Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.40: Deep vs. Wide

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

How do you decide between digging one really deep, narrow well, and digging one really wide, shallow ocean? In this episode we talk about our desires to build worlds which appear both vanishingly wide and unplumbably deep, when we have time to do neither.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take one aspect of your world and drill into it as deeply as you can.

Thing of the week: Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods, by Danna Staaff.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: An ocean that’s an inch deep? 4000 dungeons, all the same? Do you worldbuild with depth, or width? Depth comes from causal chains, how things are linked together. History, consequences, ripples in the rest of the world. Pick a few, and dig deep on those, consider the ramifications. Watch for the one that gives you surprising yet inevitable, that makes the story unfold the right way. You can’t go deep on everything. If a character uses something, science, technology, magic, to solve a problem, you need to know how it works. How do you make characters with the same background express something different? As a writer, stretch to make characters with similar backgrounds who are also distinctive individuals, who offer something different to the story. Audition characters! Choices and actions make characterization. Think about how the axes of power reflects self-identity, and what each person’s primary driver is. 

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 40.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Deep Vs. Wide.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] I’ve shared this story before on Writing Excuses, but it is one of my favorite stories. I once read a review of a videogame that was an RPG game that was known for having an expansive world. The review was critical because they said, “Yes, it’s really, really expansive, but it’s like an ocean that’s an inch deep. Every town you go to has the exact same copy-and-pasted rooms and things. There’s nothing to explore. All the dungeons are exactly the same. Yeah, there’s 4000 of them, but if you just copy-and-paste the same three dungeons 4000 times, then you’re not exploring 4000 locations, you’re going into three places 4000 times.” This has stuck with me, because the more I worldbuild, the more I realize that I prefer as a writer to have depth to my worldbuilding. I ran into this policy early in my career, where I had started to get popular. I had three magic systems in the Mistborn series, and fans are starting to hear that I was working on something new, the Stormlight Archive, which was going to be big. They started asking me, “How many magic systems do you have in this one? You had three and your previous one, how many are in this one?” I would be like, “There’s 30. There’s 30 different magic systems.” I kind of fell into this more is better sort of philosophy. When I actually started working on the book, I realized one of the things that had made the Way of Kings fail in 2002 when I tried to write it the first time was this attempt to do everything a little bit, to have 5% worldbuilding and characterization across a huge, diverse cast and a huge setting, where the book had failed because nothing had been interesting, everything had just been slightly interesting. So I want to ask the podcasters, with that lengthy introduction, what constitutes a deep story to you, specifically when you’re talking about worldbuilding? What draws you to those stories, and how do you create it in your own fiction?

[Mary Robinette] For me, it’s looking at causal chains, the ways things link together. A lot of times when I see something that is shallow, there is an item, but it doesn’t appear to have any ripple effects, it doesn’t have any effects on the rest of the world. Whereas with deep things, you can see that there’s a history, and you can also see that there are consequences to having this thing in the world. When I’m teaching my students, I talked to them about, and when I’m doing it myself, I think about why. Why did this thing arise? What was the need that caused this piece of technology or magic to occur? How does it affect everyone, and what is the effect, with what effect does using it? It’s not like necessarily the personal toll, but what is the effect on the society? That’s the piece, for me, like looking at how it affects the society, that I feel like a lot of worldbuilders fall apart, because they think about the effect on the individual magic user, but not the connections between those things.

[Dan] So, during the time that I was writing the Mirador series, there was a cyberpunk TV show called Almost Human with Karl Urban, if you remember that one. They did that, they had this very shallow worldbuilding. I remember in one of the episodes, a guy walked by an electronic billboard in a mall, and it like read his retina or did facial recognition and knew who he was and called up his shopping history and offer him a product. I’m like, “Oh, that’s a cool detail.” But if they have that technology, it would be in so many other places in the city. It would enable so many other things. They didn’t explore any of that. It really frustrated me. So when I started building my cyberpunk, I’m like, “Well, I can’t do that with everything. I’m going to do that with… Here are three or four branches of technology’s, and just drill really deep into them and try to figure out how is this going to change society?” How will the entire city feel different if all cars drive themselves, for example? Just really dig into those and try to figure out what the ramifications are.

[Howard] For me, the decision point on deep versus wide occurs after I’ve only gone deep on as many things as I go deep on, because I will find the one which in conjunction with the others, gives me surprising yet inevitable. Gives me all of the pieces I need for the story to unfold in a way that it’s going to do the things that I want it to do. At that point, I feel like… Whatever that thing was, and whatever pieces it touched in order to function in that way, that is where the depth has to be. Everything else, I’ll go wide, and, if I have more budget, all sink an extra couple of holes over here as red herrings. But for now, that’s the research that needs to be done.

