Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

World-building and Storytelling

I just fired off an email to another writer, and it contained some thoughts on these two concepts that I thought I’d share a bit more publicly. Keep in mind: there’s a good chance that I have no idea what I’m talking about.

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…Another thing to think about is the difference between world-building and storytelling. Both are incredibly difficult to do well, and each is a wholly unique animal. World-building is something many people can’t do. They can’t look at a blank page and construct a believable land or universe whole-cloth. You do not have that problem, which is a very good thing. Writing books with texture and depth is impossible without this skill (which is nothing more than a vivid imagination combined with a sense of aesthetics, really).

World-building is the enemy, however, of lean writing. The urge to add too much detail, to info-dump, to introduce too many characters all at once, all this comes from your excellent world-building skills. It isn’t the sign of a problem; it’s the sign of a powerful ability that needs practice honing. It would be like a man with massive muscles learning to golf. The tendency would be to hit it a mile, but never quite where one was aiming. That can be a good problem to have, because it’s easier to back something off than it is to ramp up what isn’t there.

The competing force in writing is storytelling. If world-building is the macro, storytelling is the micro. We zoom down through the history and lore, past the epic battles of time past, and we land behind the eyes of a simple character who has all of that larger stuff in their peripheral. Here’s the tricky part: the author needs to have that lore spread before them, like a map, but they need to write with the limited perspective of that character. As the reader, we will feel lost initially, but so should this person through whom we’re seeing the world. Their discovery is our discovery. That’s why we immediately relate to the first main character we’re introduced to. We like to think we’re them.

With storytelling, it’s best to not be too creative. Human beings have a shared genetic history, which includes innate senses of right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unjust, pleasing and disturbing, etc… The exceptions to this are not worth mentioning, because you aren’t writing for an infinitesimal percent of the population. You are writing for the people to whom Homer and Shakespeare make a lot of sense. Sir Gawain and the travelers to Canterbury all resonate even today. We might call it cliche to write of the pauper with a noble heart who one day becomes king, but then we could call it cliche to admire the shape, smell, and color of a fresh flower, or call it cliche to hum with delight at the first bite into a ripe apple. We have certain tendencies, and it behooves the author to fashion according to near-universal tastes.

So, after you’ve spent time building your world, pick a few characters (not too many), and tell their story as simply and clearly as you can. Make it compelling. Give it an odd twist here and there by playing on old themes in new ways (for instance, the gray, wizened wizard can be substituted for the town drunk, who only drinks to silence the prophecy and bad dreams he is accused of being insane for having. Once again, we see the redemption theme, the pauper -> prince theme, all hidden in an unusual take on a traditional character).

These are just my opinions, of course. I haven’t been doing this terribly long, but these are probably the same things I would’ve said five years ago, just from my experience as a reader. Like you, most of what I’ve learned has been from consumption. I am only now beginning to learn via creation…

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That’s it for now. Back to my own writing!

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