My Worldbuilding Wednesdays aren’t really meant to be an overarching “how to write” series–whether or not one does something well, it takes a special gift to show other people how to do it. What I am hoping to accomplish is to get you to think about some of the less-than-obvious elements that can really grab a reader if used effectively. These are the little things I notice when I’m reading stories, and 99% of the time, they make the difference between an okay story and a story that sticks with me long after I’ve reached “The End.”
Today’s post is about the background of the story. A few weeks back, I talked about TMI–dumping too much information on the reader that wasn’t relevant. The opposite of TMI, however, is ERS–Empty Room Syndrome. I can easily get sucked into a story where two fast-talking, personable individuals trade witticisms like lightning bolts during a thunderstorm, performing fast-paced actions and taking me on a wild ride through action-packed excitement. And I’ll go along with it. But the excitement and the wit get forgotten as soon as something shiny flits past and diverts my attention, because there’s very little to anchor me to either the wit or the action.
I’m not saying to stop the fight for an extensive treatise on the history of the cobblestones in the courtyard in which the two parties are fighting. Where the details (and the devils) come in is as a reflection of the story’s core conflict. Princess Leia standing up to Darth Vader is an interesting battle of verbal conflict, but what anchors that scene isn’t the actual dialogue between the princess and Lord Vader. It’s the stark white of the stormtrooper uniforms over top of their black under-armor. It’s the princess’s flowing white dress versus the hard, regimented lines of soldiers and the unrelenting, impenetrable black of Vader’s imposing presence. His height versus her shortness. Lucas didn’t put all this black and white, these hard angles and soft lines, up against each other by accident. He’s very clearly letting the audience know who the bad guys are, and why this conversation is important.
Rick and Ilsa, in the movie “Casablanca,” have a core conflict over whether or not the needs of the individual come before the greater good. That conflict theme is anchored in the backdrop of WWII north Africa, where Rick’s place of individual needs fulfillment rushes head-first into Ilsa’s situation meriting the greater good.
Your story backgrounds become intrusive travelogue entries if they don’t successfully anchor and reflect the core conflicts of your characters. External world conflicts, even if the characters have very little effect on them, can be an integral part of the story if they mirror and enhance the characters’ own struggles. When your world fits, reflects, and enhances your characters this way, you end up with a richer, deeper story that affects your reader on more levels. Those anchors hold the story in your readers’ minds long after they’ve closed the back cover.