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How do you improve World-Building?

The start was a stick of dynamite, trouble was the writer lit the dynamite and then the fuse burnt from there and ended on a ladyfinger bang. A beginning that burns bright tends to fizzle. The writer spent 6 months or more on that screenplay and couldn't find an ending that was both emotionally and intellectually satisfying. That spells trouble, and it is common with HC in any format. Next time they came to me with an idea, the first words out of my mouth were "great! How's it end?" I got the blank stare, and said come back when you know, LOL. Novels have the advantage of being unlimited in length and scope, but it can also lead to trilogies (or god forbid) a giant series without a real ending. Pantsers with big ideas will often get muddled down in this situation, and it can last years in novel writing... been there done that.

Tomorrowland is a good, recent HC example that didn't totally fail, but demonstrates the lack of satisfying ending on both an intellectual and emotional level. 50/50 movie on rotten tomatoes with a 90+ HC that failed to retain its momentum, and finished with an "that'll have to suffice" ending.

My personal thinking is HC is great, but if you're rummaging for ideas, look for High Concept endings, and work backwards, rather than the all too common High Concept beginning that struggles to launch.

From what I gather of your criticisms, you are against the idea of basing an entire story around the "geewhiz" factor. Writers who begin their projects believing that the mere inclusion of a geewhiz idea, some bit of "awesome," will be enough to carry a story will end up fizzling somewhere midway in the writing process and have bad endings.

Pitches for high concept stories pitch that geewhiz factor. Because it's the awesome. But "geewhiz factor" does not mean "great story."

I will not argue with that. Any number of examples can be found. Once the geewhiz factor is introduced, in the first 20 pages or so, what's left to sustain the story?

Sanderson's suggestion does not seem to me to be "Create a high concept story." Rather, it's a suggestion to brainstorm ideas that will help you take a bland, generic world and make it interesting. Perhaps this also applies to bland, generic characters, since he also suggested taking some element of a character and pushing further.

There is a wide gulf between a) "Have one weird but awesome idea and make the story about it" and b) "Use a weird but awesome idea to give your world its own personality."
 
And still, he's a very rich man. Low concept seems to work better than anything else, imo. Take a look at Twilight, or Harry Potter. Books that have made their authors a respectable name along with a killing. Low concept ideas there, too. Readers don't necessarily want complicated. They want to be entertained.

In movie terms, Twilight and Potter could be pitched as "high concept", maybe, Twilight almost certainly, Potter less so. I can't speak to either as far as books, I can't stomach Twilight as movies let alone reading them, and Potter I've watched a few before they grew old and stale, no way I can read them.

Complexity isn't the key to HC... and HC isn't perfectly defined despite many folks trying, heh heh. HC, keeping outside of purely movie terms, for me boils down to a story that can be pitched in 2-3 three quick sentences that makes the listener go "woah! that's a story I want to hear!" a combination of unique and lofty. Part of being HC is the ability to be summarized very succinctly in a tight word count. In the movie biz it also carries implications of wide appeal, etc. Not an easy term to pin down really. In many cases complexity is not conducive to HC, HC being based on a very tight storyline easily pitched.

But no, HC isn't necessary for success, and often blows up. But it will sure help sell a screenplay.
 
C

Chessie

Guest
Screenplays and novels are different art-forms. And they're not marketed at all the same. Movies are way visual where with books we only have words. They're even structured differently, so I really don't see the point in forcing HC to be an indication of merit and value when it comes to literature.
 
High Concept crosses into all forms of story-telling, even into song and advertising, it's merely a descriptor for something that already exists.

Screenplays and novels being structured differently is arguable, depending on context. The Hero's Journey, 3-act, whatever, they're all over the place.
 
There is a wide gulf between a) "Have one weird but awesome idea and make the story about it" and b) "Use a weird but awesome idea to give your world its own personality."

