My strong suit isn’t worldbuilding. I don’t mean that I don’t imagine my world and see it with awe and wonder, I mean that what I see in my head doesn’t always make it to the page like it should. So I thought, why not attend a forum and make weak things strong.
Enter Howard Tayler, author of the online comic Schlock Mercenary, and all decked out in steampunk attire. Think chef’s coat, but black with metal buttons on top, and big shoes that look like they came straight from the costuming department of Flash Gordon. Maybe this is how Howard always dresses, but I thought it especially appropriate for a forum on worldbuilding via a scifi guy.
WHEN IT COMES TO WORLDBUILDING
Resist the temptation to worldbuild for worldbuilding’s sake. A dragon that is in the background that doesn’t do anything doesn’t need to be there. Don’t describe scenes that will have little bearing on your story. What the character sees should tell the reader either something about that character or something about the story. What would your character notice? And what descriptions can you use to help create your story?
Ask yourself, what kind of a story do I want to tell? Build your world around that answer.
A HORSE IS A HORSE
There are things that you’ll do when you worldbuild that you shouldn’t. You’ll take the things that you are familiar with and put them in exactly as you’re familiar with them. Take for example horses. If you’re writing a fantasy story, odds are horses will show up sooner or later. But let me ask you this question. Does your horse behave like a horse or like a motorcycle?
Because most of us aren’t around horses we tend to treat horses in our stories like motorcycles. It’s an object that gets us from point A to point B. We ride it from one location and park it, like a motorcycle and carry on. But that’s not how people typically treated horses back in the day. They were companions, they were been given names, and treated more like another person than an object.
SCIENCE IN STORY
We want to be as consistent as possible. We want it to be internally consistent. The reader is forming opinions as you’re writing. If you change from the “writer’s conference” to the “David Copperfield magic show” it doesn’t work. Keep your story’s world consistent with your story.
When you’re writing scifi, you’re going to have to deal with science and the way it works with your world. But even if you’re writing urban fantasy, like Harry Potter urban fantasy (I was thinking of you at this time, Kate) you still have to use it. When you are worldbuilding you have to leverage the best of the both worlds. Like making magic work with science.
What is Brandon Sanderson’s first law of magic? The ability of the protagonist to solve a problem with magic is directly proportional to the reader’s understanding of magic. Let’s use Lord of the Rings as an example. What are the rules for Frodo’s ring? The ring must be destroyed, but the problem is everyone who wears the ring gets corrupted and ultimately won’t destroy the ring. So how do you get the ring destroyed in a way that works with the rules of your story? You don’t have to throw the ring in, but the ring has to get thrown in. (That’s why Gollum destroying the ring ultimately makes sense).
Build a setting where you understand the rules well enough that you can tell your reader the rules and when you get to the end and what they do at the end makes sense. (See Ringworld by Larry Nivein). Weave in surprising yet inevitable pieces. You want the science to be a part of the story in sci-fi.
If something is interacting with them in a certain way that the scene plays out differently because of that setting. Have a reason for those scenes to exist.
STORY IS EVERYTHING!
Nobody wants to read the Silmarillion. Don’t give us the encyclopedia up front. Tolkien needed the Silmarillion to exist for him as a reference guide, but you don’t put it all directly in the story.
JAE SIDE NOTE: This is often commonly referred to as infodumping or gunking up your story with too much backstory. Most of us have done this at one time or another in our writing and often most of us still do it in first drafts. It’s interesting to us, but not to our readers. It’s our job as writers to figure out how much info to share and not to share. It’s also our job to figure out how to weave the necessary information into the story so it seems natural and never a lecture or history lesson.
QUESTION & ANSWER
One more JAE NOTE: Nobody was asking him any questions, leaving that sort of awkward pause where you know you had a question but when asked you suddenly can’t think of any. Well, I asked the first question that came to mind: Where’d you get those fancy steampunk boots? 😉 He said some vintage shop in Las Vegas you shouldn’t visit after dark.
How do you do the research? There are three levels of knowledge: the known-known; known-unknown; and unknown-unknown. The fantasy horse works as a known-unknown. You know what a horse is and typically how it functions, but you don’t know enough to probably make your story’s horse credible.
He then held up a coin. Challenge coins were for me, an unknown-unknown. I’d never heard of it before until someone mentioned it to me. So I immediately went a looked it up and now I’m going to incorporate it into my story.
But the point of all this is that you should grab hold of everything. Somebody around you knows a thing that you have no experience with. Your job as a writer is to ask them a question so you can know a thing. Be a sponge. Be the sponge.
How do you know if you’re crossing the line with your world-building (or as the asker put it, jumping the shark)? If in your world your reader senses it would be easier to just use “donkeys” for a certain task than just to use magic but you’re not using donkeys, then something is broken. Or we’re in a transition from one world to the other. If you’ve introduced something that saves them and doesn’t drastically change the world, then you probably have a problem.
It’s cheaper to let us bring our knowledge to the book and add dragons or whatever, etc. (He used Lord of the Rings AND Harry Potter as the example. There are elements we’re familiar with in those worlds combined with things we’re not familiar with).
And there you have it. So, do you have any “fantasy horses” in your stories you had to eliminate? Do you try and use language to describe your world that tells readers something about the character or story? What do you do to expose yourself to unknown-unknowns? Do you wish Darth Maul would have stuck around at least a little longer as a great revenge plot? Let us know below.