I stand here planning for a new project, and this new project demands all manner of monstrous monstrousness (or, rather, creature-flavored creatureology), and in that, I want to wrap my head around the world in which the project’s tale will take place. In doing so, I envision the task before me…
…which manifests as a deep dark hole waiting at my feet. Occasionally I see shapes squirming down there in the tenebrous depths: glinty flinty eyes and writhing labial squid beasts and snot-slick hell-squirrels flying little rotflcopters and other assorted hallucinations of one’s infinite (and utterly diseased) mind. Horrific as it may sound, as a writer I am delighted by such morbid fantastical explorations and it is therefore quite tempting to leap boldly forth and pirouette in mid-air and plunge into that fictional chasm where the monsters lurk, where realms untold await, where the hell-squirrels worship their belching hell-squirrel god.
I could truly get lost in there.
I could wander its disturbed creative depths, a man lost in a maze of his own making.
Ah, but I am given pause. I have a story to tell, after all. I have a book to write from this. If I engage with my made-up world endlessly anon, then the book will never get done. And it is then that I am reminded (as I have said this in the past): worldbuilding is a kind of masturbation. It is not in and of itself a bad thing so much as it can be a fruitless endeavor given over only to the expression of onanistic narrative ejaculations — *fap fap fap* and blammo! Upon the page I eject my wad and leave behind in crumpled-up story tissues endless pages revealing the lineage of the unicorn-kings, the ancient language of the Flarnsmen of Jibeau, the secret geomantic architectural blueprints of the chattering hell-squirrels.
My thesis, then, is this:
Worldbuilding should be a slave to storytelling, not vice versa.
Okay, Squid Beast, What The Hell Does That Mean, Exactly?
It means, quite simply: in terms of doing any prep-work for your story, it behooves you to first conceive of the story you want to tell at all levels of complexity (from the barest level of boy meets girl to the more complex outline, treatment or synopsis) and then use the world to prop up your story. Worldbuilding can:
Fill in blanks, drive home theme, untangle plot knots, accentuate the characters, it can even bring about fresh and unexpected conflict. (It can probably do more, I just got lazy and stopped thinking about it.)
But my opinion is that worldbuilding can only easily do these things for you if you let it serve the story (rather than putting a gun to the head of the story and forcing it to serve the setting).
Here There Be Hell-Squirrels: The Dangers Of World-Building
To be clear, I am not saying that worldbuilding is itself bad — how I could I possibly justify that as a guy who (much as I myself hate to do it) puts outlining and prep-work on a pedestal?
What I’m suggesting is that worldbuilding-before-story-conception threatens you, the intrepid penmonkey, with a number of perils which could ensnare your best efforts.
What perils, you ask?
First, as noted, it’s quite easy to get lost in worldbuilding and do so endlessly without ever accomplishing anything of substance. When I recently stared down the barrel of this upcoming project, I opened my notefile and started furiously taking notes and then — an hour later, I was left to wonder, what the hell am I doing? None of this matters in terms of the story I want to tell. It’s just piffle, waffle, kerfuffle, and other words ending in -ffle. Was it a fun distraction? Sure. It was lovely. As a pure creative exercise I guess it had some merit. But it did nothing to help me understand my story better. I was just playing with myself.
Second, a story offers you boundaries. You work on an outline or at least have an idea in your mind as to the story you want to tell, that story is like a fence or, better still, the dark lines of an image in a coloring book. You’ve created margins, and from that point, worldbuilding is about staying in the margins. If you lead with world creation, however, you’re in danger of going so far astray that you have no focus, no purpose, no theme or mood or character hooks or whatever. It’s like going to Home Depot and buying up the whole tool department just to hang a fucking painting. Rein yourself in, you frothy stallion, you.
Third, it’s easy to become obligated to the storyworld over your story. “Oh,” you say, “I worked so very hard on describing the psychic pseudo-cultural breeding habits of the unicorn-kings, and even though I don’t really have any place for them exactly, I don’t want to waste the 11,000 words I’ve expended on this subject. And so I shall include a chapter in my book about it. The reader will consider it bonus material!”
Fourth, and this is related to the last point: uncontrolled worldbuilding threatens to intrude upon your tale in the form of the much-and-correctly-reviled… infodump. “Here! I will now force-feed you the fruits of my world-building labors!” *splurch*
And Now A Deviation Into Kidney-Punching Fantasy Novels
I used to like fantasy novels as a kid, but less so these days. It’s not that I don’t still enjoy them — theoretically, I do — but rather that I never know when a good fantasy series is going to suddenly become mesmerized by its own worldbuilding. Too many novels devolve this way and go goo-goo ga-ga over their own sense of setting and culture. It drives me a bit buggy. A popular series of fantasy novels which rhymes with The Meal Of Wine or perhaps The Glockenspiel Of Crime started off at a rip-roaring pace. But then each book got slower and slower, trapped deeper and deeper in its own mire of story-world minutiae. By Book Number Seventy-Four-And-A-Half, the entire 1,242 page epic took place over seven minutes and spent approximately 14,000 words on the subject of fabric.
Then again, these books sold approximately one jizzillion copies, so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me.
Writer Paul S. Kemp (whose website is here and who writes awesome Star Wars books using his mighty thews) said something interesting on Twitter yesterday, though: “Incidentally, one of the reasons I love Sword & Sorcery is the de-emphasis on worldbuilding and focus on characters.” I say this without having devoted a great deal of effort to disprove it, but I agree with him. I think part of it is procedural: pulp writers didn’t have a lot of time to dick around with worldbuilding. They just had to get their hands dirty and jump right in. Even still, it’s an interesting lesson.
This Is Less True (And Perhaps Not True At All) If You’re Writing Games
By the way, and maybe I should’ve said this earlier, I don’t consider this lesson all that hearty if you’re working on game narrative rather than something more linear. I’ve noted in the past that traditional storytelling is about communicating the story of the author, whereas game-based storytelling is about communicating–or, rather, facilitating–the story of the game player.
In that case, worldbuilding is king. I come from the roleplaying industry, and there it’s very much about getting muddy in the trenches and talking up the crazy culture of vampire horticulture or about the designer drugs of mystic hobo hermaphrodites. There you have a license to sort of create wantonly, but in traditional storytelling you are more reined in.
How does this figure into transmedia? Uhhhh. Answer unclear, ask again later? No, really, I don’t know. I think to some degree transmedia efforts sometimes feel hollow or shallow (or perhaps even shollow!) because they spend so much time on the worlds they build and so little time on the stories that drive the experience. Then again, if the transmedia components are largely game-based, well…
*throws down smoke bomb, avoids topic, lets you people talk about it*
I Like Italics
Seriously, just look around. Italics everywhere.
YMMV, IMHO, Bippity-Boppity-Boo
I’m not saying you cannot worldbuild.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t worldbuild.
I am merely saying that the worlds you build should be in service to the stories you want to tell. You may choose to do otherwise, and you may in fact choose to do otherwise quite successfully. But, as always, terribleminds is very much about the writing life I happen to lead, and this is one of those things I believe about myself in terms of Getting The Job Done With Minimum Fuss And Narrative Masturbation.
Feel free to slip-and-slide down in the comments. Am I crazy? Am I full of shit? Am I onto something despite my crazy full-of-shittedness? Sound off, my little hell-squirrels.