[Brandon] You bring up an important point, which is that you can’t go deep on every topic. We’ve been talking about this concept all through the year. But this idea that sometimes you do need to touch lightly on things, basically to pitch yourself ideas that you can catch in later books or later scenes.

[Howard] I wanted to tell a joke about the history of our solar system 75 million years ago. I was wondering how old Saturn’s rings were. So I started doing research. What I determined is that in 2006, Saturn’s rings were as old as the solar system. In 2018, when we dove Cassini through the rings, Saturn’s rings are about 100 million years old, and will probably be gone in the next 200 million. The more I looked into this, the more interesting it got. The reasoning behind, the math of all this, which I’ll spare all you. At the end of that session, I had four hours of information in my head, and zero jokes.


[Mary Robinette] Now that’s familiar.

[Howard] So, I left all of that out, because I realized, “Yeah, I totally write things about that. But it’s not going to move my story forward, it’s going to make people argue because it’s not every… Some people know the 2006 science.” I just have to give it a wide miss. The point here is that portions of my week are absolutely lost in that way. I’ll research something and come away with nothing useful. But I don’t get to have useful things if I don’t do at least some of that research.

[Brandon] For me, where I went wrong on Stormlight Archive, looking back at it, when I first tried to write it, was I was a big fan of the Wheel of Time, which was, at that point, on its 10th book, 11th book soon to come out, I believe. I was trying to compare my series with one that had been going for 12 years.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Brandon] I wanted to jump in at the 12 year mark and say, well, this is what I love about the Wheel of Time. So I’m going to write a book that evokes those same feelings without doing the groundwork and characterization that the Wheel of Time had been doing for over a decade in order to create a really spectacular experience later in the series. What I ended up doing is, I ended up just touching lightly on all these things that I had spent my worldbuilding time on preparing. I ended up with a story that just wasn’t satisfying because of that. Have you guys ever been working on a book and realized I need to do a deep dive on this one topic? What made you decide to do that, and what was it?

[Mary Robinette] I’m actually in the process of doing that right now on the Relentless Moon. One of the things that I went a little shallow on in the Fated Sky was the political situation on Earth. Because most of the book takes place on the way to Mars. Well, the Relentless Moon is a parallel novel that takes place on Earth and the moon, while Fated Sky is going on. Which means that I actually have to dig deep. In order to dig deep into the political situation on Earth, I have to do some… A deeper dive on the climatology of the planet after the asteroid strike. Because I’m like… Like, I have actually no idea as we are recording this whether or not the jetstream is still functional. Because where that asteroid strike was, it’s like it may not be. I… So, I have to sit down… I’ve got an appointment with a… Someone who specifically does computer modeling of this kind of thing to figure out what the climate looks like. Because I didn’t need to know. Now I do. It’s… Yeah, it’s…

[Dan] Yeah.

[Howard] Irradiation…

[Mary Robinette] Totally stalled on the novel right now.

[Howard] The secondary radiation of the regolith, the soil, the dirt, the whatever on a world where there is no magnetic field shielding you from radiation, and deep dove on this and came up with a quote from a Russian scientist who was asked, “Which one’s worse on the moon, the solar radiation or secondary radiation from the regolith?” The Russian scientist said, “They are both worst.”


[Howard] Which means if you don’t shield against one of them, you die. You have to shield against both. But again, this is a case where I was reading for four hours before I found that moment, where… For me, this is a moment where I laughed. Out loud. I’m like, “Okay. I even say that with a Russian accent.” I’m not even going to put it in the book. But the idea that the dirt can be as dangerous as sunlight on a planet where there’s no magnetic field… I tell jokes on that until the radioactive cows come home.

[Dan] In Partials, I am… That whole series deals with a lot of different kinds of science, but there was only one of them that was in the outline. It said, part of my thinking was, “And then Kira figures out how to cure the disease that’s killing everybody.”


[Dan] Which meant that I had to figure out how to cure disease. Right? I could totally gloss over all the ecology, all the genetics, all the everything else, but, and I’ve said this before, I never want to write the sentence, “Then she did some science.” So if I have my character actually using a science or a technology or a magic or whatever to solve a problem, I need to know how that works. So I did actually enough study into virology that I was later able to convince a doctor that I knew what I was talking about when my father was in the hospital. So finding out which one is key to the plot, which one hinges a whole story, that’s the one I focus on.

[Howard] As a side note, writers tend to be dangerous that way.

[Dan] Yes.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and talk about Squid Empire.

