FiYoShiMo Day 20 – World Building, Part 1

Welcome back to the awesomeness that is FiYoShiMo. We’ve talked characters, we’ve talked plot, and now we’re on the home stretch, where we start talking about the world these characters and this plot live in.

Over the next two days, I’m going to present you with six tools (three today, three tomorrow), to help you take the world and give it necessary texture, growth and permanence, so it isn’t just some flat high school stage where people act until it time not to act anymore.

World building is a huge deal. Without a world, your characters have no context, and no impact or consequences. If there’s a madman loose in the city, if the city is underdeveloped, how can you ask anyone to care about stopping the madman? Sure, the plot says he’s supposed to be stopped, but how is the reader supposed to give more than a cursory damn about stopping him?

World helps story matter. So let’s check out some tools to help get the world lived in.

The Basic Questionnaire
What we’re looking for here is a number of ways that the created world mirrors our own, so that the reader can project their experience(s) and understanding onto characters and situation that are outside themselves. When readers project, they invest, and the more opportunities for that to happen, the better.

To that end, there are some core questions to ask about the world:

a) Is this world more primitive/relative to/ more futuristic than Earth at the time you’re writing?
b) Does this world have the same physics (gravity, light, sound) as Earth at the time you’re writing?
c) In what ways does the world differ from your own?
i) Geographically
ii) Topographically
iii) Politically
iv) Socially
d) Is there magic in the world?
e) Are there any races or species aside from those expected on Earth at the time you’re writing?

These give some larger boundaries and limitations on the world, which can tell you what you need to write about (like if you have ogres) or not write about (like if you have comparable gravity). Within those boundaries, find the freedom to explore the ideas you need to, with very little of what you don’t.

Scope of the World
This story has specific locations in it. Even if you’re telling the story of an omnipotent deity shaping the world out of nothing, there are going to be some sort of locations developed in the story. Things happen at places. The issue is how broadly is the reader zoomed out from those places.

One of the things that used to frustrate me as a child when I looked at Where’s Waldo books was that in order to hide Waldo, they made everything so tiny. It’s cheap obfuscation, and it requires you to put your face close up to the book and scrutinize it in systematic chunks until you find that striped shirt wearing knob. It’s not actual concealment, it’s clutter. And the same thing happens in some stories.

You want to tell a political story about a kingdom, with large families and an extended cast of characters. Maybe you have multiple lands in your story, and you subject your characters to lots of sex and death across a lot of geography.  As the number of characters rise, so too does the number of places you put these characters, because you fear (somewhat) that if you put them all in the same kingdom, surely they’d run into each other. You’re running from clutter in one place by cluttering up a lot of places, but only in little piles, rather than some hoard.

How large a story are you telling? Where do you want the focus to be?  If your story is about some guys robbing a bank, why do we need to know about another country or even another city in this world? Don’t dilute the focus just to show off that you’ve made a big world. Let the world seep into what you’re actively presenting, through small details or consequences or beats, and the world will seem big.

The Mess Test
We’re going talk about this more on Day 22, when we talk about where plot and your world collide, but the starting point for that is realizing that if you remove tension in the world, you’re crippling the story. A utopia where everyone has no problems, can get everything solved, and is never challenged is not a compelling starting point for a story, assuming the status quo doesn’t change.

So the Mess Test asks you to highlight where the possible points of change could be. Yes, they include the plot, but they’re not limited to the events in the plot. If you took the world and shook it like a snow globe, where are the loose rattling bits? How could you mess up this world, without the obvious removing gravity or sending it crashing into a black hole?

The point I’m making here is that fragility in the world, the tenuous relationship between cohered pieces, can all be canted or torqued to produce interesting fuel for story, even when it’s not just the plot doing the breaking.

I know, a bit of a shorter post today, but I want you to take these three tools and apply them to your world. If you need to, make decisions you’ve not made before. If you’re not happy with the answers you find, ask yourself why. Take all these notes and come back tomorrow where we’ll talk about the next 3 tools.

See you then.






0 thoughts on “FiYoShiMo Day 20 – World Building, Part 1

  1. I finally caught up with the rest of the series after the holidays. John, this post really clicked with me! I was really chuffed to see that, in general, my world building is pretty solid. According to your posts, anyway. I have been worried about that more than anything else, really, so at least 50% of the weight of that worry has been lifted by these posts (the rest is in whether or not my details come across the way I intend). But the discussion on shaking the snow globe triggered a whole new thought with regard to the overall tone of my novel, and it mirrors what happens with the main character, and and and, now I’m just too excited. Thanks again for this awesome series!

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