Exercise #25: Seeking Joy in Superfluous Worldbuilding
Ursula K. Le Guin, Lincoln Michel, It's a Wonderful Life, Star Wars, Lauren Groff, Dana Spiotta, Rachel Yoder.
Happy New Year! Here’s hoping your 2021 came to as smooth and safe an end as possible, and that 2022 begins well for you and yours. I’ve been indulging in a quiet couple of weeks at home here in Arizona, taking a break from writing to catch up on some reading and to enjoy the holidays before heading back to teaching in a couple weeks. But I’ll be back at the desk on Monday, trying to finish up a short story before returning to my novel draft. Looking forward to getting back at it!
As always, I hope your own writing goes well this month, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Enjoy this month’s exercise, be safe, be kind, and happy reading and writing!
What I’m Reading:
Matrix by Lauren Groff. Groff’s Arcadia is one of my favorite novels, not least because I think it has a perfectly made plot: the book’s structure is so well-built without ever being mechanically obvious. Matrix might be even better. It shares some of Arcadia’s best qualities—a large cast of compelling characters, a seemingly effortless ability to move the reader through time, a focus on the life of a community as well as an individual’s journey—but here I think Groff pulls everything she attempts off with even more skill. Marie, her 12th-century abbess protagonist, is one of my favorite characters of the year.
Wayward by Dana Spiotta. Another favorite writer of mine here! Wayward is probably the first novel I’ve read that has clearly captured life in the wake of the 2016 election without hyperbole or didacticism, while also being willing to acknowledge all kinds of complexities and complicities inside communities and families. It’s also a beautifully written book about motherhood and marriage.
Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. Nightbitch and Wayward came out two weeks apart from each other this summer, so I started them both together back in July, then had to set them aside (in part because my own book came out in the week between them), before finally returning to them both this December and reading them cover-to-cover on back-to-back days. In many ways, they’re a fantastic pairing, with Yoder’s protagonist experiencing early motherhood with Spiotta’s narrating from another fifteen years or so down the line. I think Yoder’s novel keeps getting stronger as it goes, and it has one of my favorite endings of the year: the weirder this book got, the more I loved it, and the end was such a surprising place to land that I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Exercise #25: Seeking Joy in Superfluous Worldbuilding
During my creative writing education, it was frequently suggested that everything in a story or a novel needed to tightly serve the plot or the intended effect on the reader. Sometimes this idea was pushed under the rubric of something like Edgar Allen Poe’s “unity of effect”; other times it came in the name of concision or minimalism or keeping your fiction’s length under some imagined page count that would make it palatable to publishers and readers. In the abstract, this is probably reasonable advice—I write way more material than I need for every book, which means a lot ends up on the cutting room floor—but as a reader I know there’s also memorable joy to be found in a good digression or an interesting bit of scene-setting or a bit character who temporarily steals the spotlight.
I’d argue that much of what makes a good book or movie or TV show memorable or even lovable exists outside the main plot or the most important objects and settings to include “unnecessary” details or characters or plot lines. As a writer, I’d say that these seemingly extraneous details—the “superfluous worldbuilding” that isn’t load-bearing for the story but nonetheless makes up some enjoyable proportion of the experience—are some of the most fun parts to write, and that the joy derived from their creation often fuels me through the more difficult tasks of figuring out the main thrust of my story.
On Christmas Eve, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life (as I do every year), and noticed again the pet raven that Uncle Billy keeps in the Bailey Building and Loan. The bird appears several times in the movie, but I think it’s never mentioned in dialogue by anyone, not even Uncle Billy. It’s possibly intended to be doing some symbolic work—it appears mostly in scenes where something bad is happening—but if so, it’s a very subtle touch in a movie that’s generally low on subtlety. My whole life, I’ve loved noticing the raven when it appears, then immediately forget all about it when it leaves the scene. Same goes for the other “wild” animals we see only briefly in Uncle Billy’s home, like a squirrel and a caged owl he keeps among his pets. What’s going on with all these animals? They’re part of Uncle Billy’s characterization, obviously, but would anyone have noticed if the animals had been cut to save on the production budget? (Researching this, I did learn that the raven was a star animal actor—and so perhaps contemporary audiences would’ve recognized him?) I’m glad the animals are there, but I would’ve had a hard time making a case for spending money on them in advance: a more aggressive producer might have struck them from the budget, not understanding the subtle (but not plot-crucial) pleasure they add to the movie.
Another example: In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, set on the icy planet of Gethen, the native inhabitants wisely drink hot beer to stay warm. But it’s so cold there that ice forms on the surface of the beer as people are drinking. So what’s the solution? Here’s the relevant passage, emphasis mine:
I wondered at this, but we went to table at once, and one does not talk business while eating; besides, my wonder was diverted to the meal, which was superb, even the eternal breadapples transmuted by a cook whose art I heartily praised. After supper, by the fire, we drank hot beer. On a world where a common table implement is a little device with which you crack the ice that has formed on your drink between drafts, hot beer is a thing you come to appreciate.
I love The Left Hand of Darkness unreservedly: it’s one of my all-time favorite books. And that “common table implement” for cracking beer ice is one of the parts of it I remember most often and most fondly. It’s not necessary in any sense of the word: little that Le Guin’s novel is commonly lauded for is obviously enhanced by its presence. An editor focused on reducing page count at all costs might’ve struck it out—but wouldn’t the resulting book then be poorer without it? Absolutely. In part because I believe that the reader can feel some part of what I imagine was Le Guin’s glee at having come up with the implement in the first place.
