It’s interesting, I see a fair amount of articles and blogs on the subject of creating story worlds in speculative fiction, or “world building”. It’s a worthy subject no doubt, but for me there’s one aspect that seldom gets mentioned in these discussions, and in many cases also gets overlooked in finished novels and movies.
It’s this: giving that story world a sense of “real”.
Making it feel alive and plausible and vibrant. Making it breathe. I think it plays a role in why a lot of very involved and detailed story worlds simply don’t connect with their readers.
Because, no matter how richly defined your world may be, how many geographic features you invent, how much depth you give its cultures and races, or how many decades of its history you think out – none of it guarantees your creation is something that audiences will get lost in.
So what does guarantee it? First off, I’m not Frank Herbert. I can’t guarantee anything, all I have is my opinion. And my opinion is the following: it’s the details, I think. The little ones. And lots of them.
There’s a scene towards the end of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK where the Millennium Falcon is about to rescue Luke Skywalker as he precariously dangles from the bottom of the cloud city, with tens of thousands of feet of nothing below.
As the Falcon comes to a hover under him, Lando Calrissian rides an elevator up through a tight tube to what turns out to be an access hatch on the exterior. Right before he emerges into open air, he pulls a rope from his belt with a clip attached to its end and snaps it into place on a small railing. Clearly, the clip and railing are designed to keep whoever uses the hatch from falling or getting sucked away in whatever turbulence might be outside.
Okay. Fine. But why show this? Isn’t it just a throw away moment?
Lawrence Kasdan, presumably, took the time to write it, and Irvin Kershner covered it with two different shots. Why not just cut straight to the chase and get to what this scene is supposed to be about: Lando rescuing Luke?
Because it’s the small details, like the clip and the safety railing and Lando’s intention of using them, that are the most useful in making a story world feel real, and, by proxy, the story itself.
I don’t know about you, but when I watch that moment (and numerous others like it in that same film), I get a little giddy. I smile internally. I think it’s because my sub-conscious is acknowledging a character doing something practical in a highly fictitious story world. It’s a character not doing something essential to the plot itself (the story goes on with or without this detail), but rather doing something the character would do in a situation if it were indeed real.
You as the reader/viewer acknowledge these moments, consciously or not, and they help you buy into the world you’re watching. The more a creator/writer/author layers his or her work with these kinds of details, the more that world feels as if it really exists, I think, because he or she is illustrating that everything within it operates under a system, and that system usually (but not always) directly relates to a system the reader himself operates under.
My novel MIDNIGHT CITY required a great deal of “world building”, but I also spent an equal amount of energy trying to make that world feel “real” using little details of this kind.
For example, the world contains a geographical area known as the Strange Lands, a place where the laws of physics have broken down and no longer work correctly. It’s a very dangerous place to explore, but certain kinds of treasure hunters have learned how to safely navigate it and bring back things which still exist inside its ruined cities, which they simply call “artifacts”.
Artifacts are everyday items made unique by whatever force created the Strange Lands – paper clips, batteries, pencils, magnets, watches, coins, mirrors, they’re all imbued with strange properties, and, used correctly, can give their owners other worldly abilities. Used wrong or carelessly…and they can hurt you in very bad ways. Items from the Strange Lands can also be combined with each other to make even more powerful artifacts.
All of those elements illustrate world building, at least in regards to one specific area of the story. But they don’t necessary give it a sense of “realism”. After all, they’re some implausible, fantastical ideas to absorb.
I believe it’s the details, the small ones, which help sell the idea (at least, I hope they do).
For example, since artifacts are dangerous things to mess with, the world marks them with a specific symbol (if you’re curious, it’s the little icon next to my URL at the top of your browser). The reason for this should be plain: live (or “active”) artifacts are dangerous, and they’re marked to distinguish them from other everyday items. It’s the same way you mark a bottle of poison or a radioactive isotope in the real world. This detail, that the population takes the time to mark these dangerous items in a special way as a warning, lends a sense of realism. After all, if artifacts and the Strange Lands did exist, this is probably exactly what you would do.
Another moment from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK comes to mind.
Earlier in the film, when the empire is hunting the Millenium Falcon in the asteroid field near Hoth, we see an establishing shot of star destroyers blasting their way through the maze of rocks. We then see an asteroid slam into one of the big ship’s control centers.
When we cut into Darth Vader’s ship, the Lord of the Sith is having a conference with the captains of his fleet via hologram projections. The captain in one of the projections shudders suddenly…and then his hologram fizzles out.
The conclusion the audience draws from this is obvious: this is the captain of the star destroyer that just got hit, and the impact of the asteroid has damaged something critical. The audience is witnessing the result.
Again, it’s another inconsequential moment as far as the plot goes. But, combined with numerous other small details just like it, it serves to add realism to the story and the world. It’s showing that the world has rules: holographic communication systems are physical things that can be disrupted when giant rocks slam into them.
If you feel your readers are having trouble connecting with your world, consider taking a pass through your script or manuscript to see if opportunities present themselves for layering in little nuggets of realism; small details illustrating that your world, and the characters within it, function under a system of rules.
By themselves, these details may seem trivial, but as a unified force they can generate a powerful subconscious connection to your story on the part of the reader.