World-Building: The Three Key Elements

When it comes to fiction, even the most hyper-realistic story takes place in a world completely unlike our own. That’s simply the nature of storytelling. Life gets compressed, stretched and shaped. Even the most richly-drawn character is a mere shadow when compared to the complexity of man.

Viewed one way, this is a limitation. But viewed another way, it’s a tremendous advantage. It’s this constraint that makes world-building possible; people don’t go into a fictional story expecting reality, and so their minds are more open to extraordinary possibilities. And because this world-building is so fundamental, it can make or break your story.

So, what makes for good world-building? In my mind, there are three key elements. At it’s best, world-building is continuous, well-paced, and consistent.

1. Continuous

Too often, writers treat world-building as a single step rather than a continual process. They set up the world in the first few episodes or issues, and then move on to the plot. But world-building and plot should not be treated as separate entities. Rather, they should be integrally connected. The stories that do the best world-building are the ones where we are continually learning new things about the world. We’re constantly discovering new rules, new social stratifications, new levels to the society our characters inhabit.

The comic book Locke & Key (written by Joe Hill with art by Gabriel Rodriguez) is a great example of this. It’s one hell of a book, and one of the reasons I think it’s so great and so compelling is that the structure is designed for constant world-building. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the story involves a set of keys that have different magical properties. The characters discovered at least one new magical key in each of the first three arcs. As a result, the world was continually built out, becoming more and more complex, more and more richly drawn. And in the current (fourth) arc, the characters have discovered a ton of new keys, exponentially increasing our knowledge of this world and its possibilities.

If you’re story doesn’t have continuous world building built into its DNA like Locke & Key, you should work that much harder to ensure that the reader is constantly discovering new and exciting things about your universe. The reader should never lose his or her sense of wonder, now matter how deep you are into your story.

2. Well-paced

Even when the world-building is continuous, the revelations and new information can sometimes be poorly paced, dictated by the writer’s inclination or by marketing considerations, rather than by the organic needs of the story.

The television critic Alan Sepinwall once made an interesting point about Lost and Battlestar Galactica. He pointed out that the producers of Lost claimed to be working off of some grand master-plan, but everyone assumed they were making it up as they went along. Meanwhile, the producers of Battlestar Galactica openly admitted they were making it up as they went along, but everyone assumed they were working off of some grand master-plan. I think the difference was that BSG did a much better job with the pace of its world-building, which created the illusion that it was carefully planned out in advance.

And it’s important to note that “well-paced” does not mean “fast-paced.” Consider the comic book Sweet Tooth, written and drawn by Jeff Lemire. Mr. Lemire is doing a very slow reveal on the story’s central mystery — who is Sweet Tooth and how does his origin tie in to this world’s mysterious apocalypse? – but he‘s also giving us lot of other information about how this society works, what the different factions are, and what has become of our civilization in this plague-ridden world.

Another good example is Who Is Jake Ellis, written by Nathan Edmondson with art by Tonci Zonjic. As of this writing, only two issues have come out, but those two issues have handled the pacing extremely well. Issue #1 gave us just enough information about the world to intrigue us, and to pull us in to the story. Then issue #2 dropped one bombshell after another, letting us in on a ton of new information, while still leaving plenty of mysteries for the rest of the mini-series’ run.

3. Consistent

This one’s pretty obvious. There are very few things more frustrating than a book that creates a world, then breaks the rules of that world just to expedite the story. So: don’t do that! It’s all about carefully establishing your rules, then sticking with the decisions you’ve made.

This is a tough thing to do, especially if your story isn’t planned out from the beginning. And, of course, you can always find loopholes, or even bend the rules a bit. But that’s risky, and you’re walking a fine line. If given a choice, I would err on the side of greater consistency over greater flexibility.

Consider, also, that consistency – and the rules you establish – can be used as a positive storytelling device. Consider the new Venom book (written by Rick Remender, with art by Tony Moore), which just debuted last week. In it, the military is using the Venom symbiote (a classic Spider-Man villain) as a sort of battle armor. But they establish several rules early on in the book: their operative can only wear the suit for two hours at a time, or risk becoming permanently bonded to it; their operative can only wear the suit a maximum of 25 times; and if the symbiote ever takes control, the military will flip a “kill switch” on the operative.

This is excellent world-building! By staying consistent to these rules, the creators have built in a high degree of tension and suspense. Will the operative make it back from his mission in two hours? How quick will the military be to flip the kill switch? When that 25th mission approaches, will the operative decide that he’d prefer to permanently bond with the symbiote?

On the other hand, if the book is inconsistent – if it betrays the rules of this particular world – all of that tension, and all of that suspense will instantly drain away. It will feel like a betrayal.

So, those are the three key elements of world-building, as I see them: continuous; well-paced; consistent. What do you think? Am I completely off-base? Did I forget any? Please don’t hesitate to add your thoughts in the comments.