“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”
“[Writing is] hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”
This is taken from a 1978 interview for The Paris Review. The whole conversation is worth reading, but this quote really jumped out at me.
Note: The following will contain shiny and chrome spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road. Consider yourself warned.
Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell. As writers, we’ve been given this advice time and time again. And it’s good advice and one that we should all take to heart. Lately, I have been working on a series of blog posts focusing on my theories and strategies around worldbuilding. However, after seeing George Miller’s incredible Mad Max: Fury Road not once, but twice in theaters (a rarity for me) I wanted to jump ahead of my series. I think the movie serves as an excellent example of how any storyteller can properly worldbuild.
So often I see new writers struggle with their worldbuilding. Both epic fantasy and hard sci-fi suffers from this problem, but it can happen in any genre. It’s easy for us to want to explain every detail. We know the backstories for our characters, we understand how our world works, we know the religions, the species, the cultures, the cities, the weather patterns, and so much more about our worlds. It’s exciting and fun, and so often we choose the dullest way to explain that: exposition. It’s hard not to fall into the trap. We want to share all this with the reader. We’re excited about it! But instead of focusing on plot, characters, and the story, we spend significantly more time on exposition talking about the world and less time on telling a good story and let the world reveal itself naturally. This is what Fury Road does perfectly and why I think it’s such a wonderful example.
Now, we should establish this is an action movie, so it’s fast paced and intense. But it’s also bizarre and fantastic and seems almost dreamlike in its strangeness. But it works, and it’s believable, despite its absurdity. And it works because of the way Miller handles the worldbuilding. Unlike most modern action movies, Fury Road doesn’t slow itself down to explain every nuanced detail to the viewer. It doesn’t speak down to the audience. No character goes into long speeches about how things got this way. Instead, with a few short scenes the wasteland gets established as a place. We understand who Max is (a survivor with a haunted past) what his goals and motivations are (to survive) and how he has ended up in the predicament he is in (captured by Immortun Joe and his War Boys). Along the way, we are introduced to the citadel and the civilization that has been built up around it. And this is all before the title card appears.
Miller continues this style throughout the rest of the film. So much is revealed, and Miller spends more time showing, and never slows down to tell and explain every detail. Everyone reacts as if all the strangeness is just perfectly normal, and it works. It was refreshing. In the first part of the movie, before we even get to the chase scenes the viewer is presented with a vignette of short scenes that allow us to understand the motives of the War Boys, their cult of V8, how they behave with one another, and even their social structure. In other films, we’d get voice overs explaining how everything works, or we’d have several scenes of slow dialog that spells it all out. However, Miller doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time. He recognizes that the viewer is smart, and presents it all as plot and moves on.
This is the subtle art of worldbuilding at some of its finest and writers should take note. By the time Furiosa flees with the War Rig, and before we are introduced to the Wives we have all the information we need on the setting. We understand the world, it feels alive, lived in, and deeply rich in culture and history. It allows us to understand why Furiosa is doing what she does, and why the Wives want to flee Immortun Joe. Even the characters are revealed through their actions. Each of the Wives is a unique person with different and varied personalities. Without being told, we figure out which one of them is the leader, the dreamer, the heart, and so on.
When I sat out to write The Stars Were Right, I made a decision early on that everything would be revealed from Wal’s perspective. He would tell what he knew as he came across it, and only so much as to keep things interesting. It would be done conversationally as if you were walking through a new city with a friend. After all, Wal doesn’t know everything, just as we, inhabitants in our world don’t know everything. We only know what is interesting to us. What Wal does reveal is enough for the reader to sort out for themselves, and it also leaves a mystery, and that keeps a world engaging. Wal’s belief in the world around him translates into belief for the reader and even in an unfamiliar world like the Territories can feel alive and real.
Readers are explorers. Whenever any of us set out to read, we want to explore the world you have built whether it is a high fantasy empire, a savage wasteland, a quirky small town, even a small family farm. Revealing that world to us naturally, and using the world to move the plot along is the perfect way to keep a reader engaged and the best way to build that world. This is the best takeaway we can get from Fury Road. Keep the worldbuilding simple and subtle, let the characters live in it as we live in our own world, don’t bog people down in exposition. It doesn’t matter how unusual or over the top your setting follow a similar pattern and like Fury Road, it’ll just work.
So a few folks have asked about my process, and I figured – why not write a series of blog posts on the subject? Now I realize I’m not the first person to do this, and there are plenty of books on the subject of how to write. I am sure all of them have great advice. I’m not going to give advice. I just want to share how I personally work. Before I get started one thing I really want to stress: no one’s process will be perfect for someone else. Everyone writes differently. Just because it works for Stephen King doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you. That’s okay. You won’t find your stride except through trial and error. Glean what sounds interesting and ignore what doesn’t. Try lots of different approaches and find your own rhythm. Above all, keep writing.
In this first post I am going to talk about my first step: The Planning.
