There are few things fantasy/sci-fi fans love more than a new, rich world ready to swallow them up for a great story! I know I love it. Creating a world, or world-building as the writers call it, can be a consuming endeavor. It’s thrilling, exciting, interesting, and channels creativity into a huge, complex, and thrillingly unique product!
However, the details of the product can distract from the higher purpose. Precious drafting time suffers if creating the setting rises above actually writing. This doesn’t happen all the time, but I can say this from experience. I’m thinking of trials with a science-fiction series that hasn’t seen a scrap of useful drafting in all the 10 years I’ve been working on it. It took until just last year for an actual plot to emerge. Here’s the kicker; I won’t use even a quarter of the material I’ve planned out for the world. Probably less. The rest isn’t important to the story.
How can world-building be efficiently channeled for the epic story to take place?
Focus on the fundamentals. No, these fundamentals aren’t the carefully sculpted map, the appearance of the otherworldly creatures, or even the new military’s rank system. While some creatives create worlds for worlds’ sake, an author needs a story. The spark of a story is the most fundamental of the fundamentals. If nothing happens, then no one cares, not even if nothing happens in the most spectacular of places.
It was actually my brother who drew my attention to what is actually fundamental to world-building… and he’s an engineer, not a writer. He is, however, a fan of video games. One of our particular favorites is the Legend of Zelda franchise.
He pointed out how different game mechanics influence the writing of the game’s story. In order to make full use of the Wii and the free-motion controller, the player’s musical instrument became a conductor’s baton. Since they decided on a sailing mechanic (based on controlling winds with the baton), the world took shape as an island-riddled ocean.
Using the mythology already in place from previous games, the creators took this idea of changing landscape/environment and introduced an evolutionary twist to previous species. This led to an inventive re-imagining of the fresh-water Zora into the flying Rito people and the faerie-like Kokiri into the root-like Korok. In an interesting nod to their evolution device, they allow the iconic Goron people to be found as interesting relics, wandering individuals and traders without a home.
This “evolution” approach can be called a story mechanic unto itself. It’s an overarching rule that trickles down and purposefully directs the details that follow. The island landscape is a mechanic as well, directing game-play and creating a journey-style tale with spontaneous conflict, the thrill of discovery, and hidden natural dangers.
Alright, but how do story mechanics work in a unique story? One without a rich background of other works to lean on? For this, Jim Hensen’s The Dark Crystal provides an excellent example. High fantasy doesn’t often appear outside novels, especially not on the movie screen when there are no human roles at all. The challenge is to create a world that’s engaging, edgy but not too outlandish, and supports a story which appeals to a wide audience.
Fantasy fans, go watch it. World-builders of all kinds, go watch it. I don’t want to give spoilers if people haven’t seen this 80’s cult classic.
The storytelling virtues of this movie are actually centered in its simplicity. There are only a handful of story mechanics put to work around what is a classic journey/coming of age story. The parallel ruling classes, and their connectedness, are the first function of the story. This is a hinge point in the plot, and so shapes the events at the beginning and end of the story. (No spoilers, or I’d go into better detail.)
Another mechanic: chosen one, last of his kind. This may sound old, and that’s because it is. This archetype, however, will never die out. It’s use here is an example of applying tried-and-true mechanics as the frame of a new project. This form is the familiar element among the strange, unique visual functions of the world.
Because The Dark Crystal is a movie, Hensen’s world has to be governed by some visual rules. The ruling classes’ shape and anatomy show a mechanic in play. They are 6 limbed with tails. Granted, the Skeksis (evil ones) have shriveled second arms, and the Urru have full function in both sets. Even the Gelfling race have a six-limbed configuration, at least in the females who have a pair of wings. Rules like these give a continuity to a fantasy world, or a ring of truth to a new alien race in a science fiction world.
Finally, like many fantasy works in the epic style, Hensen used a prophecy mechanic. Having a prophecy to be fulfilled isn’t necessarily a mechanic, but the details of the prophecy are. Setting a firm truth (though ambiguous in its execution) gives rules to be followed and boundaries to respect when developing content. Consider the restrictions set by the prophecy:
When single shines the triple sun,
What was sundered and undone
Shall be whole, the two made one,
By Gelfling hand, or else by none.
The first line is a distinct time frame. The second is the inciting incident of the story: a breaking apart or division. The third shows the narrative goal: a unifying, completion, or resurrection. And the final line hits in the hero and why the audience should be invested in the main character.
Now, this is just an observation on my part, fueled by my never-ending interest in fiction’s various forms, functions, and patterns. It could do with some more effective development and research. Simply put: A mechanic is an overarching rule developed as a law in the fiction, around which the plot and characters are built.
Mechanics are specific to a particular work or series. They have wide repercussions and are expounded upon to create consistent details. Story mechanics support and propel the story forward, and operate as the skeleton, or supporting beams, of the work.