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?