This is happening too often. In front of me, a story sits, 70K words in, and I am spiraling out of control. It is to be a lengthy story, an epic, in the fantasy genre, with my estimates being somewhere in the neighborhood of 200K+ when finished. And for the most part, I know the characters and the plot. The problem is — there is no world.
In fantasy and science fiction, world building is a critical element. It is critical in just about any story, but in where literature might benefit from operating in what is effectively the real world, fantasy does not have that luxury. Think about Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or Harry Potter and wonder how these stories would be if it weren’t for the volumes of lore and detail that created the world these stories inhabit. Think about how one felt as though they could storm the gates of Mordor, walk through Westeros, or stroll through Diagon Alley, understanding the nuances of the cultures there conveyed through both overt passages written by the author or through subtle hints conveyed through dialog and action. Without the effort placed into creating the world, these stories wouldn’t be so fantastical.
In my writing, there are two stories I write about where this exists. One is in my Gravity saga (get Remember the Yorktown to start this one), a space opera where we’ve colonized the solar system, but have yet to find technology to take us beyond that limit. The other is Agnes Pyle (get book one, The Dangerous Life of Agnes Pyle here), where like Harry Potter, there exists a world interlaced within our own.
With Gravity, I decided to slowly introduce the cultures and technologies as they came into the story. But it is humanity, simply in the future. Cool tech is the biggest feature, but I’ve laid crumbs for things that can be explored later, such as androids, cyborgs (humans who altered their bodies with AI components), and the various moons and planets each forming their own ways in and out of the Alliance — the overarching governing body of the planets closer to the Sun. I purposely want a slow introduction and build, because the intention is that over time I will build onto this world through the many stories being followed.
Then there is Agnes, where there is a group of individuals with supernatural abilities charged with guarding the fragile barriers of the mortal realm (the world we live) and the supernatural realms. The rules of the Sentries (those aforementioned guards) were the key component and easy to manage, with the only trick being the supernatural realm — where the possibilities literally are endless.
In both tales, though I do not necessarily have a fully detailed outline, I have synopses and notes detailing out the path forward and the rules many of these worlds operate by. But in this massive tome I am trying to write? Nope. Decided to try my hand at pantsing the hell out of that story.
Unfortunately, I can’t seem to learn that writing these kinds of stories by the seat of my pants simply won’t work.
Ever read those fantasy stories where dues ex machina runs amok and nothing seems to make sense? Those are the stories written like how I am trying to write this new tale… one I am already on my 3rd attempt at writing. I hate them. About the only thing saving me is my insistence on writing where I know the out before I write the in. Meaning that I know how the character is going to get out of a situation before I write them into one, therefor avoiding the need for a dues ex machina to save the day. Sometimes, even just a simple clue that alludes to the power an individual can access under duress is enough. Or a hint to a magic item that the character doesn’t yet understand. So long as the groundwork is laid bare in some way, the situation can be rendered. My problem is that I am only doing this on the small scale. With a story of this size, that may or may not be used to create a world where I write other tales into, I need to do more than just the small bits of plot for minor situations; I need to have the world built with all the lore and rules made so that I can move through it well… knowing how I can move.
The races of beings need to be flushed out, with their cultures, their lands, etc. How do they look? Talk? Walk? Their powers and abilities?
What about the kingdoms? The land? Seasons? How does the weather impact them?
Legends? Gods and goddesses? Are they real? Dead? Involved?
What magic system is used? Glifs (think Doctor Strange)? Wands? Inherent ability or learned? Where are the limits, the power caps?
To the layperson, this all likely seems unimportant, but for those people I would say that it seems à propos to give thanks to the stellar writings of those who came before — who made these things seem like these worlds just… were.
It goes back to that deus ex machina issue, too. When these rules are not set and ironed out, it can easily seem like everything is being made up as it goes — which laughably is what writers do. Solutions appear out of thin air with little evidence getting it to appear as though it isn’t is the skill. That is where the pre-planning, the vetting ideas out ahead of the writing can actually win. Of course, we pantsers hate that. We all claim it “goes against our creative ways”. In a way (at least for me), it feels like it is actually more laziness and impatience. I want to dive right into the story and go wild.
That only works in some stories. It can be done with fantasy, but the scope has to be somewhat narrow. Huge fantasy epics? Not so much. Epics (in my opinion), to be done well, need a fair amount of planning done before the story begins. The world needs to be built first — or at least prior to writing the story.
It gets to the crux here: what am I to do with this story that I keep trying to write without planning or world-building? I have to put it aside for now. Unlike previous times, I am not going to scrap it out. Some pieces of it will be usable in full. Others might need to be modified, but in general can remain in place. Of the over 70,000 words I wrote, I am certain about half of it may be salvageable as I work through the rules and the world that it exists in.
In the meantime, I have a few other stories that I can shift over to. There are the two series I started in Gravity and Agnes Pyle that I can write the second books on. There’s also a few other ideas sitting right here on the ready that I can work on that don’t require large amounts of planning while I work to build the worlds that this story operates in.
It will make for good practice. And a hard lesson to me that I can’t pants my way through every story.