You ask any number of readers (or gamers, or cinephiles, etc) why they read and I’ll bet you a shiny Sacagawea dollar that the number one answer is going to be “being teleported to another world.” (Popcorn flicks – “to turn my brain off for a while”; video games – “veg out and kill shit”; Netflix – “Chillll.”) Some call this “escapism.” I’m not here to judge the value of escapism, because I already know from personal experience that it’s practically necessary for the survival of my sanity. But looking at escapism from the creative perspective and the work that goes into it, there’s a few things I’ve noticed.
In writing circles, there’s a dumb phrase floating around called “World Building,” in which the writer conceptualizes the setting that their story is going to take place.
I’m pretty sure it’s a trap.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to understand the world you’re trying to convey to the audience. Understanding spacial relationships within the story is important, too. Fleshing out characters, even minor ones, crucial. But I feel that writers often get stuck in this development phase and it’s tempting to stay there.
Consider HP Lovecraft, often considered the premiere cosmic-horror author, and to do this, consider all of HP Lovecraft’s annoying goddamn fans (BYE, NERDS! Don’t let the red X button hit you on the ass on your way out!). Lovecraftian nerds love to piece together an overarching mythology to Lovecraft’s work, because that’s what human beings do– we organize, label, and critique things. But if you start writing a comprehensive universe first, you’re essentially working backwards. My take is that HP built outwards (very elaborately) to satisfy the needs of the stories he was working on. From the Cthulhu Mythos wiki:
The view that there was no rigid structure is reinforced by S. T. Joshi, who stated “Lovecraft’s imaginary cosmogony was never a static system but rather a sort of aesthetic construct that remained ever adaptable to its creator’s developing personality and altering interests… [T]here was never a rigid system that might be posthumously appropriated… [T]he essence of the mythos lies not in a pantheon of imaginary deities nor in a cobwebby collection of forgotten tomes, but rather in a certain convincing cosmic attitude.”
Something to take from this is the likelihood that intricate, pre-fabricated (in the writer’s notebook) worlds can inhibit creativity. Think about it. If you built a world that featured, I don’t know, a fountain of banana flavored pudding, you’re very likely to move the direction towards that useless fountain instead of where the story needs to go. You’re going to feel obliged to show off your pudding fountain; if you didn’t, you would feel as if you’d wasted your time world building. That’s how you write yourself into a corner. Which is how lazy and contrived plot contrivances (eg- deus ex machina solutions) occur. Keeping things open allows for opportunities, forces the writer to make choices, and to arrive at something unexpected– you know, also known as “the joy of writing.” To offer another example, you can figure out exactly when Venture Bros turned shitty– and it’s at the precise moment that the comedic vehicle of the cartoon was exchanged in favor of in-depth story extrapolation. Compare that with Metalacolypse, which always brings its story to the brink of explanation and then blatantly disregards it. Metalacolypse stayed fresh because it stuck with its comedic guns, favored character over plot, and didn’t get stuck up its own ass.
Another take: Much like character sketching, developing values and rule is more important than the details (although the details should imply the values and yada yada yada). HP Lovecraft is not consistent with his “cosmogony”. He is consistent in his themes and paradigms (“the universe is an uncaring, mechanical place,” “true horror cannot be understood by human minds” etc). To offer another example, the Harry Potter universe isn’t the most consistent– except in its subversion of the ordinary (“This boot is a teleportation device!” “There’s a piece o’ soul in this snake!” “School is fun and zany!”) and its overarching themes (“Love is magic, PEOPLE.” “Racism is bad!”) which makes the series charming and feel cohesive.
A third take: Much of the Lovecraftian universe was organized and expanded on by other writers. The current expansion of the Harry Potter universe feels like an unnecessary shill. The expanded Star Wars universe (with the fine exception of KotOR) is an exercise of human futility. Seems weak to me. Don’t write fan fiction for your own story. Don’t write fan fiction. Write your story.
And I know what you’re thinking: Tolkien did it. Sure, Tolkien did it, but there’s some caveats to that argument. I haven’t read the Simarillion (fight me, why doncha), but I know that Tolkien included only a mere fraction of his notes in The Lord of The Rings (showing immense creative restraint to convey only enough as was necessary), and that he baked in his Roman Catholic values into the grain of the narrative which guided the story through its paces, instead of offering some kind of railcar tour of a bunch of stuff in Middle Earth. It’s also important to recognize that Tolkien was a philogist— he studied classical languages, literature and their historical context– and a large part of what Tolkien was doing was combining a lot of epic poetry and European mythology into a series more easily digestible by his modern audience.
There’s been a lot of fantasy churned out since Tolkien and a lot of it only goes so far as to mimic his work. But if you study the epic poems Tolkien sourced as influences (well hello, fellow English majors. How come you all look so sad all the time?), you need to remember that they are representing the world as it was– Beowulf was a modern narrative upon its original telling. So was The Green Knight. The world described in those poems is the world that they lived in with the addition of other worldly forces at play. After Tolkien we fetishized his aesthetic as the ultimate expression of fantasy– which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so much as it has become a tad stale as it may no longer reflect the world we live in.
It seems trite to conclude that the way to combat stale universe development is to “just look outside for inspiration! That’s what the poets of the middle ages did!” But it still has to be said. So remember:
- Aesthetics are important, but not absolute. Like the way you can change your shirt if you spill nacho cheese on it.
- It’s about a convincing atmosphere…
- …which is often rooted in reality and then somehow subverted
- Stay consistent in values
- Heavy exposition drags. There’s no goddamn reason I need to know “that it rains sometimes on Klthgbak Mountain, a place our heroes will never visit, but will often think of, as Tostito Mojito’s mother was born on Klthgbak Mountain while it was raining.” You like that? I just made that up. Quit being part of the problem.
- The Devil is in the Details but just this one time, the Devil is not your friend.
- I bet you HBO calls me tomorrow hoping to develop Mountain Thinkers starring Christian Bale as Tostito Mojito’s mom because THE WORLD IS BROKEN.