Shortcuts, world-building and research (clue – there better not be any shortcuts)

Chris @ Writing About Writing has, in his latest mailbox roundup, responded to the “sci-fi avoids research” question that I am sure is a common one from wannabe writers.

He replies:

If you think your the sf/f fandom will go easy on you, think again. There is evil there that never sleeps. Think of those nerds asking the question about the ship design in Galaxy Quest or the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons.

These are some very, very picky peeps. If you have the slightest hiccup in internal consistency or plausible world building, you will be torn asunder. Not that this particular brand of nit picking is constructive criticism or difficult to ignore, but if you’re worried about history wanks getting all up in your grill about inaccuracies, understand that these guys will be worse.

Which, let’s face it, is pretty much the Truth. I am not quite as bad as the stereotypes (although my philosophy dissertation for my degree discussed why Star Trek and Doctor Who contradict themselves philosophically…), but I will notice it when something doesn’t sit right, or seems to contradict itself. It’s the most painful part of being a Doctor Who fan. A show that ran for 26 years consecutively, followed by dozens of novel spin-offs, followed by a reworking that references the original and has now extended to several more seasons, has more creative input from more people than some entire TV channels have. And they’re not always going to stick to the same ideas and rules. After nearly fifty years, it’s almost certain that some contradictions would appear. Therefore, yes, Doctor Who is riddled with questions about how plot point Y fits with dialogue line Z when the two are separated by twenty years or so. Some fans seem to have great fun writing fanfiction that aims to resolve these issues.

In general, reading a science fiction novel that hasn’t been properly thought through with its own internal rules and logic, is just as jarring as inconsistent characters or incoherent location settings.

All that said, I believe that the challenge of internally-consistent world-building uses different skills from doing research (although I think some research is still needed to understand why your rules might have come into being). Certainly, in both science fiction/fantasy and in (for example) historical fiction, you need to know the rules, social customs, technological capabilities and so on inside out and back-to-front – like doing The Knowledge for your chosen time and place settings. Or something.

The difference is that “real-world” fiction, whether it’s historical, crime thriller/police procedural, or whatever, pretty much requires that you learn the rules first and then fit your plot around them. With science fiction or fantasy, to a certain extent you can fit the rules around your plot – as long as you design them carefully. I really would love to write a murder mystery. However, to do that I would need to know a huge amount more than I do now about forensic science, in terms not so much of what it can do but rather, what it can’t, and how long it takes to do what it can. What does it need to work, and so on? With shows like CSI, NCIS, Silent Witness and so on and countless other novelists writing detailed accounts (whether or not those details are accurate), if there’s some plot point I wanted to hang everything on that it turned out could be beaten by some relatively simple gadget or technique, then I would look very silly indeed.

I’ve just finished reading the collection “Six Against The Yard” in which six 1930s detective story writers were invited to try to produce “the perfect murder” with a retired police detective asked to suggest how the crimes could be solved. One thing that deeply impresses me about all these writers, and of course their contemporary Agatha Christie’s writings, is the detail of knowledge of chemistry, poisons and so on. Without a doubt, they must have expected to be criticised if they had their facts wrong and so I believe they knew something of what they wrote. Fortunately, there is a wide range of poisons and venoms out there, with various ways of detecting – or avoiding them being detected – that these early 20th Century writers had plenty of choice in how to have their villains carry out the evil deed (interestingly, the two that focussed on chemistry in “Six Against The Yard” did so not for poison, but explosives to attempt their perfect murders; another used poison with medical detail only, and another used a medical mishap).

I wouldn’t have the first clue where to start in accumulating the information to figure out what sort of a plot would fit when in history for my murder mystery, for these kinds of reasons. However, if I set my crime on another world, say, one recently settled by humans, then I can come up with reasons both social and technological, why exactly the information I need to be available to my protagonist investigating the crime, is available and why information I need hir not to have, would be unavailable. In so doing, I start to design my world around my plot instead of vice versa. That presents other challenges. Often the very constraints of reality provide the spark for creative plot development, for example. It also means I need to explore what these social and technological constraints have on the society in which the murder takes place, and how that might impact upon the behaviour, attitudes and ways of life of the characters who present as suspects. The rules that have been designed to fit the central plot must now produce subplots, be constantly in mind when developing characterisation, form the backdrop for a sense of the place and time, and feel sufficiently intuitive once put in place that the reader doesn’t go “why don’t they just…?” and instead goes “how will they solve this problem?” Which of course, is the basis of any good story, not just science fiction.

I think that there is a different “knack” required for the world-building “Knowledge” and the researching “Knowledge”. If you love figuring out the logical consequences of creating for yourself this or that restriction or rule for your universe, then it’s likely that world-building will seem a whole lot easier and more enjoyable. But if you love digging up this or that detail about science, or history, or subsection of society, and fitting a plot around that, then undoubtedly researching is where your strength lies and I bet you find it enthralling and easier than trying to come up with your own stuff.

I lean towards world-building, so for me, that idea of setting a murder mystery on a world where they haven’t got all the fancy gizmos that CSI have would be entirely more fun than trying to figure out if a plot idea I had would make sense with DNA testing and trace analysis and whatever other clever tricks we have these days for catching criminals. It’s one of the things I’m thinking about writing next.

Of course, also tucked in there is a story about at least one, possibly two, serial killers (depending on if he kills her or recruits her) and for that I would need at least enough research so they can get away with what I want them to, and get caught (or otherwise get their comeuppance) when I need them to. I also need to work out what the development from start to finish would be, and why the reader would care. And an antagonist (and why this might not be a cop, so I don’t have to worry about all that police procedures stuff again). But that’s all in the “planning” phase, right?

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. Research versus world-building.

I think I summed it up earlier just why it is important. If “How will they solve this problem?” is the basis of a story (along with caring whether they do, of course) then regardless of if you built the word yourself or researched it through and through, the purpose is to make sure no one will turn around and say, “Why didn’t they just do this?” If there’s a shortcut you missed, your readers will notice.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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One Response to Shortcuts, world-building and research (clue – there better not be any shortcuts)

  1. Pingback: Setting about building a world | Valery North - Writer

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