A couple of Mondays ago, I began a list of things I discovered when I was building my world. I stopped at the first five, but I had five more! Here they are.
Canon grows throughout the story’s development.
I initially thought of the practice of world building as sitting down a couple of times to define the world, and then everything subsequent to that worked off of the established blueprint. You know, like a respectable software development endeavor. Name the world object. Name the major players in the world. Define those players, their physical descriptions, their motivations, et cetera. And that’s it! The narrative flows from this basic, static outline.
Maybe it works this way for strict outline writers. But it certainly didn’t work that way for me. My characters evolved as I wrote. I started giving motivations to two-dimensional tertiary characters, so that they had reasons for doing what they did. At certain points, I would discover that I would need a motivation for a certain person or group, and the history of my world expanded to compensate. Place names received histories behind them. So on and so forth. The point is, my canon continued to grow throughout the writing process, and grows further now that I’m revising.
It’s a great tool against writer’s block.
When writing, I would sometimes come up against the same wall that everybody’s run into at some point or another. I just didn’t know what to put next. I knew where I wanted the story to go, and I wanted to write, I just didn’t know what that first step would be.
For instance, at one point in Focus, a city is engulfed by rioting. I needed a couple of characters stranded away from their home when the riots break out. For reasons. Good reasons, and I knew where to take them once they got there. But there was no reason for them to be away from home at that time, and in fact there were several reasons for them to stay put. So I needed my characters at Point B, when they should be at Point A, and I drew a blank.
But I still wanted to write. So I turned to my (at the time) big ol’ Word document labeled “Canon” and started fleshing out the riots themselves. What the motivations for the riots were. Why those motivations existed. How the characters in question related to the motivations. I knew all of those answers, but this was the first time I actually wrote them down. As I did so, I began finding common ground between my characters and the rioters. My characters didn’t end up rioting, but similar motivations pulled them away from their homes. The act of writing things down kicked me into thinking more deeply about the scenario, and that kick was hard enough to push me through the wall.
It scratches the itch to info-dump.
Oh man, can I info-dump. It’s a serious problem. I may need a twelve-step program. (Or maybe just another outlet. Like a blog. Hmm . . .) Info-dumping is easy; it’s basically just a great big pile of describing something. You don’t need action, you don’t need movement, you just need a picture in your head of something that you’re enthusiastic about.
After every chapter in Focus I did a quick once-over for things like info-dumping. It was worst in the beginning, before I got a real handle on it. At the rate my first few chapters went, Focus could have topped 250,000 words without breaking a sweat. (I did the math. It’s what first clued me in that this might be a deeper problem.) From the very beginning, I cut out sentences, paragraphs, even whole sections for being all-tell-no-show in a manner that really didn’t move the narrative.
But I didn’t just throw it away. I was just starting out with this whole endeavor, and I didn’t know if maybe I’d use the stuff later. So I just cut’n’pasted into a big ol’ Word document and saved it for later. The very same big ol’ Word document that I later renamed “Canon”. Every time I caught myself info-dumping after those first few chapters, I dumped the info into “Canon” first. (Later. of course, I began the long and arduous task of transferring things into my little Wiki program.) I still will feel the need to info-dump, but now I have a harmless outlet for it.
Well-developed background canon is a ready resource for building a richer scene.
My characters in Focus use virtual-reality simulators at certain points. I easily have thousands of words about how those simulators work. What they look like. How they affect the users, both mechanically and emotionally. What they can and cannot do. What they look like to somebody on the outside. Detail upon detail. Some of that was stuff that I stripped out of the actual story as superfluous, some of it I wrote in some idle time or other. But I have a lot.
At one point, I had a character stand in a hall full of these simulators. I didn’t want to white room it, but I was more interested in writing what the character was about to do than sitting and painting the room. Luckily, I had all this stuff in my Canon file! It wasn’t exactly cut and paste, but I had plenty of notes that would tell me exactly what it’d look like for the character. I didn’t need to create, at that point; that was already done. All I really had to do was transcribe the scene that I’d already developed over half a dozen idle moments.
Every scene with the simulators after that was easier to write, yet a richer experience for the little details I no longer had to remember to include.
A growing body of canon can make the story much bigger than initially planned.
I initially intended Focus to be a one-off story. An experiment, really. It’s a story for another time. For now, let’s just say that my investment in the project grew over time. I was halfway through writing it before I realized that, hey, this story is going to need more than one installment. Probably several more.
I remember right when it happened, too. I needed one of my characters to refer to an associate that must have existed at one point. All I needed was a name. So I sat down with big ol’ Canon and came up with a name. But that associate wasn’t around anymore, and he really should have been. So I needed a reason for that. It was a simple reason, and kind of boring, so I asked myself: “what if the simple reason was incorrect?” That really got the creativity going. I ended up building this entire little story around this associate, and began thinking of ways I could hook it into the story.
I realized a couple of things at that point. (a) I really, really wanted to develop this associate more in the story, as it would really help to define the initial character in question. And (b) I wouldn’t have time to develop this associate before the current arc ended. I’d need another installment. And then I got to thinking about what this second installment would look like, and . . . well, dove into the rabbit hole. All because of this one, throwaway name that I wanted a bit of extra canon for.
That second installment is called Dissonance by the way, and my current reader’s group is poking at it right now. We’ll see where it goes. In the meantime, I guess what I’m trying to say is that world building apparently doesn’t just occur in the story. It occurs outside the story too, and can be just as fun.