FiYoShiMo Day 22 – Worldbuilding and Plot

FiYoShiMo charges forward.

Okay, okay, wait. Let’s just take a minute for some disclosure. I’m writing this after spending 12 hours in a car, oh so thrilled that WordPress doesn’t want us to have nice things, because it ate ONLY the finished piece for Day 22. I’ve decided to rewrite it, but add in my post-trip exhausted commentary, which is usually what I’m saying to myself or the dog while I’m writing.

It’s Day 22, and today is sort of a big huge linchpin day, because now we’re going to intersect your plot with your world. So, if you haven’t got it handy already, write down your plot one more time, and get all the worldbuilding notes you’ve been taking.

We’re going to break down your plot into a new set of components. We’re not changing your plot, we’re just going to deconstruct it.

This sounds scarier or more complicated than it really is. Basically, we’re going to look at your plot in pieces. You’re gonna be fine.

A plot has some basic elements:

a) A central conflict where there’s a risk and danger
b) Opposing people or views looking to take sides in that conflict
c) Consequences for either being on the achieving or losing side of that conflict

Let’s define these things:

Central conflict is the problem or source of tension that has the biggest resonance relative to the scope of the story, most connections, and most intense connections to people involved. This isn’t walking the old lady across the street when you’ve introduced this whole big planet. Keep your scale in mind. What issue covers the most of that scale, affects the most characters, and does so in the most intense ways?

If we’re just telling the story of a 9 year old kid earning a merit badge by walking the old lady across the street, then we don’t need to know the geopolitical issues of the country or solar system this kid is in, because the focus of our story is on this kid getting his merit badge. The larger stuff is irrelevant.

A lot of people try and make a pair of scopes, so they can say they’re making a huge series by laying groundwork all through the story (especially if it’s the first one), then they can yo-yo the reader in and out of scope to demonstrate …. something that usually comes across as the panicky writing desperate to keep the reader attached to the author. You don’t need to bungee cord your reader around. Keep the scope focused, keep the story moving. Since not every damned story is a series in the making, your need for elaborate groundwork may be eating into the space you need to tell the actual story in front of you, not the one six stories from now.

Opposing forces are the people or person(s) who take differing sides based on the conflict. This doesn’t have to be binary (good vs bad, Jedi vs Sith, Gryffindor vs Slytherin, mustard vs ketchup, Captain America vs Iron Man), but characters do need to have some sort of side in the conflict. Staying out of it can be a side IF they need to be persuaded to change sides, but don’t confuse being Switzerland with being the kid too cool at the lunch table to sit with anyone.

Okay, did I mention I’m hella tired? Let’s work on that metaphor — If we have two sides, A and B, then we put our characters into one of those two camps. If we have a third option, C, that’s fine, so long as C has a vested interest in staying out of A-B rivalry. If C doesn’t even interact with the rivalry, why are they in the story? The central conflict is one of the chief things tying your characters together, either in terms of circumstance or necessity or common ground.

Consequences for both sides of the conflict have to matter, meaning they have to make a provable, visible, tangible difference in the lives of characters, otherwise it’s not much of a threat. The prospect of me losing Internet is going to lead me to take more direct action out of fear and worry than if you’re going to tell me you’ll be taking away my three hole punch. If the risk seems negligible or doesn’t motivate a character to action, then it’s not really a risk. That’s why badguys kidnap family and friends instead of not calling on the hero’s birthday. The danger has to matter.

Yes, I did totally picture Skeletor staring at the phone but not calling a crying He-Man.

What’s the conflict in your plot?

Look now at the world your plot takes place in. Is that conflict, based on the world, going to matter to the character(s) involved?

If you make the risk bigger, you don’t have to alter the world. Likewise, if you shrink the world, you don’t have to alter the risk. Yes, they’re related. When we think about a story that works, the risk involved in that story is relative to how big the “world” of the story is.

Like how in a Mission Impossible episode, the whole world could be at stake, and we know that, because our agents have to jetset all over the world and negotiate various dangers.

When this doesn’t work, you’re talking Phantom Menace, where we know it’s called Star Wars, and we have a whole lot of planets that we know exist, but for some reason, we’re supposed to think that this one planet with Uncle Remus and Natalie Portman/Kiera Knightley is the biggest of big deals. (Hint: It wasn’t, and that’s one of like 90 gazillion reasons that movie didn’t work)

Are there sufficient sides that are clearly delineated for your characters to take up? Yes, I know, I just talked about how it doesn’t have to be binary, but looking binary for a second, see how clearly each side has its boundaries? Every side, no matter the number of sides your polygon has, should have clearly marked and clearly differentiated sides.

This is particularly true when we look at fantasy or science fiction or genres where we aren’t completely grounded in the modern present. We may have a prophecy (I’m making something up here…) where we have people who believe in it, those who don’t, and then this third group where they’ve never heard of it. Those are distinct groups, and that third group can be drawn into the other two groups through a variety of story means. We can’t however, have a fourth group who believes in this other prophecy all together (not just a reinterpretation of the first one), but not give them any opposition.

And that’s because we don’t really need that second prophecy, and because it doesn’t really connect in any meaningful way to the first….

Now if you’re about to say, “But John, it totally could…” and then tell me I need to read more of your story, I’m going to stop and ask you why you didn’t just fold the two prophecies together.

Every side in a conflict needs to have ways to mark its members. Teams wear uniforms. There are ways to distinguish one side from another, even ways that aren’t physical (outfits, colored laser blasts, etc).

Are there consequences for each side? If A “wins”, or gets what they want, how does the world change? What if they “lose”? Does every side in this conflict have consequences they’d like to achieve or avoid?

No, they don’t all need to be the same consequences (otherwise why are they on different sides of the issue?), but they do need SOME consequences that matter to them.

My last point today is that the world and plot need to “fit” together. When they don’t mesh well, it becomes so much harder for the reader to engage with the material. What do I mean?

I mean … a story about a disavowed secret agent trying to get back in his agency’s good graces but the next 17 chapters of the book are all about this spy’s romancing the woman who owns the cupcake store, and we jettison the part where he wants to be a spy again.

I mean a world where robots are on the verge of enslaving mankind, but we’re telling a story about two puppets who come to life and have zany non-robot-related adventures.

The plot has to be relative to the world you’ve built, and vice versa. Otherwise, a reader challenges why it matters, and that leads to questions of why they’re spending their time with your work. And that’s not a scenario with a lot of good outcomes for your work.

Today, go weave your world and plot together. Tomorrow, we’re going to weave your characters and world together.

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