On Worldbuilding, Changes and Plot

A couple months ago, I put out a tweet something like, “If you can’t fix it in plot, alter the worldbuilding.”  Y’see, I’d just inserted a huge change into Sand of Bone’s world in order to give a character the reason and ability to perform an act that the remaining 60% of the novel depended upon.  The change made me happy because, even though it had a huge impact, it required so little in actual text changes.

Not long after I put up that tweet, someone else wrote under the same hashtag something like, “Worldbuilding is the story’s foundation and shouldn’t be changed lightly.”  (That’s a paraphrase based admittedly on memory, but contains the general idea.)

And I was reminded why worldbuilding checklists and such never worked for me.

At nineteen, I was cast in my first Shakespeare play.  Over the next six years, I acted in eleven works of Shakespeare, worked as an assistant director for two, worked as a movement consultant for one (while pregnant, no less!), and directed yet one more.  Settings ranged from 10th-century Denmark to a modern militia-based society.  The director’s choice of setting (worldbuilding) was a matter of finding the historical period and culture to best support the themes and crises of the script.

West Side Story is an excellent example, taking the story of Romeo and Juliet into a 1950s New York neighborhood and casting it with young rival gang members.  Other R&J productions have been set in the rancho era of 1840s California, Prohibition in Chicago, Bosnia-Herzegovina of the 1990s, present-day Los Angeles and so forth.  All the settings share the day-to-day pressure of ever-present conflict that seems beyond mending.

But that conflict is just the plot.  The actual story is about young people, unhappy with the worldview and dealings of adults, who take immense risks to build a family-of-choice that stands both outside and above the world their parents have created.  It’s about the juxtaposition of helplessness and agency during adolescence.

Story ideas don’t arrive in my head as concepts in need of character and plot.  Nor do I get characters in search of plots, plots in need of characters, or a world/society that deserves people and action.

Instead, I almost always get scenes.  Most often, I get That Scene.  Clear and crisp with images and dialog.  It’s a scene that’ll come up in the last quarter of a novel, something that starts putting pieces together, something pivotal to character, plot and theme.  From That Scene, I begin figuring out the characters and the paths that led them there.  The world and culture is constructed along the way to support and direct the characters.  I’ve yet to finish a draft of a novel or story without including That Scene.

When I played Antigone in the Jean Anouilh version of the play, director Patricia (yes, this Patricia) was insistent Antigone appear after her arrest in leggings and a tank top–the undergarments I’d worn beneath the skirt and blouse in the play’s first half.  Why?  Because she had That Scene in her head: Antigone appearing before Creon literally and figuratively stripped down yet refusing to be intimidated.  To Patricia, the stripping down was the guards’ way of trying to humiliate a woman, but would become Antigone’s usurpation of a man’s role of action and a way to humiliate her uncle.

So the world in which her production of Antigone took place was carefully manipulated through costume, movement, tone–everything down to who glanced to whom when–to underscore what role women were expected to play, and the discomfort Antigone’s refusal to play it gave everyone from the start.  Worldbuilding was a tool, not a frame.

I’ve spent many, many years trying to see worldbuilding in the permanent-seeming role that’s implied by words like foundation, structure, and framework.  I’ve tried to use worldbuilding questions and checklists put forth by very successful writers.  I’ve tried to constrain my stories within the bounds of my own already-established worldbuilding.

Those are splendid things for those who find them useful.  Among my favorite stories are those written by writers who work that way.

But it doesn’t work for me.  It stops me cold.

It is not my process.

Until I’ve decided to publish a story, worldbuilding is just as fluid as word choice.  Everything–from religious tenants and historical perspective to the cut of a cloak and what gets eaten for a midnight snack–is open to change.  If a character’s choice in Chapter 25 seems unreasonable, but changing it would require extensive plot and character alterations, I’d rather drop a paragraph in Chapter 3 about a culture’s familial obligations and a line in Chapter 7 about a their god’s expectations that will make the character’s Chapter 25 choice seem not only reasonable but unavoidable.

And if a worldbuilding change I want to make conflicts with a work already published?  I’ll find a way to explain the contradiction.  That’s not as illogical or manipulative as it sounds.  Belief, culture, history and expectation create daily contradictions that are so familiar, we don’t even see them.  I can, for example, explain clearly why it’s acceptable for an Amish man to drive a tractor in my fields, or for me to drive a tractor in his fields, but he must use only horses in his own fields.

I want to hit That Scene.  I want to tell the story.  My worldbuilding exists to serve those ends.


Edited October 4, 2013 to correct typos and clarify the last couple paragraphs.



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