Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Building Worlds is Not Storytelling: What We Can Learn from Stephen King, World of Warcraft, and Breaking Bad

The ecstasy that goes along with imagining a world is a feeling that most everyone can identify with. I'm not just talking about readers of the Kingkiller Chronicles or players of World of Warcraft, either. I'm talking about everyone who has anything invested in storytelling. Anyone who's a fan Breaking Bad or True Blood also knows what I mean.
of Lord of the Rings (yes, for the record I recommend the books) or even

So, for you writers out there, how have you tried to invent a world around your narrative? If I can give any advice to you, it's DO NOT do what I did. The following is a brief description of my misstep:

I spent the first thousand or two-thousand words of my book simply explaining the rules of my futuristic world. It was a deadpan approach that I was so into at the time of writing that I thought my feelings would soak themselves up into the words and transplant directly into the feels of the readers.

Boy was I wrong.

It has been about a year since I read the first thousand words of my book, plenty of time to step back from the story and read it objectively. And oh damn was it dry. It read like an encyclopedia with commas all out of place (I have trouble with commas...thank God I have a grammarian willing to edit for me).

So what's my advice?

Tell your story through your characters. You will be forced to make it interesting for their sake. If you believe in the world, you will do your best to make it believable for your characters. That's a rule that I stand by.

Q: How do I unveil my world through my characters?

A: Start by writing out your boring encyclopedia entry about your world. It's OK to do it, just don't publish it. Then give your characters scenarios related to one aspect of the world at a time. Hint: Don't try to show (remember rule 1 of writing fiction: show don't tell) all aspects of the world in one scene. Ideally, they'll all unfold over time and your characters will find themselves in conflicts naturally. Trust me, they will.

Stephen King (paraphrased): Outlines are for little bitches. They dry up your stash.

Rule 2 of writing fiction: Rising action begets climax begets falling action (but that falling action better be cathartic and/or profound a
nd/or unique).

Rule 3 of writing fiction: Falling action is the hardest part.

Rule 4 of writing fiction (this one's about style): If your characters are in interesting situations your style doesn't have to be particularly interesting. In short, document their events and your readers will be satisfied, if not happy.

Recap: Don't build your world too directly. Let your characters do the heavy lifting. Don't outline or you'll limit what your characters can do. Get them into some trouble but resolve it in a surprising way. Don't be a hero with your form. You are a communicator and your ideas (your fiction) is the artistry. Simply, don't try to do too much or your readers will be confused. And, don't ever assume that your emotions will attach themselves to your words.

Trust me, they won't.

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  1. What's your experience with world building? Writing this novel is teaching me quite a bit, but I'm sure I still have a lot to learn.

  2. AJ, I really liked this post. I actually am writing a guest blog post that focuses around the same idea of characters first, because they see the world and all its detail. The reader should see the world through the viewpoint character(s). If I can, I'll link to this post :-)

    And keep up the good work, dude!

  3. Thanks a lot! If you want to post your piece here just let me know. I just saw something about a successful first novel that almost got released after a year of writing it. The writer didn't feel satisfied and went back and totally revamped the story writing it more through the characters' POV and it hit a best seller list.


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