Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: The Importance of Detail and Worldbuilding

It may seem odd once we get down to it that this article isn’t part of the main worldbuilding chain, but I’ve been thinking recently that it might be handy to further explore some ideas that underlie most of my writing methods. Despite the fact that what I’m flinging from my keyboard here underlies my obsession with worldbuilding, it’s not going to explore ideas and techniques for actually doing it. That’s why this is a separate article.

Now then, the “real world” (for the sake of argument, we’ll gloss over recent physics theories to the contrary) as we know it involves six billion people and all the trillions of other animals, plants and insects our species hasn’t managed to obliterate yet. Abandoned houses in our world weren’t always abandoned as they generally seem to be in fiction. Think about it: even in literary fiction, how often are we presented with an abandoned farmstead or mine or whatever that includes no trace of the previous inhabitants? I mean, yes, people often take their things with them when they leave a house for good, but it’s very easy to miss things. What if the previous owner just died in bed and there was no one left to clean up? You’d have the equivalent of a fully unearthed archaeological dig site if you stumbled on the place in fifty or a hundred years. More to the point, though, as an author you’re choosing which versions of any given scenario to present.

Let’s say I’m working on a segment from one of my future fantasy pieces. A bounty hunter and his coworkers stumble across an old derelict in the course of a three-month journey to the opposite end of the galaxy. My universe is a large one and its ancient, empty starships are many. Why, oh why, would I pick the ancient freighter with no major structural issues and no cargo save ten thousand tons of cryogenically frozen vegetables and an old broom? I might mention this freighter as a previous encounter leading up to much more interesting ones, but devoting actual time to it would be infuriating for everyone involved. Now, if I want to do some comic relief by messing with these mercs, this could work. If the encounter in its own right is meant to excite, however, I’d much rather the old, staggered cruiser with its long-dormant gun batteries, its crew long gone but their belongings left behind. Each member’s quarters has its own touches: the beds neatly tucked versus those left undone, the trinkets and gadgets whose meanings and use our gun-for-hire can only guess at, portraits and icons that could be of family, role models or anything at all.

I’m not sure how much avoidance of proper worldbuilding comes from the assumption in writing these days that readers who care about the state of the wider universe will fill in the blanks. I’ve even seen some suggestions in academic settings (many from a particular English professor I once had) that readers who don’t do this are somehow inferior. They’re to be mocked and shamed for engaging with the piece and expecting to get actual answers from it. If they really want to enjoy the story, they’ll provide their own answers, or somehow interpret ours from a single infinitesimal sentence with no description to speak of. I hate this idea. We’re writers, are we not? We’re supposed to be particularly good at telling stories, because as it happens any human can tell a story.

You’re never going to cover so many angles that the readers can’t find some blanks to fill in if they really want to, that’s never been a problem. What’s a problem is to fall back on petty excuses about reader engagement and ‘figuring it out,’ to try and write meaningless passages that are vague enough to be interpreted pretty much any way the reader wants. There’s no inventiveness in this, no authority, no grand avant garde courage. It’s lazy and gutless; we put in less effort and protect ourselves from attack by making no concrete statements of our own. Don’t forget the rule–and you’re damn straight it’s a rule–that telling a story is the responsibility of the storyteller, not the audience. Can you imagine the furor if Homer stood up to recite his version of the Iliad and then summed up every battle scene by telling the audience that they should know how this battle went?

Getting back to worldbuilding in particular, I have to assume that anyone who reads my work does so to read my work. They’re not just looking for a Fantasy or Future-Fantasy universe, they’re looking for the Cullen McCurdy take on these universes. If they wanted something other than my take, they’d read something else. If they wanted their own take, then they’d write a book. I’ve heard more writers than I would like say, “Oh, I’m not including details here so the reader can imagine it for themselves.” They tucked into your story for your version of that character! There is absolutely nothing at all stopping them from deciding that Watari-sensei‘s katana had violet silk with black rayskin for its grip instead of green silk with white rayskin. That has zero influence on the plot as a whole, or if it does they’re still free to imagine it otherwise. Why don’t I just avoid naming characters while I’m at it and let the readers supply their own? Hell, forget plot, let’s just put a list of character traits on the page and let the reader figure it out. Wait, no, still too constrictive. Leave the pages blank! Wait, but I’m still constraining the reader’s imagination by putting the book in pages! I’ll just give them nothing! Yes! Finally, true freedom for the audience!

