Shallow worldbuilding

[— Karen Myers —]

Chekhov’s gun is all very well, but I like my worlds with a little bit more padding on them. Life isn’t a stage play, and neither are novels.

In brief, the advice is that every object or incident in a story exists to be a clue/foreshadow, either genuine or misleading in a specific way, or else it should be excised from the story. This view of the world doesn’t bother with much of anything else. Consequently it’s easy to tell when a “clue-that-matters” comes along in a narrative because you can hear the “clunk” sound effect that accompanies it.

I was motivated to mention this because my current not-horrible-but-not-great Period Romance read just coughed up: “Oh, the newly-married heroine is tired.” [pregnant?] and “Oh, her enemies visit and bring tea for her.” [or is it poison?]. It’s not that I mind the temporary uncertainty/red herring. It’s that I miss the presence of activity that isn’t specifically plot-supporting. There’s no time to bask in the situation, no subtlety, no incidental humor. We’re meant to worry about what might happen, dragged by the scruff of our necks. Surprise at the eventual narrative result is impossible, just a relief that we’ve passed some particular clue-drop milestone and can anticipate the next little smoke bomb soon.

Is it merely the following of a formula, with no permission to wax eloquent just for the sake of digging in to the broader story world? Seems a shame to go to all that trouble building a world with its characters and not allowing anything in it to come into focus if it doesn’t drive a plot. After all, unlike the production of a stage play, our stage props on paper don’t cost us anything. Writing by formula robs us of a lot of the potential warmth and presence of our worlds. There’s a value to setting and incidental action for character development (yes, yes — kept in reasonable balance). To me, concentrating on plot-only tools feels like the suppression of part of my voice.

I suppose the plot-driving approach is better than outright explicit didacticism, where one sister is good because she observes all her other sisters doing something wrong (each one different) and paying the price. Exemplars are all very well, but it’s a wooden way to tell a tale. You can’t picture plot-driven stories like that being related over a campfire to others, with your hands waving in the air to make your points. No opportunities for side jokes, comments on the course of the tale, musings on the villains, etc. Just moving from plot point A to plot point B without losing a lot of sleep over character-driven behavior.

TV Tropes has a terrific list of sub-categories that eviscerate or subvert the basic principle… (we live in a talented age of snark). I strongly recommend reading at the link (try not to giggle out loud — I dare you).

I can’t help but observe that the advice has some similarity to modernist furniture of the 1960s — all slick and pared down, with nothing but clean structural elements and not a soft fuzzy comfortable cushion to sink into anywhere.

Where’s the detent on your appetite for pure plot vs detailed worlds?

24 thoughts on “Shallow worldbuilding

  1. Looking at the TV tropes reminded me of an old episode of Ellery Queen. The writers for a radio soap opera had been heard saying they were planning to kill the (not so) beloved star of the soap. They had to explain by showing Ellery the script: “See? She has a cough. Contract negotiations are coming up. So if they agree, it’s just a cold. But if the negotiations fall through, next week she’ll have pneumonia and…”

  2. I prefer rather more local color. Remember what your POV character would see.

    Once read a story in which I did not know whether a wilderness was grassland or thick forest despite the travelers being military, attack likely, and terrain an important factor in fighting.

    Remember characters don’t know what will be significant. Also,that character traits should remain after plot usefulness. Once a character compares ships and later complains about the one they must, he will still know about ship differences.

  3. I write pretty much everything in third person limited, so I end up with some details my characters see that end up being totally pointless beyond just being what they see. I like some detail, like the first time I read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time I really liked reading the setting and clothing descriptions without needing to know the importance of how many buttons were on the bodice of such-and-such’s dress (or see them come into play later), but the second time I tried I was too annoyed by how reluctant the heroes were to enjoy those aspects again. I have three kids at home who can’t agree on what they like to eat for dinner, so there’s enough complaining in my life without the main characters of a story adding to it!

  4. A lot, I think, depends on scale.

    The more detailed your worldbuilding, the more you’re constraining what your character can do.
    Get enough competing intrigues and agendas going, and you’ve got an equilibrium, that will self-mitigate disturbances. (This is great for spy novels, from “spy on the run” to “mole hunt”, to “pawns in the game”, btw.)

    So if you want to tell a grand, sweeping story, where the characters have largely unconstrained agency…. You’ve got to leave them room.
    But if you want the primary conflict to be navigating the constraints of an impersonal world, pile it on!

    But the details themselves aren’t as important as how they click together into themes. For an RPG setting, where players can pick and choose the plot hooks they’re interested in biting, I’ve found that there’s a hard limit at three (the players will mostly concentrate on one, dabble with the second, and the third becomes background color that illustrates the world doesn’t revolve around the PCs). I’m not sure that a novel can accommodate that many, even if they’re actively complementary. (Short stories obviously can’t. That whole “unity of theme” thing.)

  5. My “interpretation” is that every detail in a story should have a point.

    Setting the scene is a point.

    If you don’t do scene setting other than when you mention Chekov’s Gun, then making it scene setting isn’t playing fair with your readers, and they won’t like it.

