World-building in Fiction: Suspending Doors and Disbelief
When it comes to world-building, the most critical thing about a story is often not what you put in, it’s what you leave out. I read and watch a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, and while I’m usually unsurprised by the world elements (robots, aliens, vampires or other shapeshifters, clones…) what makes a world feel fresh is not the sci-fi element itself but the extent to which the world feels coherent. In the best written worlds, nothing gives you whiplash or pulls you out of the story to ask, “Wait a minute, why would…”
To achieve this takes a process of disciplined and continuous subtraction. Here are some rules I’ve learned so far.
1. Keep the world coherent in time.
First let’s talk about whiplash. Sharp-eyed fans caught the hydro flask and water-bottle behind Timothée Chalamet in Little Women, and the Starbucks cup in Game of Thrones. While those are just bloopers, leaving anachronisms in can take your reader out of the story faster than bad dialog.
Nobody intends to leave anachronisms in, and while historical pieces can be researched, it is often difficult to predict what you’re likely to leave into a more futuristic story that might date you. I love this scene in Cowboy Bebop, where Spike plays with a video tape containing critical information because he has no idea that the tape contains information. (Anyone born in the 21st century probably lacks the experience of visceral dread that comes from seeing someone touch the tape).
While most writers spend a lot of time thinking about what names to use for technology that won’t make things feel dated (will anyone use telephone in the future? what about the word disk?) this isn’t actually the most critical issue. Readers will forgive you somewhat and suspend disbelief if they feel you tried.
A more jarring thing can be a world where space-travel is normalized but people still need wires to charge their gadgets. Which brings me to…
2. In a high-tech world, any novel technological capacities must be at least as advanced as today’s technology.
I really like the TV show Humans starring Gemma Chan, Colin Morgan, Letitia Wright and others (including Carrie-Anne Moss!!). It’s well-written, with great acting that really makes you feel for every single one of the characters, human or synthetic. A real feat. But somewhere around the point that the action started building towards each season’s climax and people and synths tried to reach each other in time to prevent some horrible disaster, something nagged at my mind. In a futuristic world where human-like AI’s are conscious, where such consciousness can be granted via an online software update, why does everyone (including the AIs) still use brick-sized phones to text and locate each other? How come online connection and peer-to-peer location tracking (today’s technology) are not built into these AIs?
I only learned this one because of Airene, my partner in creating The Night Wolves, a world where nobody has phones. As technologists, we know that the future of IoT is upon us, and in 2040, people are unlikely to be holding brick-shaped phones to their ears. But in a webcomic where everything has to be done in pictures, you can’t spend a paragraph explaining bone-conduction technology to your readers. And so, the telecommunication technology you see in the Night Wolves reflects our own compromise with balancing scientific accuracy with readers’ expectations. You sometimes see an earbud, sometimes an implant is assumed, but there is never a brick to carry.
3. Any new world-element must achieve its full potential in the world, for better or worse, at least by the end of the story.
Going back to the show Humans for a moment, you can’t have a gorgeous human-like robot built for domestic service, and not think that there won’t be people using these robots for sex. Fortunately, Humans immediately acknowledges this and works through it.
In our world, in The Night Wolves, people have implants that are capable of continuously scanning their biochemistry for the slightest changes, and sending this data to secure servers. It’s meant to help people achieve their full fitness potential and manage their temperaments, but naturally once built, this technology and this very sensitive data will be put to every beneficial and nefarious use society would have for it, including some of the terrifying pre-crime surveillance being done on minors today.
But world-building isn’t just about making sure you fully explore the technology in its direct impact on society, but also how the existence of this technology changes other seemingly-unrelated aspects of daily life. For instance, the VMS implants worn by the students in The Night Wolves also have location tracking. But if you take this technological capability and push it to the fullest potential, you no longer need passwords. Or doors, for that matter.
There are occasionally locked doors in The Night Wolves, and it is common practice in storyboarding to place a panel beside a locked door, for fingerprint / facial recognition access. But why would you need either of those things when you have implants that have fine-grained location-tracking and voice recognition? The system would know who’s approaching the door and open automatically if you were allowed in. A door that didn’t open for you was not meant to be opened by you. Still, the reader doesn’t know that. And so we occasionally have doors marked LOCKED or RESTRICTED because it’s not fair to expect the reader to know that in this world, you no longer need to authenticate to open a door. But you’ll never see anyone use their fingerprints to open one.
