Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Tips for Great World Building

Hi folks,

Rachel refused to come out of her writing cave this morning. Something about Dragons, interruptions, and tasty with ketchup. So it looks like I'm going to be doing the blog post today. Mwahahaha! Last week was a business post, so this week I'm going to try to keep it writerly with a post on settings and world building.

Writing Wednesday: Tips for Great World Building

I've been making my own settings since sixth grade. Not for books, but for the table top RPGs that I run for my friends. Surprisingly to me, this experience has been invaluable when I help Rachel world build for her series. In fact, one of the most crucial contributions I make to Rachel's books have to do with her settings. She's even written a post about my world-building help called My Husband, the World Wrecker. 

(RACHEL NOTE: This is true. All of my settings were either blatantly stolen from or enormously improved by Travis. Also, YOU GUYS, he is the best GM ever! Seriously. I learned so much of what I know about stories from being a player character in his games over these last 14 years. Just goes to show that you really do pick up novel writing skills from everywhere!)

I'm not a writer like Rachel, but this is something I've done a lot both together with her and on my own, so today I want to share with you some of the things I've picked up over my two decades and countless worlds worth of experience into what makes for really good world building. Now, this will be less "how to world build" and more "how I world build", but I hope that you all find this interesting none the less.

Starting Out, the Big Hook

All my best worlds start with a hook. The setting itself needs to have a core component that invokes curiosity, "OMG factor," an exciting twist, has implications, or invokes a sense of irony/dread.

However, I'm not a fan of every type of world hook. I definitely feel like some are better than others. Specifically, I'm a big big believer in the power of,
The contradiction. Aka, the mystery, the thing-that-doesn't-add-up, the glaring exception...
All the coolest settings I know of (including Eli, Devi, and Dragons ^_~) have the contradiction deep within them. Our brains are desperate for order. We instinctively crave for everything to make logical, or at least explainable, sense. When we see something that doesn't make sense, say a broken rule of the universe or society, the urge to know why it doesn't drives us nuts.

In story, just add on the fact that not-knowing might have deadly consequences and you'll get some great baked-in tension.

For example,

  • A world where everything is a spirit, yet only humans can control spirits, yet there are creatures who are not spirits and who are uniquely able to destroy them. (Eli Monpress)
  • A world where all dragons are evil, scheming monsters. Yet there is at least one dragon who isn't. (Heartstrikers)
  • A world where humanity hides in its last city and extinction is inevitable, yet no one (in power) is trying to fix the problem. In fact, they are probably making it worse. (Attack on Titan)

Hopefully, each one of my examples causes you to automatically jump to "why". That why is the heart of a great world hook. All the various forms the contraction can take, lesser and greater, beg the question of why. Sometimes even "WHYYYYY?!!"

While this approach is really cool, it must come with a warning - the answer to "why?" cannot be bullshit. When you present readers and characters with a huge question mark, usually one that breaks the-rules-as-we-know-them, there has GOT to be a legit, meaningful answer that makes sense. Doing otherwise will break their trust in you and often results in your book being thrown across the room. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ ︵ ╯(°□° ╯)

Almost always, the reason for the exception is that the reader just doesn't know all the rules and truths of the world yet. Once those are known, the new rules and old rules need to line up. Preferably in an awesome way that re-frames the plot and everything we've known to be true up to the point of revelation.

Example - An ancient vampire city that no one has been able to enter for 1000 years is now suddenly open. Why is it open now?

Bad answer - a Mary Sue teenage girl charmed her way past the guard by giving him her ipod. Turns out just talking to the vampires is good enough to get in and no one ever thought to try that. Now her friends are coming and going as well. The whole forbidden city has just turned into a mall at this point.

Good answer - due to the strange death of a vampire patriarch, the blood pact that maintained an ancient concealing barrier collapsed long ago. The ruling elite have been doing everything they can to hide this fact from their vassals and peasants for years now. A deadly web of magical illusions, sacrifices, and secret police are keeping the citizens ignorant. Cracks are finally appearing though, and that's how the main character actually got in. Her very presence within the city now represents a clear and present danger to the power of those in charge.

