Worldbuilding: Is It What Your Story Needs?

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There’s nothing like writing a good story. All that drama playing out on the big screen or on page after page of your novel. All those characters, so colorful and engaging. All the magic and wonder of getting lost in someone else’s world, be it the starship Enterprise, a Carribean beach hotel, the halls of power in Washington, or the ancient palace of Queen Nefertiti.

Now, there’s usually one problem a lot of writers face with their stories, and that can be getting started.

I’ve been through it myself. And as someone who tried for many years to write a science fiction or fantasy novel, it can be brutal when you realize that you’re spending more time trying to flesh out your setting and less time crafting a good outline for your plot, or mapping character arcs. You hit that moment (or at least I have) when you find yourself with 3 to 4 new tabs open on Wikipedia, all so you can look up Alcubierre drives for starships, negative mass for how to power said drives, Dromaeosaurus for a dinosaur species to inspire your reptilian aliens, and Star Trek for any clue as to how Gene Roddenberry envisioned the warp drive working at all.

But then, take a step back. What we have are a lot of ideas with no real story or characters around them. I could write several paragraphs explaining what I’ve learned about faster-than-light travel, but unless you’re looking to learn about the physics of future spaceflight, your eyes might be glazing over at the thought of that jargon. And, to be sure, that’s what old-school “hard” science fiction used to be. Engineers and doctors who wrote in their spare time would write stories for each other, all technically explained and justified by scientists and engineers in dialogue, even as they’re being attacked by aliens or dragged through wormholes.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Worldbuilding can be useful. It just has to have a point to the narrative.

At the moment, I’ve been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it’s a healthy reminder of how worldbuilding works. Almost too good, since you know every fantasy writer since Tolkien has wanted to show off their Middle-earth to the masses. But where did Tolkien’s world come from? It came from Nordic sagas, Old English poems, Celtic legends, Catholic spirituality, his lifetime’s work in philology, and his native West Midlands countryside. And while Tolkien does spend a lot of time describing the countryside as Frodo and his companions carry the One Ring closer to Mordor, he never gets too lost in his own woods. He introduces songs, legends, words of Elvish, and magical occurrences all in relation to the main plot. Everything has a point, even if it makes for three very dense books of prose and poetry.

At the same time, though, you can only build so much of your setting beforehand. I’ve written some of my best stories without knowing what the setting was apart from, say, a small town loosely modeled on my hometown, or perhaps a subway station that reminds me of the London Underground. The scene is set. I don’t really need to do ten thousand hours of research into when the Piccadilly line runs, or when certain buildings in my part of California were erected in relation to the 1994 Northridge earthquake. If I only need a subway or a small town setting for the purpose of staging two people having an argument or falling in love, then that’s all I need. People want to read about the tension between those people and how it’s resolved.

Tension matters. And if your setting can add or release that tension, like a couple having a fight in a rainy New York street, or a war-weary soldier stumbling across a mythical rural town that’s been hidden for centuries, then so much the better.

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