Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 1: World-Building History

Welcome to Season 3 of Writing Excuses! With eighteen hours and fourteen months of podcasting history behind us, it seems appropriate for us to talk about history, and how to write it.

We talk about the iceberg principle — 90% of the history stuff you write never gets seen by the reader, it’s just there to support the 10% that they do see, the “tip of the iceberg” — and why for some writers it’s just not the right ratio. We also discuss Worldbuilder’s Disease — none of the writing you’re doing is prose for the novel — and how to avoid it while still knuckling down and doing the work.

And then (after a shiny commercial break) we knuckle down and talk about writing history, making it interesting, finding conflict, and avoiding oversimplified causality (“monocausationalism.”)

Writing Prompt: Write an encyclopedia article about a war that has 5 distinct causes. Identify and justify each of them.


34 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 1: World-Building History”

  1. I blame antihistamines on the later-than-usual update. Jordo posted the audio file at 12:40am, but I wasn’t out of bed and ready to do the write-up until eight hours after that.

    I’m particularly pleased with the commercial break segue in this episode, and how it leaves certain critical questions unanswered… FOR NOW!

  2. That’s okay Howard, real fans of Writing Excuses go and search the URL for the podcast even though the write-up isn’t there. ;)

    I quite liked this podcast, as I’m starting to build a new novel. It was particularly relevant.

  3. Nice, Chaos. I wish I’d thought of that last night, while I still had my brother’s headphones. *rolls eyes*

    I’ll listen… sometime, though. :P

  4. Yay, season 3 starts! Thanks for the podcast!

    Had to listen several times to figure out the shine part.

    I do feel history aspects are more for ‘novels’ then the short stories I am working on. That is, unless I can elude to it with a sentence or two.

  5. I agree with Howard on the point about the Wizard. I think you sometimes have to turn the process upside down. Look at the stuff you already have and mine it for stories. If nothing else it is a good way to create short stories which if nothing else are great writing practice.

  6. I think I have the opposite problem to Worldbuilder’s Disease right now. Since I like to have as much outlined as possible I get stuck between the need to do more world building and the desire to write. Currently I am writing but I realize I do not have enough details to make my scenes stand out. To continue with the analogy, I don’t have enough smoke and most of my mirrors are broken.

    Other first time authors may be in a similar situation. I’ve been tempted to put this novel aside so I can work on a stand alone novel to build up my skills. Instead, what I will do for now is finish a draft of this novel and then determine what world building I need to improve it. However, I’ll admit it is certainly tempting to set aside this Golden Idea for a while to work on a stand alone novel.

  7. But… how can you search the URL when they include the name in it? Hard to predict… Now if it had a regular format?

  8. Cancel that question — I just realize that the MP3 files do have a regular format. It’s the HTML posting that has an irregular form.

  9. One thing that was not mentioned in this podcast that I am actually playing around with right now is the idea of taking concepts from the real world or at least mythologies of past times to use as a background/basis (not 100%, but a reference point to build your stories from) to give it a certain extra weight. Obviously you have to be careful how you pick and choose should you do this because the world still needs internal consistency, but it’s just as easy to screw up building from scratch.

    The bonus being that people who figure out what you are basing your world on will have an extra “in” to tie them into it and give them another set of things to look for, what other tie-ins are you using to reference that history/mythology/etc to your work.

  10. Writing Excuses Indexed?

    Over at http://sites.google.com/site/writingexcusesindex/writingexcuses/ you will find links to Writing Excuses, the transcripts, Season One Index, and Season Two Index.

    The season two index at http://sites.google.com/site/writingexcusesindex/writingexcuses/IndexSeasonTwo.htm is the new one! With all of the episodes listed, titles, links to the podcasts, and links to the transcripts.

    Just in case you really want to find that session with Bob Defendi, or the Three Act Structure, or something?

    Let me know if you find a mistake!

  11. *facepalm*

    It’s funny how, as much as you might know something, sometimes you still need someone to point it out before you can recognize it in your own work.

    Thanks guys.

  12. I’m actually going through this now while doing my 2nd draft. I know that about a third of what I have written will end up in book 2. Book one is the setup so I am trying to find the balance between showing enough of the world to foreshadow the next books and keeping the pacing in book one moving.

    Your podcasts have helped me get out of neutral and kick it back into a higher gear.

  13. I think that getting stuck in world building is more of an addiction than a disease. We get addicted to the creative process, playing God with history, geography and characters.

    I offer a few suggestions for treatment:

    (The first one will drive Brandon insane!)

    1. No Outlines/No World Building: If you’re like me,a discovery writer, outlines kill your ability to write a story. So don’t do it! Instead write the story. DO keep notes about the world your creating so that you remain consistent and if need be do research or expand where needed. But above all else, write.

