Why Story Seems to be Increasingly Taking a Back Seat
A fascinating read, Mark! Thanks for that. You've now made me imagine the Austen Cinematic Universe, in which all her novels are connected and characters cross over. Thanks for that.
I think you're right about series which emphasise world building and open-endedness being the ones that tend to attract the intense fandom, precisely because they leave room for the imagination in a way that more contained stories do not. Hence conventions, cosplay, fan fiction and so on.
However, I think I disagree with the notion that storytelling and world building are in some way mutually exclusive. I don't see it as a zero sum situation. World building on its own will never be as compelling as world building + a good story (and good characters, and good themes). Star Wars is wildly inconsistent in its quality, but at its core it has great storytelling (even if you only consider the first film). Without that, the world building wouldn't have sparked so many people's imaginations. Lord of the Rings' world building is a critical part of what it's doing, but without a compelling story nobody would have cared.
World building is hugely important to my writing, but it's always, always in service of the story. The worlds of my four novels are all quite distinct, and their design exists precisely to give me a context in which to explore specific themes, give characters compelling motivations, and weave an interesting story.
When you have world building divorced from a decent story you start to get into the territory of 'lore'. That's world building for the sake of world building. It can certainly be fun in a different way, but it's generally not self-sustaining.
Here's a few articles I've written on the topic:
Plus some podcast interviews I've done with Kieron Gillen and Ian Nettleton on world building can be found here: https://simonkjones.substack.com/p/amazing-podcasts-with-amazing-writers
I find it an interesting hypothesis, one that bears some comparison to Adam Mastroianni’s piece that you probably read: https://experimentalhistory.substack.com/p/pop-culture-has-become-an-oligopoly. I’m with you on preferring serious popular fiction over world building, for what it’s worth
Mark, I really have to disagree about your assertion that worldbuilding and storytelling are mutually exclusive. Yes, there are elaborate stories which are driven mostly by worldbuilding (cough cough the<i>Song of Ice and Fire</i> aka <i>Game of Thrones</i> series or <i>Wheel of Time</i>). But I would argue that the story arc of <i>Rogue One</i> in the Star Wars universe is one of the classic tragedy sequences--achieving the final goal only through the sacrifice of the primary characters.
I notice that those who disliked <i>Rogue One</i> were those most dedicated to the worldbuilding--those of us interested in story ended up with a great emotional rush at the ending, tragic as it was.
Story is driven by compelling characters that entice the reader or viewer into the unfolding events. Without those compelling characters, it doesn't matter how exciting the story events are or how good the worldbuilding is. If all you have moving through the story are two-dimensional Mary Sues and Gary Stus, then it's a failure as a story. I have a significant problem with a lot of what is considered good literary fiction these days, because I find the characters unconvincing, unappealing, and unrealistic. If a writer makes me utter those fatal words "I don't care what's happening to these people!" then the book gets put down. Forever. And there is just too much in the literary world today that gives me that reaction.
One of the reasons that I have been so drawn into my worlds of the Martinieres is that the two central characters--Gabriel Martiniere and Ruby Barkley--have a number of complexities that can be played out in so many ways. The last book of the main series, <i>The Enduring Legacy</i> (serialized as <i>Repairing the Legacy</i> on Substack) is about Gabe facing up to his mortality, and his passionate desire to correct the destruction that his psychopathic father Philip wreaked.
In my Goddess's Honor series, honestly, I did enough worldbuilding to have the world hold together so that my characters didn't rip it apart in the process of living their stories. That led to some interesting discoveries as I wrote through that world.
Yes, there are writers for whom worldbuilding is a primary focus, and there are readers who love that sort of work. But even in those universes, if you go to Archive of Our Own (the major fanfiction archive), you see fan-written stories that focus on characters set in those worlds, not more elaborate worldbuilding extension. Even in Tolkien and Star Wars fanfics!
Worldbuilding without story and character is boring. You need a balance of all three elements.
The balance may have shifted (or may always have leaned more heavily on worldbuilding) in some genres, and sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction are especially inclined toward this. Worldbuilding is the media on which stories are grown, and some writers may think a bigger, better, more authentic story can be grown from a richer or purer medium. Sometimes this might be true, as in the case of LOTR, where the mythology needs grounding in its elaborate and detailed world. And I can understand why readers enjoy inhabiting those imagined worlds. I have my own theories about what makes mythology and stories appealing, but often the worldbuilding is an invitation to the mythology--the storytelling--itself. Not everyone wants to invest in a story in an unappealing setting, which is where a lot of "literary" works want to drag us.
But, I agree that worldbuilding can come at the expense or in lieu of story and character. A film could have amazing sets or cinematography, but if there is no plot, or the acting is terrible, I'm not going to sit through it. The temptation in historical fiction seems to be to throw every bit of historical research available into the pot and stir, and sometimes books come out sounding like encyclopedias. I don't need accuracy as much as I want authenticity. A story should _feel_ appropriate to its era without drowning in unnecessary facts and details. I tried to be conscious of this when writing my own historical novels, and despite working with an ancient barbarian world ripe for salacious description, I kept it pretty austere so it didn't distract from my characters. I don't know if I got the balance right, but the best we can do as writers is to create what we enjoy and avoid what we dislike in other literature.
