When I sat down to write the second book in the Thisby series—a mid-grade fantasy series about a girl who takes care of the monsters in a Dungeons & Dragons-style dungeon—I pretty much had the story already worked out in my head. I knew who the bad guys were, I knew the general thrust of the plot, I even had what I thought was a pretty cool title, but there was one annoying little detail that I couldn’t figure out…how was I going to introduce the Wizard’s Council?
The Wizard’s Council had no place in my book. Or in any book, really. If you ever find yourself starting to write a scene involving or even referencing a Wizard’s Council, it might be time to take a good long look in the mirror and then throw your computer into an incinerator. Because nobody anywhere wants to read about the Wizard’s Council.
World-building can be tricky. Too little and you leave your audience adrift at sea, lost in a hazy world of half-finished thoughts and ideas. Too much and you’re writing history books, devoid of any emotional relevance or Story (with a capital S). In my experience, most creators, particularly in fantasy, have a tendency towards the latter. That was the Wizard’s Council.
In order to explain why the Wizard’s Council was such a bad idea, I first need to make an important distinction about how I understand the difference between Story and Plot. Story is the good stuff. It’s the journey that your characters take both literally but also emotionally, metaphorically and/or spiritually. Plot is simply the chronological events that move the characters from point A to point B, so that they may complete their Story. Without the emotional, metaphoric and/or spiritual journey provided by the Story, Plot is essentially reduced to a grocery list of events that happen one after another. Both are important but understanding the fundamental difference between them is crucial to seeing the underlying problems with certain approaches to world-building.
The Wizard’s Council was a perfunctory little bit of world-building that I desperately wanted to force into my book in order to showcase how clever I was in setting up Plot that likely wouldn’t happen for another two books or more (which is further ahead than I’ve actually sold thus far, but I don’t fault myself for my optimism). It was a distraction from the Story that did nothing to enhance or alter the emotional stakes of my characters. It was world-building at its worst, completely devoid of Story.
When people talk about good world-building vs. bad world-building, a sort of obvious example that springs to lot of minds would be the original Star Wars trilogy vs. the prequels. People often point to the success of the originals (in regards to world-building) by admiring how much room they gave to the audience’s imaginations. So much was left in the background, so much remained unexplained, while the opposite was true of the prequels. They said too much, they over-explained, they squashed the viewer’s imaginations. But while leaving details up to the viewers’ imaginations is a neat trick, I don’t think that really explains why one method seems so clearly superior over the other. I’d argue that the real success of the world-building in the originals was that they didn’t weigh the audience down with details that didn’t advance the Story (with a capital S) for the sake of the Plot. They understood that what the audience really wanted was to watch the characters experience their stories and that’s it. Everything else was just set dressing and they didn’t bother to spend any more time with it than that. As a result, they left more room for the character’s stories to be told. Meanwhile, the prequels did everything they could in the name of Plot and even worse than that, perhaps the ultimate world-building sin, they weighed themselves down with plot that had already happened. In other words…Backstory.
Backstory is sort of like the roots of stories that somehow creators in the post-internet world have decided need to be exposed to the audience. Backstory is sorta like being shown a naked person and thinking, “Wow, that’s really sexy! But you know what’d be even sexier? If only I could see their bones! I mean, it’s another layer down, right?” Now, I’m not trying to kink-shame anyone but I feel like by the time you get to the skeleton, you’re kinda missing the point.
In every story we’re introduced to some characters and told to be invested in them. Those characters hopefully grow or change in some way and we watch it happen and that’s the Story. That’s it. The stuff that comes before or after is completely irrelevant unless it DIRECTLY effects the STORY. Those two words are in all caps there because they’re important. Too often creators make the mistake of thinking that because something in the past effected the Plot that it’s somehow relevant to tell their audience. In reality, everything bit of backstory you create effects the Plot the moment you write it down because Plot is just a series of chronological events. But the audience doesn’t need to see all of the Plot you create, just the parts that effect the Story. Unless the thing you’ve come up with DIRECTLY effects the STORY, then it’s just set dressing. It’s fine to have in there for flavor but don’t waste too much time on it.
I’m no expert. You’d be able to tell that if you saw all the pages I’d written about the Wizard’s Council. I’d convinced myself that it was worth the time because it set up Plot but didn’t stop to think about how it effected the Story. By the time I realized it was a waste of the audience’s time, I’d lost countless hours thinking about it. Don’t be like me. Don’t waste time with the Wizard’s Council.