If you have listened to Brandon Sanderson’s lectures he classifies writers into one of two groups: Gardeners and Architects. Gardeners work best without a lot of structure, they have ideas which grow and develop as they write. Gardeners don’t like to be tied down. If they are forced to plan, they often get bored as all the mystery and excitement in storytelling is lost to them. I am jealous of those people. I can’t do that. I tried. I am awful at it. My first few failed attempts at writing were born of me trying to write without an outline. Big mistake. Me without a plan is like a ship without a rudder: I go all over the place, I write sloppy, I confuse myself. My attempts at being a Gardener are the reason that I have a great many unfinished manuscripts sitting on various harddrives scattered around my office. I like big complex plots with lots of moving parts and I found out it’s difficult (read: impossible) for me to see all the details of the plot in action when I don’t have a pretty solid outline to follow. When I finished my first outline for “Coal Belly” it was like a light went off in my head. It worked. Things clicked and I was able to get my project finished—it actually came together and made sense. I didn’t get lost in the weeds. It’s important to realize this about me because everything in my process is built off my planning. Without a solid plan I am worthless as a writer.
2. My Outline
I want to be really open here, so I am going to show you what a part of my outline looks like. It’ll be raw and rough and full of errors, but that doesn’t matter. Usually only I see it. (Except today.)
My outline is pretty basic: it’s a list of items I want to include in various chapters. I’ll call out particular details I want to focus on and sometimes I make notes of elements I want to remain mysterious. I might even throw in a rough bit of dialog that I think would work. Sometimes I describe to myself what I want the tone of my particular chapter to feel like or what music I hear playing. The more complex the plot, the more notes I might have. The length and depths of my notes vary depending on the project and the chapters.
One thing I want to stress is that my outline is fluid. It’s a living document. It changes and gets updated as I write. It’s not sacred. When I make adjustments to plot in my prose I go back and make quick adjustments in the outline. Nothing crazy, just small notes—that way it doesn’t consume time I could be spending on writing.
I recently released the prologue for “The Stars Were Right” to the public, you can read it here (and I’d recommend it before continuing on – spoilers follow). The outline entry for the Prologue looks exactly like this:
⁃ We witness the murder of an eyeglass dealer.
⁃ this chapter is told from thaddeus russel’s perspective. (third)
– Talk about Bell’s visit
– start showing the city
– keep the killer mysteruous
⁃ Mention Hagen Dubois’ new shop “up the street.”
That’s it (errors included!) It’s pretty straightforward, and I let the rest come to me naturally. Those points are the details I wanted to hit in the prologue when I actually sat down to write. (I’ll dive into this further in Part Two, “The Writing” and go into details about how I keep track of the little things that show up as I work.)
I will spend a great deal of time upfront making sure the plots work well together and the story has a good pace to it. It cuts down on my writing later on. A solid outline is why I was able to finish “Old Broken Road” in 4 months. I knew where it was going and I was able to write to that. On my current project—Deep, which is going to be pretty complex—my outline is about 3/4th done and is over 5k words. My outline is my treasure map. It leads me to the finished story.
3. Character Planning (or Lack Thereof)
This is where I am going to deviate a bit from my Architect analogy. It’s true I do plan a lot when it comes to plot but I tend to leave my character planning in a more malleable place. I have ideas, often times a name, but frequently I find those ideas are easier for me to work out in the prose rather than to set up ahead of time.
When I first envisioned Waldo Bell, the main character in “The Stars Were Right” I knew only a few things about him. He was a blue-collar everyman who worked as a caravan master, and he was a foodie. A lot of his personality, his quirks, and his faults didn’t show up until I started writing. When I did try to lock myself down, I found that I had to go back and change the notes around my planned-Waldo to fit the actual-Waldo.
Same goes for the shopkeep who is mentioned in the Prologue. I knew he was an anur—a race of amphibian/human hybrids—and that was about it! I didn’t know about his family, or the history of the shop, or his fondness for browline glasses. All of that came as I wrote.
Yep, sometimes this causes problems. Characters can deviate from what I had plotted out in my outline. That is fine: remember what I said about my outline being a living document. If a character moves in a completely different direction than I planned, I adjust the outline and keep moving.
4. Maps and Visual Inspiration
I love maps. I love them a lot. I even wrote a whole blog post about them. Maps help me visualize the city, nation, or land I am moving my characters through at any given point in the story. Often times I work on these during my outline. That way I don’t spend too much time revising borders, city names, etc. Sometimes I find it easy to draw them up to help set a scene. Even when I am not writing I often sketch maps. I have a whole sketchbook full of rough maps dedicated to imaginary places I might someday visit, from the fantastic to the mundane.
I’m a user experience designer by day and a pretty visual person. Along with my own maps I keep a collection of inspiring imagery that I find fuels my creativity around a particular story. Anything I stumble across in my browsing that sparks something in my imagination used to go in a folder on my harddrive. Now they get added to a secret Pinterest board, until I am ready to show ’em off. When I sit down to write I’ll often skim my collections as they help me get into the right mood to write.
See my Pinterest collections:
A Final Note:
There is such a thing as over planning. I have learned this. I would use my planning as a distraction from what I should be doing: writing. Instead of working on prose I was sketching a logo I was describing, or instead of streamlining a chapter I was checking the spelling on my outline. The whole focus on planning is to assist the writer in the work, not to overwhelm the writer. If planning starts to get in the way I stop. Then I get back to my writing.
So that’s my planning process. It’s pretty straightforward. I build my stories like an architect, have a fluid outline that I work off, I let my characters be themselves, and often keep stacks of random images and maps around to keep track of my world. Next up I’ll go into the actual writing, and explain how I actually get that outline into a format that people would enjoy reading as opposed to a grocery list of plot points.
Have any questions on how I go about my planning? Feel free to leave a comment below! I promise to do my best to respond to any question asked.