I love The Lord of the Rings.
I fell in love at 17 when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater, and I immediately picked up the books.
I trust I’m not alone. Authors of great fantasy like Tolkien, Rowling, Martin, and more, fill our shelves and our imaginations.
But as a writer, following the supposed example of these writers might be killing your storytelling, and boring your readers to tears. And unlike Tolkien and Rowling and Martin, your readers won’t come back if they get bored.
The Problem With World-Building
As readers, we love the sprawling imaginary worlds of Middle Earth and Hogwarts, Westeros and Essos. We hunger for more details about this world and greedily turn pages to learn what secrets hide under the world’s skin.
But the process is hardly this simple.
Remember: The Hobbit begins with a loveable recluse receiving a call to adventure from a mysterious wizard.
And remember again: Harry Potter begins with the tragic murder of a husband and wife and the miraculous survival (and adoption) of their orphaned son.
Stories begin with character, not setting.
Think about the famous phrase “Once upon a time….”
What follows these famous words may be a brief mention of setting, like “…in a far off kingdom…” or “…in a galaxy far, far away….”
But what we’re really interested in isn’t the kingdom or the galaxy.
We want something else: Character and Conflict.
We want to know what’s going wrong in that world.
We want to know who is suffering or fighting for justice in that galaxy.
The setting is just a place for it to happen.
Setting as Resistance
Too many amateur authors begin their stories with “world-building.”
By “beginning with world-building,” I mean that these authors fill page-after-page with scene description and history lessons.
This, in and of itself, is boredom incarnate.
Readers want an escape. They want adventure.
They don’t want school.
Part of the genius of Tolkien and Rowling is that all of their world-building has occurred prior to the page – meaning, these authors meticulously built their worlds before beginning to write, or at least before writing the final draft that you’ve purchased and own.
And here’s the TRUE genius of these successful authors: Anytime these “world-building” details, historical or geographical, are revealed, they are story-relevant.
Another way to think of story-relevance can be summed up in one word: Resistance.
Resistance forms conflict. It pushes back against the protagonist and his goal. It can also entice him away from his goal, or inspire him to change his goals.
Either way, the setting cannot allow the protagonist to remain as he is – at least the setting of the primary conflict, versus a temporary “home” or “haven” setting.
The world that you build has one primary job:
To resist the protagonist by disrupting his pursuit of the goal.
If it does anything else, then you might be risking your reader’s engagement and investment in the world you’re building.
Readers Quit When the Story Doesn’t Start
As a younger man, I wanted to novelize the video game series The Legend of Zelda (I still do).
So I began with a sprawling description of the world of Hyrule, its history, and the beauty of the forest where the hero lives.
I shared it with a friend who suggested, “Get to the story. I don’t need to know all of that.”
I was stung because I loved that world and I longed to describe it as I had.
But my goal wasn’t in the reader’s best interest – it was self-indulgent.
That’s what world-building can lead to if it’s done poorly:
Your reader is a busy person. He or she wants to pick up a book, turn to page one, and get into the story now. There isn’t time for six-to-sixty pages of setup. Maybe that time existed in the 1800s when Victor Hugo and Hermann Melville could exposition their way to literary glory.
But not anymore.
The reader needs to know when and where, but not much more – at least not for the first few pages.
Because if you’re going to hook a reader and keep him/her around for the long haul, you need to begin with Character and Conflict, and then enrich them with world-building.
Story Secret #5: Build Resistant Setting
For a setting to be truly effective, it must resist the protagonist’s goal.
And for that to work, the reader must know what the protagonist’s goal is – and stakes, motivation, flaw, etc. At least in a general sense.
So as you world-build in your drafts, always consider how to make the setting resistant to your protagonist’s goal.
Of course the setting can and should be beautiful, mysterious, dangerous, historic, and the rest. These are fantastic – if necessary – attributes of an engaging world that readers want to lose themselves in.
After all, who wouldn’t want to explore the halls of Hogwarts? (That’s why I like the queue of the Harry Potter ride at Universal better than the ride itself)
And who wouldn’t love to climb the mountains, or canoe the rivers, of Middle Earth? (That’s why New Zealand’s tourism industry is booming)
But these powerful settings only exist because:
- The storyteller begins with highly engaging characters and conflict
- The storyteller uses the setting to resist the protagonist’s goal
And that’s the key that will keep your readers coming back for more:
Parse out your setting in small, resistant chunks.
In a good book, the protagonist is exposed to the world of the story one step at a time. And each bit of that world reveals a new, more difficult challenge than before. Think of the first Harry Potter book/movie, and this is apparent. Every new detail of Hogwarts and the Wizarding World is exciting, forbidden, liberating, and terrifying.
And all of it is in the context of the great evil, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, having murdered Harry’s parents.
Characters and Conflict.
So don’t begin with world-building – at least not on the published page. Begin with Character. Begin with Conflict.
And then fill the story, piece-by-piece, of intriguing, resistant setting.
Your readers will never be able to put your book down.
Remember, you can discover all 10 Reasons readers quit your book, and the Story Secrets that will win them back, in my FREE new book, The 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book (and How to Win Them Back)!
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!
What do you think? Is world-building early in the story actually a good idea? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below!
Image Credit: Jan Bommes, Creative Commons