So I've been rethinking this. While approaching the writing of a story, this makes sense. Although some types of stories (particularly "Idea" stories a la the MICE quotient) might indeed be about that geewhiz idea, the vast majority of stories will probably derail if you begin the story with nothing much more than that geewhiz idea.

But in practice, particularly for fantasy and sci-fi, the world can have such a great effect on the story that doing "b" can naturally push you toward "a" if your geewhiz idea becomes important to the unfolding of that story. The "wide gulf" between "a" and "b" can be narrowed.

A couple examples.

The sandworms on Arrakis are a type of geewhiz idea. In theory, Frank Herbert could have written the first book of Dune without sandworms but keeping many of the other aspects (spice production, perhaps through the existence if microbes in the sand; travel via Fremen-created machinery for the Fremen; etc.) But the sandworms are awesome. Importantly, they are not a mere addition to the world for some coolness factor, but they are tied into the ecology and geology, the mysticism, and also affect many other aspects of the story: warfare, economy, culture—initiation rites, for instance—and so forth. The sandworms figure prominently in the novel. But if someone unfamiliar with Dune asked what it's about, the answer, "It's about giant worms that live in the sand on a desert planet" would be wrong, I think, or at least very misleading.

Now, imagine our real world never had the novel Dune, and someone comes up with the idea of giant worms living under the sand on a desert planet and decides to pitch the idea to Hollywood. The result might well be some mashup of Godzilla and Jurassic Park, with the addition of a token Hollywood romance and probably a nuclear family trying to save each other from the destruction of those giant worms on that desert planet.

The second example is a negative example and highlights what can happen with high concept beginnings. The movie Surrogates (2009) did what a lot of mediocre/bad science fiction movies do. It introduced a geewhiz technology—people use robots as surrogates for their bodies and go out and have a good time—but it failed to address the larger issues of how society would change significantly if this was a widely used technology. There are some token examples of people living differently, but the massive effect on the economy, government, religion, and so forth, that would surely happen, are pretty much absent. So it becomes just another action movie that happens to have this technology in it.
 
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Well written characters in an interesting situation is what storytelling has always been about for me. I just happen to prefer this to take place in certain settings, and certain fantastical or supernatural elements having a part to play.

Though I stopped reading ASOIAF after the third book because I lost interest, the characters were what kept me interested in reading the books. Boring, predictable, cookie cutter fantasy characters have been a big reason why I have found very little to read in the genre.
 
Well written characters in an interesting situation is what storytelling has always been about for me. I just happen to prefer this to take place in certain settings, and certain fantastical or supernatural elements having a part to play.

Though I stopped reading ASOIAF after the third book because I lost interest, the characters were what kept me interested in reading the books. Boring, predictable, cookie cutter fantasy characters have been a big reason why I have found very little to read in the genre.

I would compare Blade Runner to other attempts at sci-fi movies. The idea, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, figures prominently; the story is about that; but it's delivered (necessarily!) through interesting characters having to deal with an interesting situation.
 
C

Chessie

Guest
Boring, predictable, cookie cutter fantasy characters have been a big reason why I have found very little to read in the genre.
Oh, goodness yes. I'm with you on this. It's why I've moved on to Indie authors like Lindsay Buroker and Graham Austin-King. Our very own Pauline Ross also has an epic fantasy series that's on my TBR list. I've also gone back to looking for 80s and 90s fantasy gems.

Back to topic, Blade Runner was too showy for me. I hated that movie and was mad at my husband for making me watch it lol. I prefer simple worlds with complex stories I can sink my teeth into. This is why short fiction is some of my favorite. 150k words of showing off how amazing your made up world is isn't story. Characters with problems? Yeah. You could keep them in one room and still have an intriguing story. Sorry but I just don't think high concept is necessary for a story to be good.
 
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Characters with problems? Yeah. You could keep them in one room and still have an intriguing story. Sorry but I just don't think high concept is necessary for a story to be good.

I hope you don't feel sorry re: anything I've written here. I didn't mean to imply, in any way, that I feel high concept is necessary. Although I do particularly like Blade Runner.