I think you can see the difference...

The Dual Purpose of the Setting Hook
Just as characters need hooks and your plot needs hooks, the setting really needs a hook as well. This is good novel building, but there's a second goal as well. A good, thorny, contradiction or mystery draws everything towards it.
Not just the readers mind you, but often the plot and the characters will be pulled forward as well. 
Our brains can't stand it when 1+2 = 5 and when we see this sort of thing we immediately have a strong reaction to make it make sense. Characters are people too and, when the-thing-that-doesn't-fit-in constantly affects their lives, the whole cast is driven towards the truth.

Now, if resolving the big mystery of your world isn't the story, that's fine. Orbiting around these suckers is also great. My personal taste though (and Rachel's as well) is to eventually go for the resolution, even if it means breaking reality, fighting gods, or changing the entire fabric of a society.

(Those of you who've read Rachel's novels are probably nodding a lot at how often this happens in her stories. We both love this stuff.)

There's lots more we can say about hooks in general. In fact, Rachel has a round-up post for you called 7 Posts to Help You Use Hooks Better. It neatly lists all her best posts on this topic, so please go check it out.

Let's move on to my next tip,

The One True History

This is the second thing I make for any setting or world I'm going to be working with. It's usually a 1-5 page document that spells out in very straight-forward terms what really, truly happened during the important parts of the world's history.
I consider this document to be the setting's greatest, deepest secret. One that not even all the characters in the setting will know completely.
It's a map of how the world came to its current state. As such, most of what's in there is just a list of who did what and why at the most important junctures. What's important about this document is that it is not the history that the characters know. After I make the true history, I make the mainstream history that everyone believes to be true.

Now, any urban fantasy writer will commiserate with the perpetual difficulties that come from explaining Earth history as it is right now but with magic. That's a simple example of the difference between history as the average citizen is taught versus the true history of "how magic secretly drives all the major events of history but yet only mages know about it".

Any setting can and should use this trick though. What really happened is often lost to time, obscured by those who care or fear, or twisted into lies by those seeking power. No one character should ever have the complete picture until the very end.

In doing things this way, I've found, over and over, that one of the most useful tools in creating good setting tension is to hide the answer to the big contradiction inside the true history. Then, the more popularly known history becomes the characters' basic reality for the beginning of the story. Until they peer into the cracks that is.

Going back to my vampire city example...

The True History
The vampires are actually developing an immunity to the magical plague that makes them vampires, but it takes crazy long for it to develop enough to cure them. The patriarch who died was the oldest vampire ever, but he's been weakening ever since his 1900th birthday. He died due to mortal causes when his body finally overcame the plague.

All the other ancient ruling vampires are his contemporaries and are only a few years away from starting down the same road, but they don't know this yet because...

The death of a vampire patriarch caused the blood pact that maintained an ancient concealing barrier to collapse. The whole city is vulnerable to the outside world and their ancient enemies who are still looking for them.

As such, the council have spent all their time and energy faking that the shield is still up. They've woven complex illusions around the city to help prevent outsiders from stumbling in. They also gathered their most loyal followers into a secret police whose sole job it is to keep the death of the patriarch a secret and to prevent any outsiders from coming in. They are desperate to make sure no one learns that they, the most powerful vampires, are weakening.

The Mainstream History
Humans - what vampire city?

Average Vampire Citizen - Everything is cool and business is as usual. Except for a growing faction of rebels who think that our safe life inside this barrier is bad. They are crazy and dangerous. A special unit of loyal vampires has been formed to deal with them and to prevent their influence from spreading. If you think your neighbor has traitorous thoughts, please report them. The eldest patriarch hasn't been seen for a while b/c he's conducting a century long meditation project on better blood weaving techniques. For the glory of our city of course. Please direct further questions about the patriarch to the aforementioned special unit. Thanks.

I hope everyone can see how the main character(s), who perhaps slips past the secret police and gets into the city, represents a huge problem. In additional to whatever reason was driving the MC to go into such a place in the first place.