[Howard] Oh, yes. Danna Staaff. Nonfiction book called Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods. Which is a discussion of… It’s a… Well, it’s a whole book about cephalopod evolution on Earth. The cephalopods were the first creatures to rise from the seafloor. They invented swimming. Then, at some point, fish invented jaws, and the kings of the ocean became the ocean’s tastiest snack. This book walks you through all of that. If you are interested in worldbuilding, the discussion of this, just the way these things interoperate and interlock and unfold is useful. But it is also fun and beautiful.

[Brandon] Awesome. That was Squid Empire.

[Howard] Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods by Danna Staaff.

[Brandon] Awesome.

[Brandon] So, let me ask you this. How can you take a single culture in a say science fiction or fantasy book and build a bunch of characters who all maybe come from the same background, but all express something very different? The reason I ask this is often times I think our go-to in a fantasy or science fiction book is we’re going to have this alien, and that’s going to represent this, and we’re going to have this fantasy race, and they’re going to represent this. Or, this kingdom is the kingdom of merchants, and we’re going to bring in a character from the kingdom of merchants. Where, sometimes what you end up doing is then creating a bunch of caricatures or things like this in your world. Digging deep, I found that sometimes, the best thing to force me, as a writer, to stretch and make sure I’m not making each of my races or my worlds or my settings or my kingdoms stereotypes of themselves is to say I need three characters who come from a very similar background with a very similar job who are cousins and who are all distinctive individuals, who offer something very different to the story. This has been a really good exercise for me in forcing my worldbuilding to stretch further, where I’m not just pigeonholing certain people from certain countries into certain roles in the story.

[Howard] I audition characters. I mean, I have a cast of thousands in Schlock Mercenary. I will often tell myself, “Okay, I’m going to be doing a scene. There’s a side character here who is this particular race, and I haven’t represented that race before. So, here are four different faces, and here are some different backgrounds, and here are some different attitudes. Which one of those… Which of these people gets to be in my story?” Then I pick one who gets to be in the story. The other three are now completely real to me. By keeping them real, by keeping those three real while the fourth is on the page, the fourth feels less like a stereotype to me. I don’t know if it works for the readers, because I’m taking a comic strip.


[Brandon] It is actually something I think you do really well. When I pick up Schlock Mercenary, and I get different critters from all around the universe, I often… I will often associate the main character personality with that critter. Then they start acting different and I’m reminded, “Oh, wait. This is a culture of a bunch of different people who all act differently.” You’ve actually really helped me to view this in a Good Way, Howard. So, good job.

[Dan] One thing that I am kind of, just now, really learning the depths of, is the idea that characterization is action. That who a character is has very little to do with where they come from and everything to do with what they choose and what they do. I think actually the hobbits in Lord of the Rings are a great example of this, because from a certain point of view, all four of those hobbits are the same. They’re remarkably similar. But if you see one leaping recklessly into danger, it’s probably Merry. If you see one screwing around and causing a problem by accident, it’s probably Pippin. If you see one making a very grumpy, pragmatic choice, and planning ahead, it’s probably Sam. So even though they come from the same place and they all like the same things and, given the opportunity, they will all sing a song in a bar, you know who they are, and they’re all very different.

[Mary Robinette] So… I completely agree with you, that the actions are the things that we judge other people by. Since with secondary characters, we don’t get to go into their heads. One of the ways that I make decisions about which character is going to do what is that I think about the axes of power, but specifically the way it affects… We’ve talked about axes of power on previous podcasts. But specifically, the way it reflects our self-identity. Which I find kind of breaks down into role, relationship, hierarchy, and ability. That we have… We are each driven by these things. Each person will have one of those that is kind of their primary driver. So if I have four characters that are all from the same background, then I make sure that each of them has a different primary driver. So, for instance, Elma, her primary driver is… She’s very much driven by relationship and sense of duty. Whereas Nicole is very much driven by hierarchy and status. Even though they have exactly… Very similar backgrounds. They’re both astronauts. They’re both first… Among the first women astronauts. But they’re driven by different things. Because of that, they make different choices and do different actions. So, for me, it’s about the driver. That’s one of the ways that I make… Differentiate… To try to make the world seem richer.

[Brandon] That’s awesome. We are out of time. Dan, you have some homework for us?

[Dan] Yes. What I want you to do is a little bit of what I did and what I talked about earlier, writing Mirador. Is to take one thing, one kind of science or one kind of magic system, one aspect of your world, and just drill as deep into it as you can. Figure out what all of the ramifications are. I talked earlier about self driving cars. One of the recent discoveries, someone crunched the numbers and realized that it’s actually much cheaper for a self driving car to putter around the city until you need it again, rather than park itself. What is that going to do to the city? What is that going to do to the traffic? When you really take the chance to look as deep as you can into one thing, you’re going to find a lot of very cool story ideas you had never seen before.

[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.