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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Story Elements and Worldbuilding

This was a delightful discussion that went to a lot of different places. The question we looked at was "How many things are affected by worldbuilding in your story?"

Of course, the simplified answer is "everything." Worldbuilding and story are not separate, but there are people who are inclined to think about worldbuilding as a separate activity from storytelling, where you have a world bible you can look at to one side of your story. This discussion explored some of the many, many different ways that story and world are interconnected.

Kate says it's easy to miss good worldbuilding if you're not paying attention. She wants to see a background moment in a story that involves briefcase-sized kits for making insulin. Not the focus of the story,  just a moment to show that gatekeeping in medicine has fundamentally changed.

Morgan thought about cell phones. The technology of communication is incredibly important in suspense films and basically any other story where you have to anticipate how easily a message can travel. There has even been a line, "How did we ever fight crime without cell phones?"

Worldbuilding is like a gigantic continuum that stretches from planetary location and structure to geography and climate, and onward into architecture and food and social practices. It goes all the way from the macro- to the micro-scale.

Morgan observed that some stories can't be told in some worlds. Building on the cell phone idea, some stories depend on constrictions in communication. If you have cell phones, you can't cut the phone wires. On the other hand, you can find creative reasons why cell phones might not work.

Older people have different stories, because they have experienced different kinds of cultural and technological changes. Characters of different ages may not use certain items, or might use them in distinctly different ways. We talked about the character of Dot on Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, who starts out terrified of the telephone because she's been told by a priest that it's dangerous.

When you have different point of view characters, there isn't just one world; different characters have personal worlds. You can tell a story about moving out of your personal world into a larger shared world, or clashing with it, understanding or not understanding it.

Worldbuilding is all about taking advantage of exciting opportunities. It's a holistic process that links the large scale with the small scale.

Paul rightly pointed out that because everything in the world is connected, your point of entry can be anything.

I explained how I went about designing the Varin cities and expanding the variability of the cave systems in which they were built using models in our world: the Gouffre de Padirac, Derinkuyu, and the Skocjanske Jame.

Kate said she can steer any conversation to the topic of plate tectonics in five moves or fewer.

We also talked about the unrealistic geography in The Lord of the Rings. At that time, much less was broadly known about geography, and you could make things up, but now you have so many more resources on the topic that you don't have to.

Remember, when you are not making things up, it's less work!

It's also really important to think about the social part of worldbuilding, the part that builds the people and supports your characters. Character psychology is also tied to worldbuilding.

A lot of the time, you should not feel like you are wondering what is in a particular place; you should be trying to figure out what has to be there based on the principles you have set up.

In Varin, I set up a situation where all young noble women have personal bodyguards. This has significant implications for their social relationships, and for the social relationships of boys.

Always ask about implications. Stick a pin in a spot, and the implications of that choice will spread out and go everywhere.

Phenomena that appear to be incompatible may exist in different social groups within the same country or region.

Kate asked, "How hard is physics to deal with?" She suggests that convergent evolution is stronger than we think. Maybe alien worlds would be more similar to ours than we speculate.

Paul remarked that eyes have evolved several times in different genuses on Earth. Bats and birds both fly. Penguins fly, but in a different medium.

Oceanic creatures have some similarities because the medium they inhabit is "Hard to deal with." Some have emerged from the ocean but retain signs of their past presence there.

Models of bipedalism on Earth include the human model and the kangaroo model (and others). Kate called kangaroos "the T-rexes of deer."

It's worth thinking about neurology, too. This includes the neurology of dinosaurs and of everyone else.

Organisms and the ways they relate to their world offer a lot of cool worldbuilding opportunities. What if there were color-blind aliens? Kate said, "Punchy shrimp see sixteen extra colors, so they say, 'no, you're the colorblind one.'"

That said, we have one electromagnetic spectrum. This leads to commonalities in color words across Earth culture, for example.

Language is an enormous opportunity in worldbuilding that people don't often take sufficient advantage of. Each language is going to have to try to solve some of the same communication problems, but it might not do so in the same way. Japanese expresses the manner in which an activity is done via adverbs, when English uses a proliferation of verbs.

Morgan notes that the scope of possible worldbuilding can be daunting. The world is huge, and lots of things can happen at once. We need to understand the major influences that are most relevant to the story.

Some historical events can have a significant influence on culture and language. The American Civil War was one such period. The Genpei War in Japan had a significant influence on warfare, and also indirectly led to the naming of certain kinds of crabs.

Any time you have social groups like cliques or castes, etc. you can ask yourself where these groups came from. How did they form? Why did they form?

You can obviously create simple distinctions without interrogating them. If you simplify, you can give the impression of a culture that is like an animated film versus a live action film. This can be done well, but it's worth being careful.

Ask how people's places of origin affect their characters, and how they affect their relationships. Morgan noted that assumptions like whether someone will be college-bound or not, while seemingly simple, can have enormous influence on people's lives.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 4pm Pacific to talk with guest author J. M. Frey about her Skylark Saga. I hope you can join us! The link to the Zoom meeting is:


Monday, September 16, 2019

Predictability and Unpredictability

If you're reading this, thank you so much for continuing to seek out Dive into Worldbuilding! After some exploration of technology options, the show is back. We're using Zoom meetings and streaming them live to YouTube. This past week we spoke about predictability and unpredictability.

