Some time back I submitted an unnamed novel to my editor for a look-see. It’s a horror story set in two different time-zones, intermingled with time-travel and wax sculptures that bleed maggots. It was an idea borne from two prompts and co-joined into one grisly story. It also required a ton of both research and thumb-sucking.
At the same time, or at least close enough to it, I had that mind-blowing concept of a Steampunk version of my city, Johannesburg, which you can read in my last article: New Inspiration – Steampunk Johannesburg.
I came to realise, though it’s nothing new, that there are two main ways I go about writing a story:
Story Built Around A World
When I came up with a steampunk version of Joburg, I didn’t have a story. It was merely a city of literal gold, with gears built into the rising towers, slowly cranking at each turn, controlling various parts of the city. Some of it controlled the mining for gold. Others, the changing of traffic lights, the control of water, the generating of electricity. A great idea in my head. What then did it need?
- A Fitting Story: Of course every great world needs a story. A compelling story that fits the time, location, and people of the created world. In my head, as I saw this city unfold in front of my mind’s eye, I spotted a figure running along the roof tops of this fabricated city. Who was he? Why was he running? What was that clutched under his arm? As the world is set in a steampunk era, the story could have a feeling of being old but with an air modern lifestyle. There are plenty of stories that can be created from this amazing golden era!
- Compelling Characters: Right so I have the first character sorted – the guy running on roof tops. Maybe he’s being chased by Federation airships and Commander van nie Kerk is hot on his trail. Maybe he’s running to a secret organisation with documents tucked under his arm. Was the character part of political intrigue or perhaps inside the package he carried the still warm heart of his latest victim? Each of these story ideas can be spun around me new world, creating characters varying from inventors, to pilots, alchemists, mad-scientist, and who knows what from the story I hope to tell.
- Intriguing Plot: It’s all well and good to have a diverse world coupled with a brewing story and compelling characters, but what it really needs as well is an intriguing plot. Maybe the gears that everyone thinks merely run various aspects of the city, are actually pieces of a bigger cog. A gear slowly winding down to the destruction of the planet like a giant clock at the center of the earth. Maybe they control the opening and closing to the gates of hell? Maybe its alien technology and below ground in the mines, they have enslaved humanity to use them for powering the cogs. Our character on the rooftop may figured out what’s happening down there and is on a quest to save us all from certain doom. Or they be an advocate for the villains, escaping with plans that will ensure our destruction. Who knows…
A World Built Around The Story
Five years ago I found an image on the internet. A beautiful drawing of a girl with white hair and black vest, grey sweatpants falling down to bare feet. She had white wings. Above her head was a halo… made of barbwire. It’s title: Junk Angel. Once I saw her and the title, a story began to form in my head. The story of a girl who was the Junk Yard Angel.
The first iteration of Junk Yard Angel was about a woman who killed people and turned them into her own mechanical monstrosities.
Later on I began to expand on this story, building the persona of this mysterious woman and trying to find out where exactly she fit in. Thus I had to build a world for herin. I saw junk yards, broken cities, old-school bars and taverns; places where she could find her victims… and they wouldn’t be missed.
What then did it need?
- A Kick-ass World: When you have a crazy maybe-half-robot-totally-human-looking girl with a razor wire halo, then her world has to at least reflect that fact. So much so that most of the JYA world has been built around her. When you read the story you will understand just how much.
- An Amazing Backstory: Knowing where your character (and sub-characters) come from, help define the places within the world of your story. You consider the environments around the characters and ask how the world would look around them. For instance, I have a character from a country similar to Russia/Serbia where snowfall is a constant. What kind of technology or tools would they use in this environment, and how would it reflect in the story.
- Mysterious Magic/Tech System: On the topic of technology, perhaps your characters have an occupation that requires them to use machinery. Aviator. Solider. Taxi Driver. Doctor. Engineer… and so on. Or perhaps they have a particular ability such as magic or some form of “kinesis”. Perhaps there’s a supernatural element to them.
Each of these help define the progression and history of the world, affecting how everything looks and works from buildings to locations to attire to religion. The world-building aspect of your story built from both story and characters.
What is your writing process when it comes to story-telling. Does your world affect your story or does your story affect your world? Perhaps both? What techniques do you use to define what kind of story you’re going to tell?
It’s funny the timing of things. I’m currently reading a book called “Story Engineering” where they discuss the idea that someone could have one piece of a story but not the others, and how easily one piece, like a strong setting or a potent concept/premise, can mislead an author into believing they have all the pieces. Striking how often independent minds reach similar destinations.