    2. As Howard suggested, if you spent hours writing backstory about the wizard and the magic sword, might as well write a story about it. That is, look at what you already have and mine it for stories ideas. Write character backgrounds in short story form, they might be good enough to publish on their own. Maybe your big epic is not one giant novel but a short story anthology. Or poetry collection.

    3. It may be that you are not a novelist. You can still put all the time wasted…I mean creating your universe to good use. People pay good money for that, such as game companies (electronic and pencil/paper). You might want to collaborate with others the way comic book artist collaborate with their writers. You “paint” the canvas, they “write” the dialogue/story. Heck, make it a group effort with your online/real life writing group. Turn it into a franchise.

  14. Wait, I’m no done yet!

    On the subject “monocausationalism”.

    Instead of walking the story backwards to the “one” event, why not start there and explore the ramifications of it. Apply the Law of Unintended Consequences (unintended by the characters, not the author) liberally.

    Who benefit for the Rise/Fall of an Empire?

    What happened after the comet crash landed on the island?

    Who really won/lost that pivotal battle?

    By following the threads from the center of the spiderweb (the “one” event) you can see how they branch out and how those threads are affected by other events. That should give the story some meat.

  15. @Patrick Sullivan

    I’m doing something similar right now and yet I wonder about that. As long as it’s not copied 100%, it should be fine… but I think some readers could see the ‘assumptions’ as too far-fetched.

    I’m trying to say “It’s Magic!” but… it seems tricky even as I’m wrapping it up.

  16. It seems to me there are two levels of “history.”

    1. There are small hints of CHANGE in places and people.

    You come upon an orchard in the woods that’s gone wild and is overgrown. It takes two lines to describe it and it gives a strong feel of past. The reader wonders who was there, what happened. Maybe you tell them. Maybe you don’t. You mention that the village Knight used to be fat but is wasting or vice versa. I find I can do these types of things usually on-the-fly as I’m writing. And I don’t need to know much about them. I just ask myself if anything has changed with the location or characters in the current scene.

    A few touches of CHANGE throughout the novel give a strong sense of history.

    2. There are events, groups, and individuals who impact or impacted your characters in large ways.

    There was a war with a neighboring country not five years ago. Your characters have to travel through that land. Or perhaps your character lost his sister in a drowning he could have prevented. Or he lost her to slavers. Or perhaps there is a secret police (like the Roman couriers) who arrived two years ago.

    Again, many of these things can be thought up on the fly as you look for conflict and the stories of a place and community. However, I’ve found that it helps to ask a few key questions in the pre-draft stage to lay some (NEVER ALL) the groundwork.

    — What kind of conflicts do these nations and groups have?
    — What events have had a large impact on my character? They can be terrible or wonderful events.
    — Who in the community are my characters friends and enemies? What’s the history?
    — What are the local and regional stories of events (or people) that were eccentric, odd, mysterious, dangerous, or revolutionary?

    I never get all my answers up front. But I will get some. And then as I write I just keep in mind that it’s neat to indicate change every once in a while and to briefly bring up stories from the past that relate to the current matter at hand in the present story.

    Finally, I really like the idea sharing multiple explanations for a story (multiple histories) when it fits and to include more than one cause, although I’m pretty sure the 80/20 rule applies to causation.

  17. YHA! Writing Excuses again!
    I have allot of catching up to do having missed the last four episodes. I mean… Who in their right mind works 3-4 weeks literally ‘in the middle of nowhere’ (on the edge of nowhere) With NO Internet connection, comes home for half a week, then goes back into the mountains to do it all over again?

    more then that, I actually ENJOY it! (except for the missed writing Excuses of course.)

    Thanks for the season three guys.

  18. How do you guys feel about using Worldbuilding to create short stories?

    It’s something that allows an author to use more of the information they’ve created without trying to bog down the current tale with more than it needs. And by writing short stories it could enhance the atmosphere/realism of the created world.

    There is the problem of becoming ingrossed in a story other than the novel, but at least it would be a story that could be saleable.

  19. I just wanted to thank you, Dan, Howard, and Brandon for the past two great seasons of podcasts. When I began writing again, I searched for guidance and thanks to your podcasts, I received that in abundance! I look forward to this podcast each week more than new episodes of say, Family Guy (I don’t really watch a lot of TV actually, lol).

    I enjoyed the episode, the worldbuilding podcasts are always interesting! ;)


  20. This one helped ALOT. My entire story is reliant on the world’s history, and (like every one of these podcasts I listen to) this one’s thrown the reality in my face that I need to redo it all. Thanks guys.

  21. I really wonder why nobody mentioned R. Feist’s works (the Midkemia series, see crydee.com) in relation to this podcast. In my opinion it really deserves a plug for this topic, since it’s the only books I know, where you can see the events that you witnessed in one book, become history in a later book (which can mean 50-100 years later). And that’s one of the biggest strengths of the series: watching the beloved (and now dead) characters become legend.

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