Friday, May 30, 2014

Worldbuilding, or Start with Story First

Over the 2014 Memorial Day Weekend, at ConQuest 47, I sat on a panel about worldbuilding, and the first question out of the moderator's mouth was, "Where do you start with worldbuilding?" Naturally, me being me, I jumped on that question with all feet and said, "Begin with Story." The other multi-published authors on the panel boggled at me, but I stand by my advice, and here's why--Without story, worldbuilding becomes an intellectual exercise instead of a rich part of the writing experience.

No matter where a story takes place, no matter the genre, no matter the theme, worldbuilding happens. Even writing a story about a gun fight requires knowing where the doors, windows, bars, water barrels, and other critical features are. Creating that set-up requires knowing that the story is going to be a gun fight. Also, the blocking (swiping a theater term) requires the writer to have at least some idea of how the scene or story plays out. And all the decisions and research that goes on--can a laser shoot through the plasti-steel? Can a .45 bullet go through six inches of oak? Who lives? With what wounds? (The nurse/writer friends I have just perked up, I know.)

On a larger scale, writers benefit from knowing if their story is going to be a travel story, an estimate of how far they want their characters to travel in that same time period, and how fast they want the characters to arrive. These story decisions drive worldbuilding in terms of transportation, technology levels, and character expectations. My Bronze Age era characters are pre-stirrup, pre-wheel, although they've got domesticated pack animals. They're not going anywhere fast in comparison to a group in the Iron Age, where roads are common, and iron wheels provide for wagons, chariots, and other such useful shipping techniques. People in the far future may be able to teleport about the planet via their technology, and use jump ships between planets and other solar systems. But each of these things feed a different kind of Story. Those Story requirements feed into the worldbuilding.

What comes out of the Story-focused worldbuilding? Details that might not show up otherwise. I've discovered alternates for snuff, some foods that I didn't think were standard in a region, annoying animals that could contribute all sorts of blocking actions when needed, and random other things that I put aside going "hmmm". But I'll also know if a region has thistles, what kind of thistles, and if I can have a convenient thistle patch for a character to push an enemy into. (Not all thistles are created equal. I know from bloody first hand experience.)

Another advantage I find in Story-based worldbuilding is that I don't wander off into a research-based haze and end up researching random things that don't tie back to my story. Then again, I'm eager to tell my Story, not eager to follow my nose into random areas. I want to get my research done, then get back to the fun stuff!

YMMV: Some people can make things up as they go. I know several people who write along and just drop details in when they need them. Other people can't know too much about their Story, and doing worldbuilding can make them feel their Story is already told. Some people get bogged down by details because they feel they have to include absolutely everything they've researched, so they don't do that level of research.

The real trick to Story based worldbuilding is to figure out what works for you, the writer. Experiment. If something isn't working, try a different technique. Try researching more. Or researching less. Or make maps. Do the blocking for the Story, then create and research for that. Or if doing the blocking hasn't been working, try writing without that extra prep.

Experiment, experiment, experiment. Don't just accept. Try things out, and see what helps.