I'm going to weigh in on this, even though I don't feel I'm qualified to say which came first, the chicken or the egg. I like to write what I think are literary stories...(but that thought only came to me after I wrote a few of them.) I like to put my stories in the past, a past that most of us can recall--a more recent past, I guess you'd have to say. I suppose you could also say there's no need for world-building in those kind of stories...but then, I'd have to disagree. Every story that's written, is of itself, its own world. I guess that's why I adore Alice Munro. When you finish one of her stories, you feel like you've just finished a novel. That's because the worlds she builds in her stories are relatable. As much as I like fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction, I don't really write it as often as one would think. I did write one fantasy story, and it has a dragon in it too, but it was an Arthurian tale. I think when you write stories, the reader has his own idea as to what that world looks like--for as much as you have described it, his imagination fills in the rest. It will always be the story that stands front and centre; it will always be the story, and the characters you create. Those, in my opinion, are the "world" in any story. The physical world you create is simply background. STAR WARS is the perfect example of what a setting can be, much the same as the attic for Anne Frank, or the sea and his boat for the Old Man and the Sea. I'm not much for themes, or metaphors, or symbolism, those things slip into my stories unconsciously. I let others look for those things. But if you want, you can see for yourself and tell me if my stories are literary or not...https://benwoestenburg.substack.com
Thanks Mark. Thought provoking as usual. Fair distinction from my angle. I enjoy both world-building and story but the former on screen and the latter in word. Only rarely is this otherwise. Thus, have a thought (psychological hypothesis) to float. Wonder whether the modern tendency towards world-building (apart from the obvious money thing) is directly related to the dizzying and often deleterious complexities of modern life, (imagining Tolkien’s trenches as his catalyst). Something like the frantic and failing search for a longer lasting ether. To my mind, a brilliant story is the opposite: a singular haunting encounter (echoing Eliot) with that verbal reality which is very hard to bear yet closer to being truly alive.
Mark, thanks for this essay. You sum up the world building / story telling dichotomy very well and I look forward to your follow up.
I grew up mostly reading the classics, but somehow I became someone who loves worldbuilding for its own sake. I'm not sure how that happened, which makes me think this isn't something that was trained into me and is rather a part of my nature. Fantasy is my #1 genre now (although I think its emphasis on worldbuilding is one of many reasons; I love fantasy because it's the meeting point of worldbuilding, escapism, and the old-fashioned ways of life which emphasize bravery, wisdom, and other virtues.)
I also enjoy Harry Potter, but I do so because of the characters, not the worldbuilding. I think the world of Harry Potter is far too asymmetrical and inconsistent. Rowling added new creatures and new spells in each book to suit the needs of the story, rather than developing on what she'd done before. To me, it's charming but hard to mentally extrapolate from or predict, which is the chief joy of worldbuilding.
I think a lot of younger readers enjoy the in-world and real-world communities that develop from good worldbuilding. Every Harry Potter fan I know has placed themselves into one of the Houses (and before you ask, I'm a Ravenclaw). Most of us agonized for quite a while before we came to this decision; it's not made lightly. But it feels good to belong. The Harry Potter fandom is also a real-world community in that it's a conversation starter and a common thread. I hosted a party several years ago where the only thing we had in common was a love for the Elder Scrolls video games, but that was enough for a night of socializing and storytelling among strangers.
In C.S. Lewis' memoir "Surprised by Joy," he talks about a transcendental feeling that hit him while reading Norse mythology. He suddenly felt a rush of emotion and wistfulness, a sense of the existence of something greater than himself; maybe greater than the cosmos. "All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still 'about to be'." This was the chief emotion that led him to Theism and eventually Christianity.
I've come to realize that escapism is one of the main appeals of fiction for me. Once upon a time I resisted this knowledge because I thought it made me irresponsible. Now I feel the opposite; as someone who does believe in something "greater than the cosmos," storytelling is one of the only ways we can remind ourselves that there is more to reality.
I have one last quote (and I apologize for how long this comment has gotten... You asked about worldbuilding and I guess I'm passionate.) These words from Eugene Peterson explain why both Fantasy and Christianity appeal to me so strongly.
"The Bible provides the revelation of a world that has primarily to do with God. It is a huge world, far larger than what we inhabit on our own. We live in sin-cramped conditions, mostly conscious of ourselves – our feelings and frustrations, our desires and ideas, our achievements and discoveries, our failures and hurts. The Bible is deep and wide with God's love and grace, brimming over with surprises of mercy and mystery, peppered with alarming exposés of sin and bulletins of judgment. This is an immense world, and it takes time to adjust to the majesty - we're not used to anything on this scale."
Yes, though I’d personally draw a distinction between retreat and escapism. And yes, I held The Power And The Glory closed in my hands for a good while after finishing it.