The Traps of World-Building

It occurred to me that the one great challenge of world-building is that you are, in fact, building a world. What to put in? What to leave out?

I’ve recently been reading The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby. In it he writes:

“Good storytelling doesn’t just tell audience what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but it is conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience’s essential life too.”

That extrapolates well to world building. World-building is not a thing in itself, it is there to support your storytelling. You are creating the semblance of a world not the actuality. All that is required are the specifics that will support the story you are telling in all its aspects. Not so detailed that the narrative and characters disappear, not so flimsy you feel you could walk up to the scenery and bang your hand on the canvas backdrop.

One way to think about your world building is to treat it like the photographs, souvenirs, and memories of a trip to a place only you have visited – the striking moments, places, items, inhabitants, ways of life, creatures and landscapes, and sensations that stay with you when you have left. The things you absolutely have to tell everyone about when you return home. The things that will fire their imaginations and make them want to go there too.

I recently stalled myself writing a connecting scene between two places – Knights Hall, where my alien city guardians live, and High House, the home of the ruling elite deep in my underground city. How was I going to get my characters from the first place to the second? Which route would they take? What would they see, do, say, and feel?

With this particular story I have needed to imagine an entire world: a planet and ecology, cities and technology, a cultural history and a way of life that has stretched unbroken for thousands of years. With this scene it all welled up in my mind and became too much. There was so much to think about I didn’t know where to begin.  And for a while I actually couldn’t.

Which was no good at all.

I’ve learned to trust my subconscious when it stalls me. I take it as a message that I am heading in the wrong direction. Invariably it (or rather that other and in some ways smarter part of me) is right. So I did what I usually do and thought about whether or not I needed this scene at all and, if so, how big it needed to be.

In the end this is what I wrote:

“Vioneth led the way to High House along a secret way behind the upper warren. Lumens blinked into life as they went. The footing was level and paved, the curved walls whitewashed, yet everywhere there were signs of disuse and neglect. Paint peeled, water pooled in shallows and corners.”

I used just what I thought where the essential details. And I have now hopefully co-opted the imaginations of the reader to build on that description in their own minds. Readers have excellent imaginations.

With world building, as with so many things, less is usually more.

~

This blog was originally published on the Milford SF web site in June, 2018


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