Six impossible things

The Cool Stuff

The coolness factor is possibly the best and most useful reason for doing worldbuilding in advance that I know of. A few minutes spent deciding whether the heroine’s adventure will be mostly lost in a jungle, shipwrecked on an island, trapped in a weird hotel, or hiding in a secret underground cavern-world, can give the writer the basis for coming up with cool stuff that really make the setting memorable … and often, the character and the plot as well. This is particularly true of otherwise-generic settings.

The cool stuff is the little details about the world that make it unique in some quirky way. Escaped guinea pigs that have gone feral in the air vents of the domed planetary habitat. Flying gargoyles with removable wooden wings. Portraits that move and talk and preserve the personalities of their subjects. Swarming weasels and chameleon tortoises. The Butterfly of Storms. Real life bat bombs.

The cool stuff sticks in readers’ memories and makes writers chortle as they write it. It’s the stuff that makes worldbuilding more than a meticulously dreary fitting together of historical information, projected technologies, and orbital mechanics. It’s the stuff that writers talk about when they really want to brag about their work-in-process, but they don’t want to give away the actual plot. It’s the stuff that tickles writers’ imaginations – and not just the writer who’s working on the story.

One of the ways you know you have hold of something good is that other writers hear about it and immediately say things like, “You say you can check out of this hotel any time you want, but you can never leave?  Ooo, it’s a modern version of being under-the-hill in the faerie court! Or maybe like Persephone, only it’s checking in instead of eating pomegranate seeds that traps you. Do the people who check out have to be the maids and cooks and waiters? If nobody ever leaves, do some people have to sleep five or ten to a room, or in shifts? Or does the number of rooms keep expanding? How long has this been happening – are there people there from the middle ages? People whose parents got stuck and who’ve only ever lived in the hotel? Do they count as being checked in? How do you get clothes when the ones you brought start to wear out? I know, you have to bribe the maids to bring you new ones, and they can only give you more and more outrageous outfits from whatever year you arrived…”

For some writers, the cool stuff comes first, at least some of it. They get this mental image of their hero fending off a cloud of flying dinner-plates-with-wings, and they make up the world and the plot to fit. But most of the time, the writer needs at least a minimal idea of their world to come up with cool stuff. As usual, what that minimum is varies wildly – for some, “it’s a domed Earth colony on a world that’s being terraformed” is enough for the feral guinea pigs to show up, while other writers need to know that they’re writing a modern Cinderella Goth-girl from New Jersey hitchhiking out to the Burning Man festival before they think of her pet tarantula and that she’s going to want combat boots instead of glass slippers.

Poking at the worldbuilding in advance frequently lets writers come up with cool bits before they’re needed. This has its perils; it is easy to come up with some really cool bit that simply doesn’t fit the story, and breaks your heart to leave out. The advantage, though, is that if you’re making stuff up in advance, you aren’t limited by the needs of the story. You can invent laundry monsters that live off the dirty towels at your eternal hotel, and the whole culture of the maids and waiters and eternal guests, and all the weird conferences and events, and come up with characters like the 300-year-old bellboy who never actually checked in in the first place, but didn’t figure out he could still leave until he’d been there for 100 years and now won’t try because he’s afraid he’ll crumble to dust if he steps outside the grounds.

One of the biggest advantages is that if you’re doing worldbuilding in advance, you can keep changing your mind. You aren’t committed to a particular event or place or creature. If you decide something doesn’t fit, you don’t have to cut a scene or a chapter or a whole subplot. You don’t even have to remove it completely from the world. You can just decide that the gargoyles with the removable wings live in a ravine on the far side of the continent that your heroes aren’t going to visit. Or you realize that the feral guinea pigs don’t make sense, but the idea of escaped pets does, so you change them to feral lab rats and gerbils.

Basically, this part of worldbuilding is brainstorming. You sit around (alone or with friends, as it suits you) and think up weird-but-plausible magical creatures (or weirdly implausible ones, depending on your world). You consider the societal implications of having wizard lawyers. You come up with cool nanotechnology sculptures that change shape and size and color according to the viewer’s mood. You take whatever you know about your setting so far – even if it’s only “it’s a space station orbiting Betelgeuse” or “it’s a suburb of Philadelphia” – and think about the things in it that would be cool and fun to write about, that would surprise you, that would surprise a future visitor. Things that make you go “Oooo, yes, that!”

