Last time out, I talked about how to take a world-sized project and use a wiki to keep it from overwhelming you. Because a wiki is an inherently open-ended way to store and cross-reference information, that means coming up with categories that reflect your world’s construction.
I touched on a little of this last time: people, places, things, and universal background—categories I came up with that helped me think that much more coherently about the kind of world I wanted to make. But one of the discoveries that bubbled up during this process was how the world I was creating and the story I was telling were, ultimately, inextricable. They were one coin with two faces.
This is something I will revisit later on in much greater detail, but I want to digress on it at least once here.
Most of us think of a world as simply a receptacle for a story—a backdrop, or a canvas, or any of a number of other easy metaphors. It’s not. It’s as much a part of the story as the rest of the story.
That sounds like such an anodyne, throwaway statement, doesn’t it? But I think there’s far more to it than we routinely give credit.
We have grown comfortable with the idea of a story’s setting being little more than scenery, in big part because of the way settings tend to be treated like that in many stories. One commonplace way to describe a story is to say “X meets Y”—or in this case, “X set in Y”. Consider the movie Brick: it’s a pulp noir thriller set in a high school environment. An easy reading of such a project is that the environment and the story have more or less been joined in a genre shotgun wedding.
I look at it differently. The point where the environment and the story meet is the story. In other words, you don’t get this story without that specific combination of elements. The backdrop by itself isn’t the story, and the plot by itself isn’t the story. The two require each other to be this particular story and no other.
I know, I know—it sounds like I’m nit-picking, doesn’t it? But the reason I’m coming down as hard as I am on this is because when you look at both elements this way, you’re forced to think about the fact that they eventually have to come into contact with each other. You can’t simply treat the setting like a piece of scenery, or the story as something passively played out in front of it. The two are going to react to each other. Where they meet, there are sparks.
To be honest, one of my biggest pet peeves is when this doesn’t happen. Consider another staple story type where the backdrop and the drama must combine in a creative way: the time-travel story. If the author is relatively unimaginative, you end up with silly culture-shock yuks (“You use WHAT for toilet paper here!?”), or maybe a romance that doesn’t need time travel to exist in the first place or is just there for the sake of adding pathos.
But in the hands of someone with imagination, you have something where the very presence of time travel really does change everything—and not just in the kill-your-grandfather way. Fritz Leiber’s “The Man Who Never Grew Young” comes to mind. There is almost no way to tell the same story without time travel.
So when you’re using a wiki to build your world, you’re also using it to build whatever story you want to tell with that world. That means having things in the wiki that reflect both story construction and worldbuilding. You’re doing both at once, even if you don’t notice it.
More on that next time, when I talk about how the world is also character and vice versa.
-- Serdar Yegulalp