I might have a slightly different requirement for stories, because characters with problems are sometimes the most annoying characters, for me. If these problems are constant self-doubt, insecurity, fears that some boy or some girl just doesn't like them, and so forth, the problems grow tiring very fast.

But if they are problems connected to their worlds and predicaments, I find myself far more interested, and more so the more interesting their worlds. So even if they are in a single room having a chat, they've brought their worlds in with them.

This reminds me of that one joke format. Three people walk into a bar and... Usually it's not so generic. A werewolf, an android, and the Pope walk into a bar—that's more interesting. But this also suggests far more about the world than the generic example would.
 
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Well written characters in an interesting situation is what storytelling has always been about for me. I just happen to prefer this to take place in certain settings, and certain fantastical or supernatural elements having a part to play.

Though I stopped reading ASOIAF after the third book because I lost interest, the characters were what kept me interested in reading the books. Boring, predictable, cookie cutter fantasy characters have been a big reason why I have found very little to read in the genre.

Some of the ASOIAF Characters bored me to death, but if I waited long enough they seemed to die anyhow, LOL. I enjoy enough characters and storylines to stay tuned. Arya is my girl. And now I am fascinated to see how the HBO series and the books will depart from each other. Its a good study in story telling.

I also have to say, no one thing... character, plot, world or what have you will ever keep me going on a book or series. If one area is strong enough, I'm fine. Crappy writing and other finicky bits I have can make me put a book down. I recently picked up a copy of the The Name of the Wind on a whim... gadzooks I got as far as chapter 2, don't know if I'll get much further.
 
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C

Chessie

Guest
@Fifthview, I meant problems as a generalism. So long as it's interesting, tied to plot and develops character, I'm good. :)
 
I can really only tell how I began building my setting, maybe it gives you something to work with. Then again, I'm not sure how well I've managed at that, but I went the long way because I think if you're going to use that same setting over and over again there should be a fair amount of details and information available to flesh out that world.

First I drew a map. Well, in fact I drew a whole bunch of maps, adding more details and points of interest with every new version. While I was doing this I pictured locations in my mind, and at the same I was taking some notes. As time went by, the main continent where most things take place got actually quite messy, and I'm planning to remake it at some point. It works for me though because I felt like I really needed all that nitpicking to work. (link to the mentioned map to show what I'm talking about).

As the notes piled up I began to look at the setting more closely. I wrote a brief description of each continent, each part of the continents, and eventually the world begun to take shape. It was slow, but with each new added detail it was coming to life, gaining the proper atmosphere. I wrote a short history from the moment of creation to that world's present day, detailed the magic, and as I'm not a big fan of flashy spells the mages pull out of thin air, I made it difficult for them by bounding it entirely to writing.

To sum it up: I forced myself to sit down and write a chapter about every new idea and a concept I came up with, and piece by piece the setting gained flavor and, at least I like to think so, some unique and interesting elements that give depth and credibility for the stories that happen there. What I also got was a lengthy book of its own that I can use as a reference whenever I'm writing a new story. It helps me to remember everything and keep the story in line with the existing environments. This process may seem a little laborious, but it worked for me. I'm sure there are shorter versions to basically reach the same goal, so I suggest just experiment with things. No matter how crazy idea, it may work incredibly well once you polish it and implement into the general setting.

I'm not saying this is the right way to do it, but it's one way, albeit painstakingly slow process.
 
Some of the ASOIAF Characters bored me to death, but if I waited long enough they seemed to die anyhow, LOL. I enjoy enough characters and storylines to stay tuned. Arya is my girl. And now I am fascinated to see how the HBO series and the books will depart from each other. Its a good study in story telling.

I also have to say, no one thing... character, plot, world or what have you will ever keep me going on a book or series. If one area is strong enough, I'm fine. Crappy writing and other finicky bits I have can make me put a book down. I recently picked up a copy of the The Name of the Wind on a whim... gadzooks I got as far as chapter 2, don't know if I'll get much further.

