Building a World, Brick by Brick

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I saw the Lego Movie last week with my twin 9-year old boys and it was a terrific example of both what to do, and what not to do, when it comes to ‘world building’. I will try to avoid spoilers but (spoiler alert! for any sensitive Lego souls out there in TKZ)  it was right near the end when let’s just say a ‘human element’ entered the film that the key issue for world building really came to the fore. It struck me as soon as I heard both my sons inhale sharply…

That key issue in world building? 
Don’t break down the bricks of your world.

It’s like when you are suddenly told the entire story was ‘just a dream’ and the main protagonist wakes up….
Or when the curtains are pulled back to reveal the Great Oz…
In short, when the world or story that has been all encompassing is compromised and the mystery, the magic, ‘the world’ is thereby shattered.

For my sons the ‘human element’ in the Lego Movie came perilously close to doing just that. For them, the interior Lego world that has been created was all they wanted to see. The creators of the movie almost pulled the curtains back and neither of my boys was interested in seeing the ‘great Oz’ pulling the strings (or, in the case of the Lego movie, the ‘man upstairs’).

For any writer this example shows just how important it is not to jar the reader from the world you have created. Having seen my boys’ reaction to the near-fatal ‘world destruction’ event in the Lego Movie, I thought I’d compile a list of world building Do’s and ‘Do- Nots’.

  • Do be consistent and reliable. When a reader enters your world they need to feel as though they can rely on you to see it through. Don’t disrespect the reader by being inconsistent or unfair in terms of the narrative you have built.
  • Do create an authentic ending – don’t cop out with the ‘and then she woke up’ kind of denouement. It takes considerable skill to weave plot and world-building elements together, so if a reader is going to invest the time and effort and stick with you on the journey, don’t disappoint them in the end. Imagine if the next book by George RR Martin started with ‘then the boys and girls put down the pieces of their fantasy game and went to McDonalds for dinner…”, you’d be pretty miffed!
  • Do invest the time and energy in creating the ‘interior’ walls of your world. This means doing your research and background work effectively so you’ve answered all the key issues a reader might ask about the ‘rules’ of the world. In a thriller it might be making sure that you know the origins, beliefs and background to the terrorist group you invented…in historical fiction, it’s making sure you know all the historical elements that come into play (from dress to speech, modes of transportation, etiquette etc.). …in a fantasy you have to do the same, and though obviously everything is invented, it still has to be internally consistent.

In many ways both my boys have just ignored the ‘human element’ that came into the Lego movie (and to be honest, for adults, it was cleverly done). All they focus on (and quote word for word!) is the interplay between the Lego characters and the humour and adventure that was so successfully created in the interior ‘Lego’ world that they inhabited. Overall, the Lego movie was really terrific – a great example of how to create a clever fun story – but it also contained a little reminder for me of the perils inherent in any type of ‘world building’.

So when was the last time you felt like the world a writer had created nearly came crashing down?

20 thoughts on “Building a World, Brick by Brick

  1. The other half of this is feeling like a writer didn’t do enough with the world. A lot of writers think of world building as for fantasy or science fiction, but it applies to all genres. One book I read was set in Washington, DC, with a specific element that could only be set there. That was also the extent of the world building. The author generalized everything else. I kind of felt like even the author reading a trifold brochure might have help, because there was anything in the story beyond that one big element. The result was (aside from the really bad ending) a story that stayed vaguely unsatisfying throughout because the characters operated in a vacuum.

    • Good point – as readers we need specifics to bring any kind of world to life. No point having a generic feel (even if there’s one specific local element) as it leaves me at least with the sense that the ‘world’ is very one-dimensional.

  2. I don’t work in fantasy or sci-fi but this is an interesting post nonetheless, Clare. Even if you are trafficking in the “real” worlds of fiction, you still have an obligation to play fair with the reader. And you have a duty to build the fictional world carefully and fully enough that the reader feels they are, indeed, living there with the characters. I don’t like books that don’t give me this feeling…and it’s not a matter of larding on detail and description. It is, I think, the product of the WRITER being in such command of their craft and of thoroughly KNOWING that world. As someone here pointed out recently, the writer must know every detail of the fictional world even if she never uses the details on the page. The knowledge “in the bones” of that world will still be there in the background.

    • I think too many people assume ‘world building’ is just for fantasy or sci-fi but any time we write a story we build a world and the reader has to feel like they can count on the writer to know that world inside out – otherwise it doesn’t feel authentic (and it’s like the iceberg – only the tip actually appears on the page)

  3. One other comment: The intrusion of “reality” in the Lego movie reminds me of Dennis Lehane’s book “Shutter Island.” That book creates polarized reactions; people love it or hate it. SPOILER ALERT. We so buy into Teddy’s story that when it is revealed he has in effect, “dreamed” everything, some readers felt betrayed. Teddy is a classic unreliable narrator, but why I so admire the book is that Lehane built an elaborate Lego world then with one hard kick, tore it all down. Ah, but there is also that wonderful prologue written from the doctor’s POV that hints at what is to come…he talks about seeing one rat escape the island, but his wife says he just imagined it: “you couldn’t have seen it. It was too far away.”

    Brilliant stuff.

    • If you can pull off the ‘tearing a world down’ then kudos – but sound alike there were many readers who felt betrayed. In the Lego movie there were hints too so it some ways it was obvious but still, my boys would have preferred not to have that ending.

  4. Clare, the “it was all a dream” has to be the cheapest trick a writer can pull. At best, it produces a groan, and at worst causes the reader or viewer to throw something. There’s one exception to the dream ending, though. It is the brilliant ending to the last NEWHART show in which Bob wakes from a dream only to find that his wife laying beside him is not Joanna but his “other” wife Emily from his previous THE BOB NEW HART SHOW. Arguably one of the most memorable series finales in TV history.

    • Never saw that show, but it sounds like that was a very clever ending. I say, ‘never say never’, but you have to be able to pull it off big time for it to work!

  5. I was doing a beta on an elaborate fantasy novel and the writer, out of nowhere, used a Disney reference as a simile. I tried to explain to him that there was no Disneyland (or even the fairy tales most Disney works are based on) in his world and lexicon and that by injecting that into the story he was reminding me that his story world really didn’t exist.

    He was quite miffed and called me a nit-picker.

  6. Sometimes crashing the world down makes for a brilliant and unexpected ending. The Sixth Sense and Atonement come to mind as shining examples. Unfortunately, more folks seem to fail at this kind of ending than succeed.


    • Yes – it’s hard to pull off. I had no problems with the Sixth Sense (had guessed this part way through the movie) as it worked well. I wasn’t as keen on the Atonement one – at least in the movie (the sentimentalist in me wanted them to survive and be together:)! I thought the book was great.

  7. Clare–Like PJ Parrish, I don’t write in the genres you speak of. But also like PJ, I think your post asks a good question: what makes a reader feel let down, or even betrayed by a book? For me, this happens when I’ve read reviews that establish certain expectations, and then those expectations go unfulfilled. This usually has nothing to do with “and then I woke up” kinds of tricks. It mostly results when characters turn out to be clichés. Or when dialogue is wooden and unconvincing. But disappointment is especially sharp when I become convinced that a mainstream legacy publisher has thrown lots of money behind a book that turns out to be a dud. When that happens, I truly feel “had.”

  8. I also enjoyed this movie a lot. I am a fan of lego since I was a kid and I not only watched a movie I also play lego games, here are online ones and here you can download one. I am pretty sure that if your kids loved the movie, they would also like the games.

Comments are closed.