much to sweep them right out of it. So regularly, I agonize over the structure, plot, settings and wondering how to pull it off.
How to bamboozle the reader?
This is a summary of the most common methods:
Nr 1: the free design WB
This the most common approach, and for the writer, the most dangerous. Some of us catch the worldbuilder’s syndrome.
It is a world easy to establish without the restrictions of logical and historical factoids. The writer can do whatever he pleases, and what the story needs.
You can view details from small to large, little ones to affect individuals and families, to huge ones that affect a country, continent, or the whole world the story develops in.
It might help to visualize these elements, the timelines, the importance from small to big.
Personally, I use backing paper rolls, or transparent films taped to windows, restroom or kitchen doors, or packing paper rolls on cork boards to take down my notes, doodle, and brainstorm these things.
Of course, the sophisticated writer has his whiteboard or other means of visualization, but I like to keep the linchpin information before my eyes during my daily routines.
These details serve the story. They have to be critical parts of the story, relativity, setting, or character.
Since school, I used to do diagrams, charts, symmetrical models, geometrical & fractal patterns and pictograms, searching for similes and metaphors from nature, and if I didn’t find any – I did my Latin verb conjugations. So, yes, I’m a smartass, and I was a teacher’s pet.
One can start with the most significant data points (or the broadest, or one’s that differ the most; example: Man in the High Castle) and work then from there to the smallest ones. The opposite strategy is plausible too. Small details can stir up a storm in the bigger picture (Example: Spice in Dune).
Top-Down/Bottom-Up & Inside-Out/Outside-In WB
This is kinda self-explanatory:
The top-down approach: big detail to small ones. Does your world have gravitation, water, air? What would these worlds look like? What would the inhabitants look like?
The bottom-up: minute details to bigger ones. Does the your world have no predators? What does the fauna look like, or are all plants blue? Is the sky red?
The weird middle-out details: Is your world without fruits? Octopi are the ancestors of the predominant species?
In the inside-out strategy, one has the MC/ the characters as point of view for storytelling.Their fears, needs are guiding their actions to the bigger picture. The outside-in strategy allows you to perceive the economics, the religion, the social structures ahead of the personal picture.
Either way, the writer has to figure out why something is happening.
Nr 2: the fixed design WB
When building a frame for the story that will emerge, the writers usually ask themselves some basic questions. What’s happening? How did you get into my bedroom? Who the hell are you? Why are you wearing those gloves?
Most importantly, the writers should think of the conflict potential inside the characters and the circumstances. Who is the main character? Where do they live? What does it look like there? When is the period they are alive? Or even better: How do I set them up? When is the police going to show up? How do I drag them into the heart of the conflict? How do I frame them?
I always thought it to be helpful, to ask myself the questions somebody with a concussion gets asked too: orientation to person, time, place and situation. Who are you? What’s your name? What’s the date? Where are you? What’s the situation? This time without the doctor pulling the eyelids apart and checking the pupils with an annoyingly bright flashlight for proper reflexes.
So it all starts with the need for a setting. A place and a time for the story to happen. These limiting factors provide help for writers who might otherwise get lost or overwhelmed in the process. Important information about the setting: location + level of conflict + duration+ period are the four components of setting.
Broken up into world-based approach (world free designed, and specific place gets a conflict in a specific time) and story-based approach (conflict has been developed, and now a place and time needs to be developed), might help with the set-up. Tale Foundry did some interesting video essays about the topic.
The writer has spent a lot of time already world-building and has complete control over how much time the characters spend doing what is necessary for the story. The world can become a character itself: Solaris by Lem (the book not the youngest movie); Night-Watch, Day-Watch; Avatar (the film with blue aliens); Animal farm, 1984, Dark City, The Neverglade Mysteries, sword art online, Lord of the Rings, accounts from a lonely broadcast station or 1?84 and so many more. The story-verse is so vital that it is not only the backdrop but a character, a final frontier itself.
The conflict that is about to happen is commanding everything, each character, each social structure, each resource. This turmoil can be personal or more extensive.
It is big enough to consume all that there is in the story: Neverending Story; Fahrenheit 451; Princess Mononoke; Porco Rosso; Tales from the Gas station (seriously, this is one of my favorites, listen to it here); Cerber Series; My property isn’t normal; H*umper-Monkey’s Ghost Story, the original animation of Aeon Flux, Star Wars, and so many more.
Of course, there is also a mixed WB.
So many of the stories I mentioned above cannot be purely the one or the other category: Man in the High Castle, Solaris, Lord of the Ring, avatar (the animation), accounts from the lonely broadcast station, Gasstation-Jack, Cowboy Bebop, the original Ghost in The Shell Movies (the animation, movies & series), Total Recall, Minority Report, Blade Runner and so many more.
Nr 3: the found design WB
World-building is very much like the work of an adventurer setting out to fill in the white spots on the map. You take your bushwhacker and carve a path for yourself until you reached your goal, or have found Livingston, or a suitable overview of what needs to be done. The boundaries that setting is putting into place are also accompanied by other boundaries: aesthetic cohesion, new concepts, ethical boundaries that the writer finds on the way.
