Principles of World-Building

I adore what Javier Grillo-Marxuach writes about writing. He’s a screenwriter and showrunner: his essay on “Operational Theme” in Apex Magazine is a brilliant way to understand how a collaborative creation maintains cohesion, and his Eleven Laws of Showrunning is an excellent leadership/management bible for creatives (fields like software development are often creative too!).

He recently wrote an essay on World-Buiding in Uncanny Magazine, and it’s a joy to read. This whole blog post is just an excuse to share that link. It comes on the heels of a context-free Stephen King tweet on how he dislikes the phrase “world-building” which sent speculative fiction writers into a minor tizzy. It is, after all, the thing we SFFH writers do. Grillo-Marxuach reeled the discussion back in by defining the terms, and more importantly, outlining the principles of world-building as a process of craft, not a product to be delivered to a studio exec–which is likely what King was referring to. The following are some thoughts on JGM’s principles, but honestly, just read his words.

Articulate a Core Vision (AKA What’s Pissing You Off?)

Grillo-Marxuach starts with a principle that the world you build is in service to the story you want to tell. That idea gets lost when you talk about world-building in the context of Tolkien, who invented languages and detailed histories from the moments before Creation. The world of Star Trek is about our ability to create a utopian society by transcending our differences. The world of Breaking Bad contains forces geared toward corrupting an ordinary guy into a villain. The story is about something, so the world is architected around that thing. World-building doesn’t stand alone, it is in service to a story, or more generally, a theme.

Tropes Are Your Building Blocks (Don’t Fear Them)

I hadn’t heard anyone go so far as to say a Trope was a unit of Story, but it feels absolutely true as Grillo-Marxuach describes it. Tropes are units of audience recognition, and when you assemble them in service of a core vision, they tell a story. Particularly delightful is when a franchise like Star Trek becomes its own collection of tropes that spinoffs and extensions use or subvert. This is the language that describes how stories become legends, and legends become myth (to use Robert Jordan’s phrasing, from The Wheel of Time).

Think It Through

This is the principle of world-building where we nerds often cross swords and pit our own imagination against the authors. If your world contains X (where X is a sort of technology, magic, or other speculative element), what are all the ways X might manifest and fundamentally change how the world works? Grillo-Marxuach draws an important distinction in how this principle is opposed to the Core Vision principle. When you don’t think it through, your speculative elements read like overt metaphors. They don’t touch the parts of the story world that don’t relate to your theme, and that gap makes the story feel, to audiences, like a deliberate allegory. The audience is distanced. The author is obviously making a point. It’s fine for some types of texts, I suppose, but there’s a difference between a story that is just a metaphor and a story that contains metaphors. For me, the latter is a richer experience.

Are There Wide Open Spaces?

This is my favorite technique, and I love exploring it. Like JGM, Star Wars is my first example, and not just for the Kessel Run. A few details, or simply names, strategically deployed, can paint landscapes in an audience’s head-canon. My short story “Epilogue” was an exercise in using tropes and wide open spaces to give the illusion of an entire epic fantasy, of which you are only reading the epilogue chapter. As I write more fiction, especially flash fiction (<= 1,000 words), I’m learning that all stories are particular windows on space and time that need to paint, by implication, what lies outside the window pane. No story is a closed, self-contained world. Its audience brings their head-canon.

If the story takes off, generations of other creators will work to fill those wide open spaces.

Create Opportunities For Assumptions (And Leave Them All On the Field)

What I call head-canon, Grillo-Marxuach more succinctly calls “assumptions.” This is another concept I’m obsessed with–the interaction between what the author provides, what the reader assumes, and how that can combine in an almost collaborative style of storytelling and world-building. I wrote about how the Marvel show WandaVision and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time used dangling plot lines and wide open spaces to create a collaboration of canon and head-canon–some of which eventually gets canonized. JGM’s example of the Star Trek episode “Space Seed” planting the, well, seed, for The Wrath of Khan is a particularly effective one. Independent creative teams collaborated across years to build something marvelous.

Give It To Others To Expand (Lest It Become Your Fetish)

This principle seems particularly geared toward screenwriters and collaborative creators on deadlines. Diversity of input really does make the work stronger. (Not that it’ll stop me from trying to be the next Tolkien world-builder.)

If All Else Fails, Make It Look Great (But It Has To Look Really Great)

This last principle is also one that’s probably most relevant to television/film and similar artistic collaborations. Style can carry a lot. Authentic attention to detail can carry a lot. Here, Grillo-Marxuach does specifically call out that collaborative element I referenced with all that head-canon talk: the audience is a collaborator in the story.


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