With a new story in the works on the one hand and academic work on the other, I’ve been needing to blow off some serious steam in recent weeks. My chosen outlet, perhaps curiously for those familiar with it, has been the cult success video game Dark Souls. To explain for those not in the know, Dark Souls is a fantasy adventure notorious for its vicious, unrelenting and singularly merciless difficulty. Perhaps I’ve been drawn to it because it gives me something else to scream over…
But today I’m not interesting in Dark Souls’ controller-defenestrating difficult. This post has been inspired by one of its other defining features: its unique (to my knowledge) approach to world building. To put it simply, it doesn’t. As a player, you are dropped quite literally into a world with next to zero context or explanation. Slowly, you begin to gain momentum as a character, fighting through hostile environments and their inhabitants, accruing power and items. Some explicit information is gradually provided by other characters, but it is the implicit information about the strange world you find yourself adventuring in that has caught my interest not just as a gamer, but as a writer.
So little of Dark Souls’ world is set in stone, and even less is outright explained. Unlike so much fantasy, the undoubted effort that has gone into developing this world is barely exposited. You get, at best, vague hints about historical facts that you are required to piece together, but more often than not these ‘facts’ are more akin to ambiguous statements or the very environments themselves, both capable of being interpreted in a vast number of ways. Fan theories abound about what meanings can be gleaned from these gloriously nebulous signs, sometimes taking the form of vast theses on this deliberately shrouded world.
The phenomenal move of letting players/readers (I personally see little distinction between the two – more on that in another post) build their own interpreted worlds is one that sits very closely with my own philosophies on fantasy and its craft, but more on that later. Today, I want to discuss the how, the mechanics of going about creating a world without the terrible certainty of exposition.
The adage of ‘show, don’t tell’ is so well worn in writing circles that it’s developed an impressive groove from the collective asses that have sat upon it across the decades. But then, it wouldn’t have received such long-lasting attention if it didn’t hold some merit, and there is a certain curiosity to how often fantasy writers overlook its advice. Consider any sample of the genre – hell, pick one up off the shelf and leaf through a few pages, it won’t take many – and you’re likely to find a fair few words devoted to some historical, social or cultural curiosity. If you’re lucky, that curiosity is somehow related to an element of the story, but more often than not it’s just that: a curiosity, something the author points to and goes ‘hey, isn’t this neat?’.
The central of my manifesto is simple: stop. Any plot-necessary elements of a setting can just as easily (if not more effectively) be conveyed in a few sentences. I’m not advocating stripping away all world-building to an atrophied equivalent of Chekov’s gun, however, absent any additional details to indicate a living, breathing, unique and interesting world. But by my reckoning, the far more enriching method of doing this is similar to Dark Souls’ approach: a more ambiguous, hint-based method of displaying the world you’ve built.
In addition to whatever details are necessary to make a scene or the overall story work sensibly and effectively, the remainder of a fantasy writer’s presentation should, I submit, be akin to an iceberg. That is, you see only the smallest fraction of the reality lurking beneath the surface of the page. A great many writers argue this is already the case: that their extensive asides and treatises on their world are a fraction of the world-building they’ve undergone, citing lexicons, annals, dossiers and minutely detailed maps as backstage materials that have not been included. I am not necessarily decrying this, although the typical consequences of this approach are pernicious, but the argument fails to understand the iceberg metaphor fully. One sees the tip of the iceberg, but that does not mean one is ignorant of the rest of it. Rather, one knows that what is apparent is only a small portion, and one must then make an educated guess about what else lurks beyond the explicit.
This is how I believe worlds should be made to appear alive and unique. Not by extensive litanies of detail and commentary telling us about the world, but by the writer showing us (and barely at that). Hinting at the underlying significance of cultural activities or the history of a place through their descriptions, the activities of those involved. Rather than explanatory asides to flesh out the world, let the world’s flesh speak for itself: let the behaviour or the place serve as a hint, an open invitation for the reader to fill in their own exposition, to make sense of it in their own way. A simple adjective, the name of something, brief phrases, verbs that achieve more than their mundane function, strange and throwaway snapshots and other details; at the furthest, most elaborate end of the spectrum, a sentence at most that raises more questions than it answers. Tips of icebergs that leave readers to wonder at what lies beneath, rather than dredging a chunk of the rock for them to stare dumbly at.
I reckon I developed this particular outlook on exposition courtesy of a singular diet of dying earth fiction in my late teens. Writers like Vance and Wolfe were miraculous because they never explained anything and chose not only to revel in the openness of their worlds, but trusted their readers to make use of their openness. To see it not as annoying, confusing ambiguity, but as an opportunity to interpret and contribute to the creative and world-building process.
This approach applies to all aspects of describing one’s world – not just the history and sociology, but the sensory details as well. Is it correct to say that the fantasy author’s job is to paint a picture of their imagined world so the reader can better visualise it? Arguably yes, but arguably no. Why waste words on imposing your imagination on someone else when you could use fewer, more precious words activating their imagination. It seems too often nowadays authors are motivated by the ‘DeviantArt effect’: the desire to depict some sweeping vista to fuel fan-made pictures which meet certain detail criteria. The adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is frequently taken as a challenge, whereas only a few choice descriptors could allow a thousand readers to create a thousand different interpretations of what they’re reading.
Surely the greatest challenge to the creator, the world-builder, is to take their creation, their built world, and condense its essence down into neutron-dense points that can spark a cascade of possibilities in the reader’s mind. Not only does this require an understanding beyond pages and pages of notes on the how and why of a thousand minutia, but it takes bravery. We are, in essence, taking those pages and pages of notes and throwing them into a stiff north-westerly, hoping that the scraps someone catches downwind make a certain sort of sense. Not our sense, but theirs.
This is usually the part where I do a little plug for my own big project, but given everything I’ve just written, that would defeat the purpose. I have my own vision of the world, its customs, mechanics, rituals and all that. Probably not as much as others – even with my most initial of notes, I could feel the lure of exposition and explanation pulling at me, and I still see its presence on the page – but enough that I could understand what my world meant to me. And I think that’s important: more than engineering every individual cog and presenting a blueprint, or at least scraps thereof, if I have the essence of the world – its themes, its, dare I say, soul – then the reader will do the rest. Not because I’m lazy, but because whatever I write won’t mean half as much to them as what they imagine.
It’s often said that world-building is one of the most satisfying elements of speculative fiction. So why deny the reader that pleasure? Share the love, man.