It's All About the Layers of Secrets


As you can see, this example is a little simple, has no dates, and is really short. Ah, but it still has lots of lovely layers of secrets, lies, and ignorance. Complete with people violently protecting what they think of as the truth, even when they themselves are lied to or ignorant.

These layers are what I love so much about this method. We have the main characters' contemporary Earth knowledge. Maybe they are a little special given whatever problem has sent them colliding with the vampires. Then they discover a vampire city which shatters their understanding of the world as they and we know it.

In the city, they are in immediate danger and learn the hard way about rebels and secret police. As things get crazy with the vampire police, maybe they get a clue that shows how the official story doesn't add up. Like there are no rebels or the rebels are fake and actually just secret police posing as rebels.

That eventually leads them to investigate the missing patriarch. From there they learn he's dead, but how he died is an even bigger and even more suspicious question!

In ever increasing danger, they seek the cause of his death and the council tries to stop them. Eventually they learn that, SHOCK, the council doesn't know why the guy weakened and died. So they steal his blood and find someone to study it. Maybe the ancient enemies wind up helping.

Discovering the immunity is huge! More sacrifices and battles are had as they create a powerful magical vaccine that can cure any vampire. (Bonus, the vampire love interest we thought could never be now has a potential happy ending if they can survive it all and admit their true feelings for one another.)

We're at the massive conflict point as desperate ancient vampires are now just openly trying to kill the heroes. Everything is on fire, goes to hell, and all bets are off as the vaccine's first use is as a weapon to defeat the otherwise god-like council by stripping them of their powers.

Victory! The rest of the city is cured of the terrible disease and the city can rejoin the wider world. They are no longer trapped, oppressed, and hungry. Yay! More importantly, we learned all the secrets and the "why?" that was originally asked of the reader and characters was answered with panache.


Do you see how the initial setting hook, ancient lost city opens up for no reason, starts the story but also ends it? It's wonderfully circular in a way that keeps the entire story on track, consistent through out, and looks really boss to readers because the author had the whole thing planned the whole time.

It All Comes Together In the End

The contradiction, the one true history, and all the dangerous layers of guards, idiots, and monsters that lay in between. This sums up my favorite aspects of world building and setting-based plotting.

Now, this is only one method, which can be used to tell a wide variety of tales. It is not for every tale however as it has a particular focus on the status quo and on the powers that be. I mean, I didn't talk about characters once this whole post. Characters might, just might maybe, be my weakness as a story teller.

Still, I do hope that you can take some or all of these elements away with you and benefit from them. At the end of the day, these are more tools for the author's toolbox when crafting stories and books.

If nothing else, I had fun writing this. I can't tell ya'll how much I've wanted to yak about world building here on the blog.

As usual, if there's any topics you'd like me or Rachel to talk about here on the blog, please feel free to leave them below. We're always working hard to find information that is useful to you. You can also just hit me up on Twitter, that works too! (@TravBach) Rachel's social media links are here as well if you want to get live updates! (Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+)

Thanks again for reading, and I'll see you all next week!



Tesh said...

I think that the "true history" vs. "perceived history" is a rich vein that could and should be used. Carefully applied, it can also allow the reader know more than the characters, which can be a great sort of meta-hook, keeping the reader engaged and emotionally invested as they have that urge to interact with the characters to help/hinder them.

Kessie said...

Ah, that's good stuff! I've been building a world with dragon and drake shifters, except the drakes live on reservations like Native Americans to keep other shifters from wiping them out. Kind of a world where everybody knows about the monsters, and dragons are now only slain in court via lawsuits. :-) I think I need to take it deeper and lock in some Deep Secrets to move the series forward.

Ken Hughes said...

Something I like to think of: the "contradiction" only seems like a contradiction, it's usually just a piece of the puzzle that clashes with the rest, for its own reasons. Usually a character with his own agenda, or (as with your vampire city) an uncooperative fact that characters can't deal with or turns them against each other.

I do like "contradiction" as a place to start, wondering what thing Could Never Happen and then working out a True History that explains what hidden conflict means it actually could. The rest is letting the story work its way through those layers.

Daisy R Buntin said...
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