So last time we talked about why world-building (or setting) is important and we touched on why it’s important to stick to the rules once the narrative has set them up.
This is the second part of setting and its purpose in life, and I’m making it a separate post all on its own because it’s not a problem that normally gets as far as published books or theatrically released films, mostly I think because someone usually spots the obvious issue and cans the proposal. However, the internet in all its unfiltered glory shows that this is something of a problem when people start writing, and from my own experience I know how easy it is to fall into this heffalump-trap, so we’re going to tackle it now.
It doesn’t matter how intricate and shiny and wonderful your world/planet/alternative-reality is; if there’s no story to happen in it, no one is interested.
There, I said it.
And I felt like I ought to discuss this now, because most of this series is (probably) going to be about how important it was/is to me to build my world as thoroughly as I can before really getting stuck into writing. And if, like me, you love fantasy worlds, and books about totally alien planets and the possibilities and the creativity and you collect pictures and make collages to capture the aesthetic of certain places and whatnot, then you’ll absolutely understand how tempting it is to try and cram every single tiny detail of this into your novel/film script because you’ve worked so hard on it, and it’s so intricate and awesome and you just want to share it with the world!
And here’s why you have to curb that instinct. No one else is going to care.
OK, so that’s not totally true; people care very deeply about what Hogwarts looks like, and what the uniforms look like (and why the hats disappeared after book 1?) People really care about Middle Earth and the Federation and the Empire, and what does the Enterprise floorplan look like? How do you ask for second-helping of dinner in Romulan and such (or in Kirk’s case, I imagine he’s had to learn how to say ‘Do you happen to have a spare shirt?’ in every language known to the Federation…)
So yes, people could care as deeply about every detail as you do, but the reason people even remember what Middle Earth even is, the reason it ever mattered to them at all, is because it comes attached to this brilliant story about bravery and friendship and Good Vs Evil and all that fun stuff that we’ve always loved to tell stories about.
But no one was ever going to learn Quenya if Tolkien just wrote books about this world he’d made up to fit this language he wrote and how it has awesome buildings and dwarves and elves, and then never had them do anything. Imagine for a second reading the Lord of the Rings, but without the Fellowship actually going off to destroy the One Ring. This is not a good image, is it?
As we discussed last time, Setting supports Plot. It can also in and of itself actually serve the plot and drive it forward just as much as the characters do. The Plot is the bit that everyone remembers (hopefully) but your setting is not just the backdrop against which the plot happens; it is a fully-integrated part of the story. It is not allowed to just sit there and look pretty. It has to do something.
There’s a few ways setting can end up in a narrative, but they generally fall into three main groups:
Scenario 1 – Pointless Detail. More kindly called ‘Giving Flavour’. Imagine that you read an account of a fourteen year-old’s bedroom; what posters are on the walls, what clothes are in the wardrobe, what the ragged old teddy bear looks like, what pattern the curtains are, what colour the carpet and walls are… You get the idea.
Are you interested yet? No. You do not care about this girl’s bedroom even a little, do you? If you as a writer have told me in great detail about this bedroom, but it would have no effect whatsoever if the curtains were different, or the furniture was changed or even gone entirely – why did you tell me about them? If the fact that this girl has held on to this ratty old teddy bear serves no purpose at all, what is that detail doing in your novel?
Now yes, it’s fun to leave little details in your setting which does not get explained or commented on. No one likes being spoon-fed the deep inner meaning of everything. Leave the reader something to work out all on their own, by all means. But that only works if there was a reason that you – yes, you! The writer! – knew why you included it. You needed to be saying something, even if you didn’t highlight it in neon lights. Which brings us nicely on to:
Scenario 2 – Character Study. Otherwise known as; when Setting Supports Character. Imagine, again, that you read an account about a fourteen year-old girl’s bedroom, and you are told, either outright or by implication, that you are never going to meet this girl in-person and must come up with a picture of this girl from what her bedroom looks like. What does she like, what’s stuffed and screwed into a ball at the back of her wardrobe signifying that she doesn’t like it, what has she tucked away carefully out of sight suggesting that it’s secret and important to her, what does she take for granted and not minded that it has been damanged, what has she hung on to for years?
OK, you’re a bit interested now, aren’t you? There’s now a point to this detailed description of what this girl’s bedroom looks like. The setting is serving a purpose, in this case to introduce a character the audience has not seen, and will not meet.
Still, at the end of the day, you’re still stuck looking at this room for someone you have not met and never will, so not too interested, are you? It’s more of a character-study than a plot going on here, and there’s definitely artistic merit with character-studies, but they just don’t get remembered and discussed the way that stories with plots and struggles and stakes get remembered.
Scenario 3 – Setting Supports Plot. The audience is told that a fourteen year-old girl has gone missing and that the clues to this can be found in her bedroom. You get to see what it is like, can make some deductions of your own and get a bit of a picture of her. Then you might see the rest of the house. Is it totally different from her room? Are they very similar on first glance, but then you remember all those things tucked away or treated with disdain? Perhaps the girl doesn’t fit in as well as you might have assumed. Then you meet her family members and her friends and realise that the girl they are describing is utterly different to the girl you have in your mind’s eye. Are they wrong about her? Are you? Are there differing accounts to such an extent that it seems that no one knows this girl very well? Does everyone see a different side of her? Have you seen the ‘real her’, or do you also have a false impression? What is true and false and do you have anything reliable to shed light on this girl’s disappearance?
You’re interested now, aren’t you? We’re still mostly stuck looking at a fourteen year-old girl’s bedroom, but now it has meaning and is integral to the plot. This is why you were shown the room! It’s a setting, but it’s also a plot-point! It is driving the plot forward, and giving you vital information without which the plot will not make sense. This isn’t detail for detail’s sake, you needed to know this.
So yes, build your world as big and intricate as you like (I certainly will!) but remember that what makes the final cut – what jumps over the cutting scissors and is presented to your audience should always, always be the details the audience needs to engage fully and completely with the story you are actually telling them. If the legendary sword never makes an appearance, don’t tell me the legend that goes with it. If the old man int he tavern contributes nothing at all to the scene or the story as a whole, why have I been presented with two pages about him?
Telling an audience a narrative is an act of trust between the writer and the reader; you’re asking them to willingly follow you and promising that there will be a good payoff. Giving them needless information dilutes everything you really needed them to hang on to, and betrays that trust; there was no payoff. There was no point to being told a Thing.
And remember, always remember, what happened to the writer who wrote 200 pages about a forest kingdom and its inner-workings, and its peoples without a character-arch or struggle and resolution or anything else to capture the readers’ interest or emotions?
The publisher and readers got bored and no one read past the second chapter.
Missed the rest of this series? Catch up by following the link here.