4. In a world where anything is possible, explicitly throw the rules out the door on Day 1.
I remember seeing the very first episode of Voltron Legendary Defender, thinking it was just another alien-war show, and going… LIONS??? There are sentient space LIONS???? And before I had processed that, we had faster than light-speed travel, magical fantasy worlds, and a 10,000-year-old princess awakening from cryostasis with a British accent, all in the very first episode.
Okay, no rules. It was good they made that clear early, so the viewer could deal with their shock at the same time as the protagonists, and so that it became clear that there would be no point trying to determine what was or wasn’t possible in this world. Anything was possible, including riding a cow on a hoverboard through a mall in the middle of space. Good thing my brain was ready for that.
Those who’ve made it through all seven season of VLD (yes, SEVEN) know that anything is, in fact, possible, and you must, like Lance, take it in stride as “space magic” rather than attempt to understand the physics of the world.
5. Preview the incredible and the terrible early, or they become deus ex machina later.
Let’s talk about the twist. Every story’s got to have at least one. The reader’s expecting the evil clone, the unthinkable experiment, or the original monster to pop out close to the climax. As a writer, you probably think you need to play your cards super-close to the chest. As a result, you usually err on the side of not sharing information about the world that might lead the reader to guess the twist.
But here’s the thing. You WANT the reader to guess at the twist. You want to have dropped so many hints that when the twist comes, it feels both surprising and inevitable.
Going to go over this more, because it seems contradictory. How can the inevitable feel surprising? Let’s talk about genre expectations. For a story like Back to the Future, you start off with a protagonist whose life is kinda meh, and there are plenty of things in Marty’s life that need fixing. You already know going into the movie that he’ll surmount various obstacles in his path and those things will be fixed. The question isn’t if, but how.
How can the surprising feel inevitable? The answer is foreshadowing. My favorite example of this is Jurassic Park. In preparing for The Night Wolves, Airene and I studied Jurassic Park closely, including this incredible analysis of the various “beats” in the movie.
There are two major world-building “twists” in Jurassic Park. The first is the existence of dinosaurs. The second is that the dinosaurs, despite all being female, have started to breed in the wild. Both twists are previewed early, and feel both surprising and inevitable.
The first time the protagonists of Jurassic Park see a dinosaur is twenty minutes into the movie. Imagine taking a child to a theme park and not seeing the main attraction for twenty minutes! But Spielberg spends all that time building up the plausibility of dinosaurs and how they came to be in this world, so that when Grant and Ellie see the dinosaur, they are surprised, but not disbelieving. But for the audience, the dinosaurs have been previewed much earlier, in the very opening of the film. The “most terrible thing” that can happen, namely a dinosaur eating a person, has already been shown to the audience, so that they can appropriately feel the dread that the protagonists, too overcome by wonder, might not feel just yet.
The second twist is not just foreshadowed, it’s explicitly announced, and very early on:
Ian Malcolm: If there’s one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh, well, there it is.
Scientist: You’re implying that a group comprised entirely of female animals will… uh, breed?
Ian Malcolm: No, I’m simply saying that Life… finds a way.
The goal of a good twist is that it feels inevitable to those paying attention, and surprising to those ignoring all the warning signs.
I first wrote The Night Wolves as a novel. (So yes, I know how it ends). When Airene and I were trying to figure out how to convert it for serialization, one of the big things we changed was where the story began. In particular we wanted to make sure we previewed the following things as early as we possibly could.
- What is the most fantastic technological advancement in this world? (1 episode)
- What are all the supernatural / superhuman elements in this world? (5 episodes)
- What is the worst thing that can happen to a character in this world? (15 episodes)
- What is the most powerful weapon in this world? (20 episodes)
There are plenty of twists coming in The Night Wolves, but now you, dear reader, have all the information you need to guess at them.
When the twists arrive, I hope they feel surprising and inevitable, not incoherent and jarring.