What makes stories predictable?

First, it's useful to ask how we predict things in the first place. We use our observations of patterns in the world to speculate about what will happen next. Many of these patterns are culturally influenced. We also create narratives to make sense of events in our lives.

After you've read a lot of books or watched a lot of shows, you can become very good at guessing what will happen next. This can be a good or bad thing.

Kat observed that culturally, writers are trained into using act structure. We are trained to try to create a page-turning narrative of a particular type, with beats, etc. We participate in a shared storytelling culture, which uses template stories and variations on those. Storytelling cultures across history have had particular patterns they follow when telling stories. Following tropes and breaking them becomes part of this process, based on the kind of tropes that exist in a particular storytelling culture. There is a particular rhythm to narrative structure.

Unfamiliarity with a storytelling tradition from a different culture can make it unpredictable.

Storytelling is not always a straight line, but can be a winding ball of narrative.

If you are retelling a Cinderella story, readers who know the myth allow you to play more with the story. If you have unfamiliar readers, you will generally need to hew closer to the original.

The stories we tell generally maintain a balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. This brings us back to Jed Hartman's idea of "author points," which are a kind of trust credit between the reader and the writer. You need to keep a minimum level of points so that the reader won't give up on you. Keeping some things realistic can allow you to make other things less so.

Of course, we then run into the problem of dragons versus people of color in a fantasy scenario. People seem to have an easy time spending their points on dragons, and much harder time spending them on people of color (because of racism). So the use of such points is not as straightforward as it might seem, but is also culturally influenced.

People who mention potatoes and chocolate in fantasy settings are generally not thinking about whether there was a Columbian exchange or similar event in their world. People in fantasy often have spices but don't necessarily think about the countries those spices came from.

Reality is less predictable than the narratives we tell about it.

We can play with reader expectations, but doing simple flips on discrimination (what N.K. Jemisin calls discrimiflip) is generally problematic because simple flips tend to leave out a lot of underlying pieces, and implications are often under-explored.

Ann Leckie asks the question "what if hands were the thing you weren't supposed to expose?" This defeats our expectation that bare hands are unremarkable, and is a subtle way to play around with those expectations.

When you are accustomed to a homogeneous culture, you can imagine that some things are unusual when they might be much less so. Look further afield to other cultures to help expand your ideas.

People tend not to appreciate it when they are called predictable. Why might that be?

We really, REALLY want something like gravity to be predictable, because it causes enormous problems in our lives if it is not.

Unpredictability is stressful.

Grounding in a story is something we expect and don't want to change. Then there are gray areas, and then there are the things we want to be new.

Paul talked about it in terms of wonder and novelty vs. comfort.

Character behavior is one place where readers often prefer consistency and comfort. If Superman starts doing bad things, it's jarring.

Bertie Botts unpredictable jelly beans are great if you chose to eat them, but much less so if you have them handed to you.

What do we do to set expectations in a story? Very often we can make use of point of view and a character's judgment to set up guidelines about what we want readers to learn and to expect. Why is something familiar or different to the character?

The same story can be comforting or uncomfortable depending on the context. What if your shoes fit? It could be normal, or it could be wildly weird and suggest that shoe gnomes had come to your house.

Morgan noted that predictability varies depending on the scale you are looking at. We can predict a child will grow, and make some predictions about the final result of that growth, but we have very little ability to predict that growth on the shorter term.

Paul remarked that we have good modeling to predict the weather in the next few days, but far less to predict it on the long term. Chaos and unpredictability should be built into a world on some level. Climate change is bringing stressful unpredictability.

People find all sorts of reasons to throw over phenomena they find upsetting, and may deny the actual causes of events in favor of comforting narratives.

We then talked about how we feel about spoilers. I prefer hearing spoilers because I like to pay close attention to a narrative without feeling anxiety about the outcome. Paul says he thinks spoilers sometimes get you excited for the book. But is it robbing you of the chance for wonder, or is it prepping you for what you want? Depending on how you feel about it, you may love or hate spoilers.

What about in your writing process? Do you need to know where the story is going? Morgan said she likes to have a place for it to go, but she doesn't necessarily know how it will get there. Some people have told me they get shut down if they know where the story is going because they feel like they have already written it and are no longer motivated. Sometimes you can wrestle the story into where you need it to go; sometimes you can follow.

A story contains lots of incidental details. Sometimes those details are important and sometimes not. You may realize, after you've written a lot more of the story, that some of those details are more important than you thought they were.

If you come to a story with genre expectations, you will tend to have a set of trained expectations that a non-genre reader might not have.

When you approach a door, what is your expectation? That it will pull open? That it will push open? That it will slide aside, or go up, or dilate?

Working in the kitchen can be predictable or unpredictable. Planned recipes are generally predictable, while working with leftovers is unpredictable. Working just by taste has a whole new dimension of unpredictability.

Predictability and unpredictability are localized in the individual's expectations.

Kat noted that when we watch mimes or clowns we have an assumption that they won't get hurt, which is important to their success. In the real world, we'd have much more fear of injury.

Children often don't share an adult's sense of the ordinary or normal.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! Dive into Worldbuilding will meet tomorrow, September 17th, 2019 at 4pm Pacific to discuss Story Elements and Worldbuilding. How thorough and interconnected should our worldbuilding aim to be, and how many things does it influence?