    So don’t do that. ^.^

    If every time you describe someone in loving detail, they are an important character, do that consistently; if every time you describe a room in loving detail, it’s Conveying This Is The Owner’s Soul And History, make sure you do that– you can play tricks by having the observer make bad assumptions (oh, look, a war-trophy sword! … No, it’s from great-grandmother’s family, he’s the heir of an enemy faction, and willing to display it)

  6. Speaking as a reader, I recently read a story, I think it was a romance, where there was a subplot involving secondary characters that ate several pages and ended with a cliffhanger. The next day a new crisis for the main characters arose, and the secondary characters disappeared, never to be seen again. Or, something like that. So, what was the point of introducing the subplot in the first place, if you’re not going to tie it off? I don’t mind details that are only in there for color, but If you’re going to spend words and words on Chekhov’s gun, it better well be important enough later on enough to have spent them.

  7. Romance has the reputation of being a place where the readers consume a lot of books, and the authors are under pressure to produce rapidly, so that may be a contributing factor in the book described here.

    As far as setting/world building goes, I kind of feel like it depends on the author, and on the setting. A year or so back, I was reading high fantasy and sword and sorcery with an eye towards market research. One author had a fairly detailed but bland D&D influenced setting whose only unique traits were a fairly good explanation of where the Rangers fit into the social order of the kingdom, and a weird “necromancy is okay when well-intentioned people do it” angle that noped me the heck out. That author would have done better to spend less time on setting and more on the action scenes, which he was pretty good at. (And work on not normalizing the dark art of meddling with the dead).

    Another author threw absolutely anything and everything into his setting: elves, dark lords, assassins, dragons, merfolk, timeshifted characters, and I forget what else, and managed to tie them together with a somewhat plausible backstory. That series I read more of, and completed the initial arc ending with the death of the Clint Eastwood wannabe (the next part of the saga picked up a generation or two later, with the main surviving characters being the Kvothe/Eragon wannabe and the dark lord, and I just wasn’t that invested in either of them.) There were things I didn’t care for about that series as well, but they were not dealbreakers, and I was genuinely interested in what was going on with that setting, for the most part.

  8. In the couple of instances where I wrote a mystery, the clues – to be fair to the reader – had to be out there in plain sight, but in a cloud of likely details/chaff, like kernels of wheat.

    1. Agatha Christie is really good in some of her mysteries at being able to give psychological depth to her characters in a short amount of time.

      And I’ve just been re-reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet. Chandler is very good at vivid descriptions that add solidness without being excessive; I don’t think they’re essential to the plot, but they do make the story more 3D, realistic, and anchored.

  9. If every detail is pared out, stripping the story to its bones, then where’s the flesh that distinguishes from one skeleton from the next? Flesh and hair and clothes and attitudes are how we tell each other apart.

    If you don’t have details, you might as well be reading Wikipedia summaries.

  10. I tend to write stories where the main character is attentive to detail, because of his job, or her cultural group. The world building varies because some places can be sketched out (set in our world, so readers should be familiar with cars and public transportation and income taxes), while others need more description (what is a great-hauler and why is the main character feeding one rocks? Why use bipedal birds to pull wagons instead of cattle or horses?)

    In short – I cheat. As usual. [beatific kitty look here, adjusts fake halo with paw]

  11. I do a lot of worldbuilding, but very little of it ends up in my stories. I tend to focus on telling my readers what my characters would know and be interested in, which is not always what the main conflict of the story is about. Consequently, I have a lot of red herrings and blind alleys and missed connections in my stories, which I think makes the world feel like a real place, and my readers don’t seem to mind.

  12. The amount of world-building you can include just for the sake of it sort of depends on the form you are working in, also. Novels have no length limit, so you can go wild if you want.

    I come out of screenwriting, where page space is at a premium, everything on the page has to serve the story in one way or another, or better yet three or four ways at once. (We’ll not talk about the present dreary state of screenwriting; that’s due to a variety of outside factors.)

    One of the main tricks screenwriters (good ones) use to keep audiences on their toes is the multi-functional bit of information. Buster Keaton had it mastered in his first two-reeler, “One Week”, over a hundred years ago, and that short still works on audiences today. At the climax, Buster and his lady fair are pushing their new house to the correct address, and get stuck on a train track. A train whistle blows, and they frantically struggle to move the structure off the track. Then the train passes by, at speed… on the track behind them, leaving the house intact. Buster and his lady breathe a sigh of relief… and the house is demolished by another train, coming from the opposite direction. The information is laid out for the audience, and they think they know where it’s going, but Buster uses their certainty against them — twice! — to get big laughs.

    At the other end of the spectrum is the 1700s novel Tristram Shandy, in which the titular character is not even born at the end of the first volume of the novel, so intricate is the world building of the author. Love of this book led to a Youtuber to argue for “shandification” of video game worlds, and the same sort of extensive world-building and thoughtfulness can easily be applied to long-running series, if you start out with the intention of making everything work together reasonably well.

    1. “Love of this book led to a Youtuber to argue for “shandification” of video game worlds, and the same sort of extensive world-building and thoughtfulness can easily be applied to long-running series”

      That’s more or less how world building for tabletop RPGs goes. The world is defined before the PCs are dropped into it.

        1. rolls eyes

          rolls two natural 20s

          There’s an affinity, but there’s a lot of differences. I have a tag on my blog of “the dm vs. the writer” just to discuss what works differently for writing.

    2. Exactly. The length of the work is important. IIRC Checkov wrote short stories. And when the length is constrained, you have to be a bit sparse with the descriptions, else you don’t have room for the character and plot.

      I’m getting a little cautious in the depth of background and World building I do, as once it’s in print, I have to honor that. So if it’s not important right then, I don’t do specifics and details. And occasionally have to heavily edit a scene to add details, especially sensory details. Which is a bit different from World building details.

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