A third example. In the future of Lincoln Michel’s cyberpunk baseball noir The Body Scout, drones are everywhere, although they’re rarely part of the plot: they serve as set dressing or as means of moving objects around the scene, with drones filling in especially for jobs that might have once been done by low-wage workers. There’s a courier drone shaped like a pigeon. A batting practice drone with a tongue that slurps up loose baseballs. A freezer drone that delivers cold beer. And so on. But my absolute favorite drone in The Body Scout doesn’t even serve a direct function in the scene it appears in. It’s just a little bit of background noise, glimpsed while characters waste some time watching futuristic TV (again, the bolding is mine):
We sat on a bench in a supraway station for an hour watching the streams. The news stations didn’t have anything to say about the Edenist raid, or Zunz’s death for that matter. They’d moved on to the playoff odds, the starting lineups, exciting prospects in the upcoming draft. Or else other news stories. The state of the One China trade talks. Russia’s Neanderthal riot trials. A human-interest story about a boy whose drone had been lost on vacation in Florida and somehow made the long journey all the way to Boston to reunite. The boy hugged the blinking black machine and told the news anchor, “He’s my bestest friend in the world.”
This drone recasting of something like The Incredible Journey was a laugh-out-loud moment for me when I read it the first time. Again, it’s entirely superfluous to the plot: these two sentences could be cut without damage to the plot or even to the world Michel has built. But if the plot isn’t richer for their inclusion, surely the book is. I’m so glad this little aside is there, and, like Le Guin’s “common table implement,” I know it’ll end up being something that sticks with me.
One other function these kinds of superfluous details can serve is to allow you to worldbuild around the edges of your main thematic material. For instance, in my Appleseed, the main thrust of the story is about climate change, geoengineering, our relationship to the nonhuman, and so on; much of the future worldbuilding in the book is in the service of creating a plausible worst-case scenario for a near climate future. But at the same time, I thought, What are some smaller things I can see happening in the decades ahead that might be worth including, even if they can’t be the focus?
One very small thing I hit upon: in my novel’s future, the U.S. has finally switched from imperial measurements to metric ones, so all distances and weights in that part of the book are given in kilometers and kilograms and so on. I also reserved freeways for automated trucking, because if there aren’t human drivers involved, automated cars might be able to drive at faster rates with better safety. Neither of these things are important, and maybe they’re not even particularly interesting to anyone but me: certainly they’re not the kind of thing that gets mentioned in reviews. But putting them in took up very little space, and the ideas emerged naturally from the kind of future-making thinking I was doing alongside figuring out the details of my plot. It’s fun to fill in the frame around the main events of the story, and I think writers should look for all the fun they can find, for themselves and their eventual readers, no matter how serious a book they’re writing.
In the novel I’m drafting now, one of my goals has been to make the backdrop of the story as interesting as the foreground by finding ways to suggest the other stories happening throughout the city my protagonists inhabit. I want my wholly invented world to feel lived-in, in part to make room not only for the story I’m telling but for the possibility of other stories to be told later. When I think about this, I often picture the Mos Eisley cantina in the original Star Wars, whose unremarked-upon background characters have launched so much Expanded Universe content over the decades. Imagining what else was happening in that room has long been part of the pleasure of being part of the fandom—or at least it was, before the background of every moment of every Star Wars show or movie had to be filled with Easter egg references to other things we’ve already seen. In so many ways, it’s what was superfluous about the worldbuilding in the original Star Wars movies that allowed them to endure, igniting the imaginations of fans to go beyond the fairly straightforward story the films told. A tighter, more constrained focus on “unity of effect” would’ve created a poorer world, devoid of incidental pleasures—as would slashed budgets.
Thankfully, as a fiction writer the only budget your story has to contend with is the scope of your imagination. So why not go for broke, and fill in every scene you can with as much pleasure and delight as possible, even if it isn’t strictly necessary?
Your exercise this month is to write a new scene (or to revise an old one) in which what is happening in the background is as enjoyable as what occurs in the foreground. How might you go about this? A couple hints:
You’ll get the best results by writing a scene driven by a clearly understood conflict: a character wants something and sets out to get it. Even if the scene is driven by dialogue, the dialogue should have a clear want attached. By the end of the scene, that want should be able to be fulfilled or denied: keep the conflict appropriate to the scale of a single scene.
Remember to keep things proportional. The foreground action of the story should take up most of the word count: that’s what foregrounds it. The superfluous worldbuilding will happen around the edges of the scene, or come up glancingly during the course of the main action. (One good place for this is sometimes in the actions we use to keep our characters’ hands or bodies busy while they talk.)
The best worldbuilding emerges from the consequences of the choices you’ve made: that’s what part of what connects the seemingly superfluous to the necessary. Find some of the details that go around the edges of your scene by imagining what else is implied by any changes you’ve made to our world as you invent your own.
Don’t be afraid to embrace the strange or the absurd in your background details, both of which often thrive in the margins of a more straight-laced story.
Play a little hard to get: for me, the best kind of superfluous worldbuilding is the kind that makes me want to know more, even as I know the writer is never going to deliver that. That’s part of what lodges the pleasurable incidental detail in the reader’s imagination: the only way you can learn more about it is to imagine it yourself.
Good luck! See you next month!
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed was published Custom House in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, will follow in March 2022 from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.