I’m sorry, I got pretty fired-up there. My overall point is this: story itself is in the details. I believe it’s almost universally agreed that, in a general sense, we’ve already told every story we can possible tell. All the plot beats have been used, all the character archetypes and climaxes and endings have been fully explored. Now, I’d argue we’ll always say there’s nothing new to be discovered no matter how recently something new was discovered, but I do agree that most stories are not 100% original. What makes a given author’s work their own is the spin they give it as it flies from their mind to the page. I impart that spin through worldbuilding and reasonably specific detail. These are my worlds, my characters. I want the readers to like them and enjoy reading about them, but I don’t think excising my own vision is a very good way of doing that. To me, that just sends the message that I don’t really care about these people, places and things to imagine them for myself. That’s a pretty pathetic impression to give.

At this stage in my writing, detail is no longer just detail for me. I never include details that don’t work on at least two levels. At the most basic, they both convey an aesthetic impression of a character, place or item and tell you some things about it. The first part is obvious, the second may require some mulling-over but I’ll explain it if it’s too esoteric. Things that I establish in one chapter about the world come up in later ones about its characters, and vice-versa. It’s also an important tenet for me that my characters are three-dimensional people who live in a universe composed of the same. I can’t spare the space to fully explore all the side characters, but I can at least ensure that they behave as people with their own personalities and agendas for however long they’re present. Two reasons for all the worldbuilding, then, is that it’s important to me that the world be a character in its own right–one which then helps to elucidate all the quirks and qualms of the main characters–as well as one which many stories happen which I don’t address. In my opinion, that’s how a fully fleshed-out world should be. The main characters shouldn’t be the center of everything or even close to it unless that’s their actual role in the plot. Problems can be solved by other people, or events halfway around the world can have repercussions on the heroes without ever directly involving them.

There’s an even more basic aspect to all this. People have a difficult time placing value on the abstract. If you don’t believe me, just look at how many stupid things humanity’s doing right now to permanently mess up the planet just because nobody’s willing to make some moderately-inconvenient cutbacks in the present. If they were confronted in an immediate, undeniable way with the consequences of their actions, they’d have no trouble changing their tune. I’ll likely get into this more in a later article, but for now my point is that I need to make the world specific so that actions which have repercussions for it matter. “The Kingdom’s about to be seized by the despotic High Cleric!” Well, that’s a big event, shame I didn’t put in the effort to developing the Kingdom (like naming it something more inventive than “the Kingdom”) for my readers to be attached to it, eh? It’s one thing for Earnest Hemingway to avoid worldbuilding in The Sun Also Rises. People know Paris, they know Madrid. We may not know the particular river he mentions fishing in, but it’s fishing at a river. On Earth. I’d still contend that more detail might’ve helped to help the reader experience the significance of these places for themselves, but we’re talking Modernism here. It just sucks, period.

I’m serious, by the way, but that’s yet another separate article or else a fight in the comments. Ultimately, as a writer, you’re promising to tell an interesting story. If you can do that without large amounts of detail and worldbuilding, then fair enough. Those don’t have to be in there if the story works well without them, and they might just drag it down depending on where its focus lies. I make no allowances for excepting them when they are needed.

A final word: most if not in fact all of my tips are geared towards writing that covers similar material to my own. That’s where my expertise lies, so naturally I focus my thoughts there. If you don’t write what I do, excellent. Variety’s good. That just means my advice may be of varying use to you. As forceful as I may be at times, I don’t think any of what I say is immutable. For now, just remember that detail handled correctly is never just detail. It can and should be fun to read, as should worldbuilding, and both should be able to support the core plot without ever linking to it directly.

Now then, time for me to do whatever.

(That was a joke about non-specificity)

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