And then, as with all worldbuilding, as with every aspect of writing, you take the cool bits and think of how your characters will react to them. Would they be surprised to drink from a stream and discover that the water is lemon-flavored, or is that normal for them? You think of how the cool bits might affect some of your scenes – maybe the protagonist fights with the laundry monster to retrieve his last pair of jeans. And then you wonder why the jeans are so important, and circle back to make up another cool bit about the barter economy inside the eternal hotel, which affects the plot, and the characters, and other cool bits.

Theoretically, you can keep this up as long as you want, but eventually you have to check out…er, stop and actually write the story. Though it doesn’t really stop; if you’ve collected enough cool stuff during the preliminary stages, more of it will show up as you write.

  1. “For some writers, the cool stuff comes first, at least some of it.”

    Me! Me! Me! Me! Me! :o)

    Although sometimes a Cool Bit will show up later, and/or in the form of a minor character or plot twist. E.g. that crazy old guy who sees criminal conspiracies everywhere and who calls the police each day to report them. Then one day he doesn’t call in…

  2. Oh! Pat, I hope you’ll write a story set in the eternal hotel, because I want to read it! 😀

  3. In the department of We Could Not Make This Up, the bat bomb was real:

    My fave WWII memoir.

    Ta, L.

  4. What drugs were you taking when you wrote this post?

    I’d like some.

    • Not sure what you mean; most of it is actual examples. The feral gerbils are from Lois Bujold’s Komarr, for instance, while the gargoyles with the removable wooden wings are from one of the Oz books – I think it’s Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, but I’m not sure. And the hotel is obviously from “Hotel California” by the Eagles; “you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave” is part of the last verse. The moving portraits are J.K. Rowling, the swarming weasels are mine, and the Butterfly of Storms is Terry Pratchett. I didn’t have to look any of them up; I just remembered them (in the case of the Oz book, decades after my last reread). Which is all the evidence I need that they’re Cool Stuff, for me, anyway.

      • nit
        Quantum Weather Butterfly

        • “This is the butterfly of storms.
          “See the wings, slightly more ragged than those of the common fritillary. In reality, thanks to the fractal nature of the universe, this means that those ragged edges are infinite – in the same way that the edge of any rugged coastline, when measured to the ultimate microscopic level, is infinitely long – or, if not infinite, then at least so close to it that Infinity can be seen on a clear day.” – Interesting Times, Terry Pratchett

          I believe that in later books he expanded the description and gave a lot more specifics about the butterfly and what it was actually named, but this is where I remember it from.

          • It’s not called the Quantum Weather Butterfly until 3 paragraphs later.

            (is this why Terry is not allowed as a subject on Mastermind?)

          • The Persephone’s Arms Hotel — a shared world/short story collection?

            Must look up Persephone.

      • The swarming weasels are inspired, by the way, and it’s gratifying to think you might recall your own creation with a degree of fondness as well.

        I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t remember whether you made them specifically magical or not, but they wouldn’t have needed much, considering the clear parallels to their imputed social structure with real-life naked mole rats.

        My partner’s favorite author is LM Montgomery, and she generally resists contemporary fantasy I nudge in her direction (though she has reread Sorcery and Cecelia several times), but she seemed to enjoy the Frontier Magic series as much as I did, which is saying quite a lot.

  5. The coolness factor is a major reason why I don’t do much worldbuilding in advance. If I try to work this stuff out before I start writing, the ideas I come up with tend to be rather pedestrian. Whereas if I start writing and develop the world as I go, much more interesting things wander out of my back-brain and onto the page.

    (And yes, I do still come up with things I can’t use… or can’t use right then. They go in a side-file, in case I find a use for them later. Quite often I do. And if I don’t, well, there’s always the sequel.)

    Though I do love the feral gerbils in the air vents. Sadly, I think my underground colony’s environmental controls are too strict for that….

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