My own writing lately has been a broad adventure story, hopefully of novel length and hopefully better than some of the junk I’ve been writing lately. Part of the process of writing a science fiction or fantasy story of any kind is to do what’s called world-building. For some people, it’s the most fun part of writing and it’s all they ever really do – these people often become game designers.
But I’m interested in telling a story about a particular kind of character best served by the genre of adventure genre fiction. He’s a character that has been gnawing at my brain for almost two decades and I think I finally have the skill to write a story about him.
But rather than just write about the character I also have to build a universe around him, or at least create a universe in which that character can live and thrive and suffer and succeed and and fail and all that exciting drama stuff.
Here’s the next layer: a genre universe must operate on a definable set of rules. The rules are what mark the boundaries of drama – there’s no point in mentioning the rules if the characters aren’t going to encounter them. These rules can be outlandish and ridiculous, but they must always be internally consistent. If these rules are broken then the tension is hopelessly broken, not because of a resolved dramatic moment (which is how the author wants to break tension), but because the tightened band suddenly has too much slack. If I tell you that the only thing that can kill a werewolf is silver and then depict a werewolf being killed by a golden bullet, then what was the point in telling you the rule in the first place? When another werewolf appears and the character has nothing made out of silver within reach, then any tension created by that drama is practically nonexistent.
The question facing me tonight is how much of the world to build before I write the narrative. I know that the world and its rules will have a bearing on the narrative – I know that the characters will operate within and encounter the edges of what their universe allows, but I am hesitant to establish too many of those rules in advance.
Creating the universe first is supposedly what Tolkien did before writing the Lord of the Rings. it’s also the legendary origin of the Star Wars universe – fans often reference the three-ring binder that held all of George Lucas’s ideas for a vast, multi-trilogy series of movies and of which the two trilogies we have are all he saw fit to make.
The result is the appearance of a handful of characters crawling across the surface of a massive history. The stories read more like nonfiction than anything else, which is precisely what the authors had in mind. The universe becomes more important than the story, which is fine for a multipart franchise, but it doesn’t matter as much as the story you’re trying to tell in the moment. It’s hard to keep an audience’s attention when you’re teaching them history.
This isn’t what I’m going to do because I can spend days or weeks making a universe and lose sight of the story I was trying to tell in the first place – a story about characters and plot rather than the universe around them.
So, I’m thinking I’m going to do it the fun way and just create the world as I go.
The fun part is doing it like one does improv theater – the “Yes, and -”
Improv theater is ostensibly a bunch of performers adding to a collective narrative. One person adds one aspect, another person adds the next, etc. You never say “no,” to someone’s input. It’s the piling of one incongruous element on top of another that makes it fun to do and fun to watch.
A good example of how not to improv is illustrated perfectly in this clip from 30 Rock:
In the context of a fully-realized narrative, you have the luxury of not being forced into anything – instead of the above example, you can have Sling Blade meet Darth Vader, or have them fight or whatever. Writing is a solitary effort, and completely independent of the wishes of anyone but the author.
My wishes are that I’m going to make a whole, big universe around my characters and hope the whole thing makes sense when I’m done.