Worldbuilding and Story (Part Three of Three)

So, you’ve built a world. You might not know all the details yet, but you have the basics down, and have begun to answer the questions of why the story is taking place when and where it does. Now, you have to get down to telling the story, putting together the elements that make up your narrative structure.

People often ask about the how of writing, the nuts and bolts of the process of coming up with an idea and following it through to a final form, be it short story, novel, essay, or memoir. But the thing is, ask a dozen writers and you’ll get a dozen answers, all different and all specific to writer and the genre and the stage of that writer’s career. So, I figured I’d throw my two cents, or my three ideas, into the ring along with all the others

I’ve talked in previous posts about how I’ve arrived at specific ideas or decisions in my own writing, even talked about the process of world-building. Where world-building is more about creating the back drop for the story, and the conditions where it can occur, this is more about the story telling process, the business of creating a plot and crafting a narrative that makes use of the world you’ve built.
A story can emerge from a character, an incident or a theme that I want to explore, and then the other blanks need filling in. But for me, the basic foundation for every story I write comes down to three things:

  • Who are they?
  • What happens to them?
  • How does it affect them?

Who are they? You need to have a clear understanding of the people in your story, be they human, alien or artificial. Think of all the myriad aspects of your own personality and history. You need to consider just as many things about your characters, even if only a fraction of them make it into the story itself. Like an actor preparing for a role, it’s up to you to create the backstory that has made your character into who they are. Which, in turn, sets plot in motion as the character reacts to the incidents that make up your plot. And who they are makes the plot unfold in the way it does. It’s a dance of character and incident that keeps a plot moving. How old are they? And what position in their society does that age give them? Are they male, female, trans, non-binary, or completely alien? Each of those attributes will interact with the world you’re creating in a very different way. Is the character poor, wealthy or somewhere in between, and what position in society does that bestow on them? Do they initiate the plot by their actions or are they helpless in the grip of circumstance? What are their talents and weaknesses? Are they good with numbers? Martial arts experts? Are they neuro-atypical? Do they have some kind of physical characteristic that their society considers a disability? Or does the culture they’re part of consider them to be “perfect” or an ideal to be emulated? (which can lead to all sorts of plot implications since we know perfection isn’t possible). Is the character someone we’re meant to admire? Or are they meant to be a cautionary tale that we learn from? Successful, compelling characters aren’t always likable, but if they’re your protagonist and the story is built around them, then they must be relatable in some way.

What happens to them? This is the nitty gritty of constructing a narrative and moving your characters from point A through to Z. I find this is the step where writers can differ the most in terms of process. For some, this is a very linear process, as they go from step to step. For others, this is a more chaotic, interactive process where each of the various cornerstones that build the foundation of your story affact the others, and are often in flux right until you lock down your final draft. My process is much closer to the second. I sometimes outline where the story is going at the start, though often, it’s one of these other steps that comes first. When I wrote Chasing Cold, the process was very linear. I wrote the story in order, each chapter leading to the next, as the plot revealed itself to me. I kept a document of notes where I could add ideas that I wanted to explore later, even bits of dialogue or prose that came to me randomly. But the actual writing of the story unfolded. When I started my latest book, A Congress of Ships, I explored a different type of process, writing scenes as they came to me, and then stitching them together after. However you proceed, this is the step where your story takes shape. Does your protagonist lose something valuable? Do they travel from place to place physically? Or is their journey one that takes place inside them as the incidents of the plot unfold in what are or were familiar circumstances? Do they lose something of incredible value to them? Or do they gain something they’ve never had that proves to be both more and less than they expected? Do they survive the experience they go through? Or is does the unfolding of the story cost them their lives?

How does it affect them? This is the step that gives your story its depth, its meaning. Here is where you explore the themes, or the themes emerge as you address the unfolding of the plot. Again, there are as many ways to write as there are writers. Some writers start from a theme and write a story that illustrates that theme. Others work from the plot or characters, and discover the theme as the plot of the story unfolds. As each incident in the plot unfolds, in the world that you’ve built, the characters you have created are going to react, as all of the factors come into play. Do they rise to the occasion, meeting the challenge, or do they fail spectacularly, but learn from the experience? Are they a tragic hero that goes through an ordeal and ends up learning nothing, and not growing at all? Even the smaller incidents along the way to your ultimate plot resolution will have an effect on the characters. Even showing that a character has a lack of reaction to an incident can reveal a great deal about them. Are their reactions muted for a specific, overall reason? Or does the incident provoke such a strong reaction, based on the character’s backstory that they have no choice but to tamp the reaction down? We have reactions reactions to everything that occurs in our lives, however big or small, and taking the time to explore these reactions is what gives your story depth and resonance. It’s what makes your readers care about the story that you’ve crafted.

While this three part approach to storytelling can help order your thoughts and cover the essential aspects of telling your story, it’s important to remember that they often, if not usually, all occur simultaneously or out of order. A brainstorm in one area can illuminate new aspects of the others that can reverberate back and forth throughout the process. Worldbuilding affects events, which illuminate character, which provokes effect. And that chain can occur in any order. Understanding the pieces of the chain allows you to recognize when a piece is missing or not sufficiently thought out to bear the weight of its portion of the story. And the more thought and work you put into each link, makes the both the individual parts, and the resulting whole, that much stronger.

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