Found design seeks harmony between previous world and the newly emerging constraints, which guide decisions. Which parts will you keep? What conflict is working best? When you arrive at a branching point of multiple equally possible eventlines, which do you follow? Is the side-quest going to contribute to the story/character arc?
Example: Game-masters in RPG building parts of setting in reaction to player actions, show-writers inflating to find filler story arcs, world-builders building out parts in reaction to their own desires.
Nr 5: hard vs soft WB
This is the most used and easily understood way of putting together a world for your story. These concepts center around crafting the tone and the atmosphere of the story you want to tell. The writer will recruit the reader to provide their mental imagery to the intended content and creative exercises to help out the tale, where it is needed.
This video essay by Hello Future Me (Tim Hickson) & Ellie Gordon is well rounded it and explains the concept in an entertaining manner. The writer manages immersion through:
An army of particular details dictates everything, most importantly, the rules and the logical structures in the story. The transparency and the hyperrealistic myopic view manifest as consistency in the flow of events. These worlds are grounded, believable, and work in an usual comforting manner, most similar to the world we live in today.
The problem is that the reader must first understand the depths of the governing rules and how they should be applied. This concept might disrupt the needed pacing, but with enough planning, it should be manageable.
Think of Tolkien inventing languages, syntax, history, economy, habits, folklore of different species and bring them together to sing a mourning song.
Again, thinking about the sheer amount of detail, this is the point where I feel the danger of getting lost in an imagined world. I fear not being able to surface, forever trapped inside the story frame.
On the other hand, I fear my curiosity to burn out by detail crafting. I, as a reader and writer, have a mind like a disco ball in stroboscope light. I gotta catch that squirrel! I’d leave the story-verse behind in the wake of the ashes of my boredom.
Then there is Fullmetal Alchemist, Wisecrack has a pretty good analysis. This is an excellent example of hard world-building. I can get behind those philosophical and moral questions and the not-answers given, with no intention to alleviate the how, the why, the where, or anything else. Avatar, the last air-bender & the legend of Korra, hit the same sweet spot.
Opposed to the hyperrealistic focus on details, there is the unsure, misty manifestation of soft world-building. This concept lets the reader jump in and fill out the blanks, the unanswered questions that guide the characters or their environment. You let them supply their very own subtext, the secrets, the heaviness and importance of a situation. The imaginative involvement of the reader lets the writer paint a flexible picture with no need to explain why or how something happens.
This is my favorite kind of story-verse to consume, and therefore to create.
This approach gives creative freedom not to justify or explain how or why things work. It is perfect to set the tone, the atmosphere, for manifesting the writer’s vision, for character-driven stories. These worlds are unconventional, peculiar, foreign and mysterious. As creators of these worlds, one can withhold information or not know what the background is. Essential lore is only a rumor, a hint. Still, these worlds blossom and bloom in the twilight of the reader’s fantasy, they are highly subjective and personal.
That is what I love about these creative exercises. They need me as a reader to do my part. So I’m engaged, not passively awaiting what is to come.
“Not using logic is a more profound way to progress the story.” Miyazaki said that, and his movies are here to prove how magical his stories are. More examples: Harry Potter Series, Studio Ghibli movies, especially Miyazaki’s work, Mononoke Series (you’re welcome), H. Murakami’s books, work of Satoshi Kon, Perfect Blue, Paprika, Magnetic rose.
Nr. 6 narrative vs outside-the story WB
A treasure trove of information without its experience, inside the story’s context, makes the tale dry for the reader—immersion into the story without making it an explanation is the task at hand.
narrative WB: The writer decides how much and what to tell the reader. If it is too much, it can become exposition. Stacking information in a short time, letting butlers and maids have a conversation about what is going on in detail is a lazy move.
outside-the-story WB: This is the rabbit hole the writer can and might get lost in, never to be seen again. The naming, geography, family trees, history, religion, science, flora, fauna, and philosophy explored one heart’s content. Everything that happens outside the actual story should probably remain outside of the story. This is everything the writer creates to get to know the story’s setting without using all of it.
How not to create info-dumps with all your knowledge, dear writer?
Scatter the exposition. Knowledge gaps are usually closed the fastest way the writer can think of, but this is rarely good for the pacing and the story itself. Of course, if the information is crucial for the reader to understand what’s going on, it must be tucked in somewhere. Even though all of the information is important, the timing of the revelation is essential. The right context to the right time makes the experience vivid.
Make information implicit, not explicit; the equivalent of show-don’t tell. Experience is the best spot to hide knowledge, closely followed by small hints and clues. Using suggestive language, including specific words and phrases, might do the trick.
I also found templates to browse, if you liked: here, etsy, or reddit etc.
You can make your own, and later I’ll show you mine. Whatever floats your boat!
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