November is, in addition to being amateur hour at the beard show, “national novel writing month.” For those who don’t know, that means a bunch of people like myself who have always wanted to write a book take a month to buckle down and make it a reality. I fancy myself a writer, and if you read this blog regularly (all five of you) then you know that I fancy myself a competent storyteller. I’ve run games that took place in deep and colorful worlds, telling tales that spanned from the heroes’ first bit of swordplay into their final epic battle to save mankind. Somehow, though, I’ve never managed to finish a story. In fact, the just over five-thousand words I’ve gotten as of this writing is the furthest I’ve ever gotten in a story. “Why?” you may ask. Because my ability to run an effective adventure come from my skill in, and love for, world building. And in case the title didn’t give it away, that’s a very different skill than writing a story.
What Do I Mean?
You may be saying to yourself “But Detective, what do you mean world building is a different skill than writing? Don’t writers need to build the world their story takes place in?” Well… not always. In fact, sometimes overbuilding your world (or overbuilding your characters) can seriously hinder your narrative. I will refrain from using my favorite example of a wonderful story with a poorly (at best) developed world because it has fans who will eat me alive. Instead, I’m going to talk about Order of the Stick.
Now, before you jump at me, I love OotS and I think it’s setting is excellent. That’s not what I’m talking about. If you’ve read Order of the Stick then you know that the setting is there to do what the story needs to happen. Everything, including the characters, develops as it needs to and only when it needs to. Rich has even said in an F.A.Q. that he didn’t build character sheets for the protagonists because if he built them on paper it would limit his ability to have them do things that weren’t on that sheet of paper.
For comparison, I have a tendency to write as I GM. I build an entire world with it’s own mythology and history and then I make characters and… have no idea what to make them do. Sure, I come up with an overall plot but getting the heroes from Point A to Point B escapes me. The players usually handle that part, after all. I was busy making the world. That’s fair, right? That’s also why I don’t make any progress.
Examples from Me
So with NaNoWriMo lurking around the corner I discussed the issue with a close friend of mine. She’s written books before and is my sounding board for a lot of my ideas because I have full faith in her to tell me if I’m being an idiot. At some point, she made note of the fact that none of my ideas were stories, they were all worlds. I knew this, of course, but for some reason I had never actually realized that it was such a problem. Because of this, I ended up deciding to do a story which I forced myself to NOT build a world for ahead of time. So, I present to you my two ideas: the setting that I had originally hoped would morph into a story if I wanted it bad enough, and the story that doesn’t have a setting until I need it to.
Here we have a medieval fantasy setting with a twist. Unlike many standard fantasy settings, this world hosts a bizarre phenomenon where uninhabited regions begin to spawn magical creatures. Uninhabited caves turn into troll dens, swamps and fens become the homes of monstrous lizards and frogs… you get the idea. If left unchecked, eventually an alpha creature would form, basically the equivalent of a dungeon boss. Magic use by humans is low, but technology hovers around that found in the early industrial revolution. There’s a lot of stuff to do in this world, a lot to explore, but… I didn’t have an idea for a protagonist or a journey to put him on. I came up with one, but to me it felt like the middle point in a series rather than a proper story. After a lot of thought I came up with…
Brick Neilson’s (Last) Space Adventure. The story is exactly what it sounds like. Cheesy sci-fi adventure that most English professors would turn their nose up at, because good literature isn’t supposed to be fun damn it! This story follows a retired space adventurer named Brick Neilson who has been nagged into coming out of retirement as a favor for a friend. He gets tangled up in some stuff with space pirates, fights at least one space monster, and cracks jokes and stuff along the way. It’s been super fun to write and even if I don’t know where he’s going, I am certain that the reader and I will both have a hell of a time getting there.
Now what you may have noticed is that the first idea is a much better setting to run an RPG in. It’s got an excuse for everyone to adventure, a reason for their to be dungeons and boss fights and even treasure (the magical energies that spawn monsters also affect certain objects, but only sometimes). However, when it came time to talk about my the actual events of the story I was kind of at an impasse. I had overthought everything, and as such had tied myself into a knot. I couldn’t even make characters, because I had to make sure that they fit perfectly with the setting.
Brick Neilson, on the other hand, needs no explanations. He goes wherever the story and I want to take him, and that can be anywhere. It’s mean to be humorous, which gives me a lot of leeway in trying to make things make sense.
So what’s the point of this article, you might ask? Well, I think I had originally meant it to be about how world building was it’s own unique and valuable skill that is very separate from writing an actual story. What it turned into, though, was this: write stories that are fun to write. There’s nothing wrong with being serious, but if you’re having a hard time making yourself write, remember that jokes and what my freshman English teacher in 2006 referred as “genre fiction” (code for “trash” in his mind, I’m pretty sure) are really just as valuable to the world as fancy literature. Hell, think of how many people My Immortal has made happier just by existing.