Yeah there are too many characters in ASOIAF. I like Arya, it's just taking forever and a day to progress through her story.

Agree on TNOTW. There seem to be a lot of hyped authors getting the spotlight in the fantasy fiction world, but I can't for the life of me see why. I guess it's who you know more than whether or not you can actually write well. Not a very encouraging thought.
 
Yeah there are too many characters in ASOIAF. I like Arya, it's just taking forever and a day to progress through her story.

Agree on TNOTW. There seem to be a lot of hyped authors getting the spotlight in the fantasy fiction world, but I can't for the life of me see why. I guess it's who you know more than whether or not you can actually write well. Not a very encouraging thought.

Yeah, I think the hype is more the issue. I don't expect every book and writer to be to my taste, but yeah, sheesh! The number of "gah!" moments a decent editor should've picked out of the first chapter makes me not want to continue. With the praise heaped on it I at least expected it to be readable, or clean of really goofy things. The reality is it takes time to sort out quality books, much like pop music. A classic rock station is relatively filtered, those songs that've stood the test of time, and eventually, books and writers filter out also. Life will be better when Bieber gets sorted out, so I don't have to change the station quite so often.

In a way I feel bad for the writer... to see all those beautiful hyped things said about your book (how much did those cost the publisher anyhow?) would build a sense of bloated confidence in the quality of their writing that they might not even feel obliged to try to improve, LOL. And on the other hand, it's a reminder not to believe your critics in either direction.

I am just going to assume that the hype disease exists across all genres.
 
I think the internet has made things worse in a way given how big a platform it gives to zealous fans who want to champion their favorite author no matter what. To me there are books I like that are just not my taste and that isn't a criticism against the author, and books that are just so poorly written that I just have to scratch my head and wonder how they got a book deal.

I guess if the fantasy genre is full of mostly fans that want the style over substance type novel that they can burn through on a Saturday then that type of book is going to do well. I see great world building without good writing in the same way I see a lot of action films that have amazing CGI, elaborate set design and well choreographed stunts, except that I'm far less likely to turn the movie off because the story isn't that great.
 
Hmmm, I certainly agree with wondering how book deals happen... maybe. If the book has a fabulous world, characters, and/or story I can understand the book deal. What I can't understand is how so much muck makes it past editors. Do they ink deals and the writer ignores the advice? or are the editors not worth their salt? Despite having done a little non-fiction editing (back in the days when computers spell checked for crud if at all, let alone grammar) and I would not claim to be a great editor, but for crying out loud, how does some of the ridiculous writing gaffs escape when anyone who's spent a few minutes looking up what not to do when writing a book can identify them?

Ah well, way the heck off topic... may as well move on, LOL.
 
A little off topic but we can get back on track. To reiterate what was stated, the world building aspect isn't the be all end all of what fantasy fiction is, you still need a good story and characters.
 
A little off topic but we can get back on track. To reiterate what was stated, the world building aspect isn't the be all end all of what fantasy fiction is, you still need a good story and characters.

This is so true. In my earlier post I was trying to give out a little how I've built my setting just to offer some helpful thoughts, but I missed the one that should have been there, and here it is! Without a good story and interesting character development it doesn't matter how unique or detailed your world is.
 

FatCat

Maester
World building is only an expression of your character. They are too mutually cognitive to separate. Decide the theme of your story, then add levels of detail to support that theme, then write that characters drama with respect to the theme you've built.
 

Trueblue4U

New Member
The best technique I ever learned was: ONE THING AT A TIME.

I remember I would try to throw everything into the first description, and readers were totally overwhelmed. It felt like I was just throwing everything into my first descriptions to remember it or something….now, I take my time

Start with a room. What does the door look like? The floor? The sounds? Then enter the room. What new things arise? Is there a strange creature? Good. Stick with that one creature for a while.

One-thing-at-a-time…that's how stories unfold naturally as opposed to being/feeling forced.
 
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