Well, I thought that I’d talk about one thing that can sometimes be overlooked when it comes to creating compelling stories (whether in prose, in film etc…). I am, of course, talking about the setting, culture, atmosphere appearance and/or “world” of your story. Strange as it might sound, this is something that can actually matter more than the actual story you are trying to tell.
I ended up thinking about this when re-watching “Star Wars IV: A New Hope” recently. Even though I already knew the story of this film in advance and although it isn’t exactly the most complex or detailed story in the world, the film is still incredibly compelling and awe-inspiring thanks to everything surrounding the story. We get numerous tantalising glimpses of interesting-looking places and other brief hints of a much larger and more complex fictional “world” and it is absolutely fascinating.
Yet, part of what makes this film’s worldbuilding so effective might not be what you expect. The film knows what to leave to the audience’s imagination. In this film, we don’t get hyper-detailed explanations of everything. But, because of the sheer amount of interesting places, briefly-described backstory and unique details, the film lingers in the imagination long after the credits have rolled.
Why? Well, it all has to do with curiosity.
An even better cinematic example of this is the film “Blade Runner”. This is a sci-fi film noir that is set in a complex, visually-detailed futuristic city. There is so much visual detail that it’s perfectly possible to watch the film numerous times and still notice something new in the background every time. It is an absolutely stunning work of visual art. Yet, for all of this complex detail, the film’s “world” lingers in your imagination after the credits roll because of what you don’t see.
In “Blade Runner”, the audience only actually gets to see a couple of streets and a few indoor locations. These hyper-detailed places hint that the rest of the sprawling mega-city the film is set in will have just as much detail to it, but we never actually get to see it. As such, the viewer has to use their own imagination to try to work out what the rest of the “world” looks like. They have to think and daydream and, most crucially actually imagine either being the world itself or being someone exploring it.
By focusing on a few crucial highly-detailed locations, the film is not only able to build an interesting fictional world but also to make the audience want to explore the rest of it. It adds a level of immersion and imagination that feels a lot more “relevant” to the audience than the actual story itself. Instead of the audience just being a passive viewer, the interesting worldbuilding makes them take a more active role by prompting them to daydream about where everything takes place.
And, yes, this focus on a few highly detailed locations is one of the most important parts of good worldbuilding. For example, I recently started reading a hardboiled novel from the 1990s called “Wireless” by Jack O’ Connell (unfortunately, I seem to be losing interest in books at the moment though. So, it’s unlikely I’ll finish and review it). Although this novel contains lots of interesting locations and is set in a fascinating city called Quinsigamond that also turns up in his other novels, this novel reserves it’s best descriptive passages for a single location.
In an early part of the novel, about six and a half pages are devoted to describing a strange diner/nightclub called “Wireless”. These are some of the most compelling pages that I’ve read in a while. Not only do they talk about the history of the place, but they describe it in such vivid (yet economical) detail that it actually feels like a real place. I could read an entire novel consisting of these types of descriptions. The place has so many interesting details and is described in such a smoothly-flowing and vivid way that, when something actually happens in it a little bit later in the chapter, these story events just feel anticlimactic and/or like an annoying distraction from the awesome descriptions.
Another interesting variant on this worldbuilding technique can be found in a modern sci-fi novel called “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers.
One of the many innovative things this novel does is to tell a small-scale story that takes place in an absolutely gigantic, very “realistic” and intriguingly unique distant galaxy. Although we get a lot of details about interesting cultures, places, foods, languages etc… this large amount of setting information “works” because it still feels like we’re only seeing a fraction of something even more interesting (since the novel focuses on just one group of characters travelling through the story’s setting). It’s a novel that is more about worldbuilding (and characters) than story and it works 🙂
So, yes, worldbuilding and locations can often matter even more than the story itself does. Not only do fascinating places linger in the audience’s imaginations for longer than story events do, but any interesting locations will also feel like a blank canvas, a place that the audience can visit again and again in their memories and daydreams to tell their own stories in.
But, again, it is also important to remember that good worldbuilding relies on what you don’t show. If you want to use your story’s “world” to it’s fullest potential, then focus on a smaller part of it and hint at the rest. Worldbuilding is more important than story because it gives the reader’s imagination something to play with. But, if you spell out literally every detail about everything there, then there won’t be any mystery or room for the audience’s imaginations to get to work.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons why the later “Star Wars” prequel trilogy isn’t as good as “Episode IV: A New Hope” – because it takes away a lot of the mystery. It shows too much and spells too much out for the audience – meaning that daydreaming about the fictional “world” of the films becomes more about memory (and trying to remember whether details are “correct”) than about just letting the imagination run wild and freely extrapolating from intriguing hints and details.
A good story might keep the audience wanting to see what happens next – but a good fictional “world” will stay with them long after the story has finished.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