Today, I continue my series of Creative Intersection posts with a discussion of plot and worldbuilding (You can find the first Creative Intersections post here, and the second one here). Many of you asked for posts that would tie plot to pretty much anything, and as I begin work on the third Thieftaker book, City of Shades, I am still thinking a lot about worldbuilding and research, so this seemed a natural combination. Sort of.
Sometimes, the intersections I discuss in these posts will be fairly obvious. The last one I did — plot and character — is a good example of this. Tying together story arc and character arc is a fairly intuitive thing to do. As our narratives develop, so do our characters, and since so much of our plotting revolves around our characters’ emotional journeys, the relationship just makes sense.
As it turns out, this week’s blend — plot and worldbuilding — is a little less obvious. In fact, after I came up with the idea, I sat for about ten minutes thinking, “Well how DO plot and worldbuilding work together? I mean, I know they do, but how?” I finally had to break down my work on the Forelands books and the Thieftaker series to figure it out.
What I realized is that there are some parallels between setting and character, and that these parallels are reflected, albeit imperfectly, in their relationship with plot. Worldbuilding, I believe, influences narrative development in three key ways, and I will touch on each.
1. Establishing conflict/tension: A host of story elements contribute to the establishment of our initial story conflict. Some of them relate to character, whether a single characters’ internal issues or the interaction between two or more different characters. But “worldbuilding” also plays a role. I put worldbuilding in quotes because in this case it can mean just about anything relating to setting, be it the circumstances present in a real-world setting, the research demanded by a historical setting, or the carefully crafted conditions of an imagined world.
For instance, in the Harry Potter world, part of the initial tension in the storyline relates to Harry’s history: the death of his parents; his terrible rapport with the Dursley’s; the fact that Voldemort wants him dead. But the starting point for the very first book also owes a lot to the setting Rowling has created: the uneasy coexistence of a Muggle world and a magical world; the fact that wizards and witches are expected to attend Hogwarts when they reach a certain age; the rules surrounding the use of magic by underage wizards and witches.
In my own work, the age-old conflict between the Qirsi and Eandi in the Forelands and Southlands series lies at the root of everything that happens in the books, as does the magic system, which results in shorter lifespans for the Qirsi. In the Thieftaker books, the rising tension between Boston’s colonists and authorities of the Crown in the 1760s serves as a backdrop for each storyline, and the fear of witchcraft that was rampant in Massachusetts in the eighteenth century makes Ethan’s use of magic a point of tension throughout each novel. In short, worldbuilding provides a starting point for most fiction. It may not be the only element of consequence in establishing plot lines; it may not be the most important of these elements. But it certainly plays a role.
2. Tying changing conditions in the world to a developing narrative: This may well be where worldbuilding and character arc are most similar. Just as characters change and grow in ways that help to steer us to various plot points, so do the changing circumstances in our worlds and settings influence the directions our narratives take. Let’s look once more at some examples of this.
If we look again at the Harry Potter books, we can easily see how changes in the magical world shape the narrative arc (as well as the character arc — but that might be a topic for another Creative Intersections post!). In the very first Harry Potter book, Harry’s personal development — his discovery of his magical abilities, his experiences at school, his friendships with Ron and Hermione — certainly form the core of the narrative. But without the search for the Sorcerers’ Stone, without the rumors of a new stirring of the dark forces that had supported Voldemort (and, in the end, the first signs that Voldemort himself is back), without even the existing rivalries among the various houses of Hogwarts, Harry’s character arc would have no context, and the book would have no major plot points.
Similarly, in the Forelands books, the rivalries among the various royal houses, as well as the history of warfare between Eibithar and her neighbors, provide crucial narrative touchstones for the story of Tavis and his fall from grace. In Thieftaker, the Stamp Act riots of August 26, 1765 make the rest of my storyline possible, not only because they provide a possible explanation for the fictional murder committed that same night, but also because they dramatically alter the political landscape in the city, upping the tension level and complicating Ethan’s investigation.
3. Broadening the consequences of our story lines: Character arc and story arc tend to end in very similar places. The drama of our narratives is reflected in profound changes in our characters. These parallels are less apparent with setting, though no less powerful if handled correctly. Sometimes the resolution of our plots can have equally dramatic consequences for our worlds, and this can give additional emotional weight to our endings. But our worlds are far bigger than any single character, and so there are other times when the denouement of a narrative can seem to have little impact on the world around our characters, and that, in its own way, can be equally poignant.
Once more, the Harry Potter books offer instructive examples. [SPOILER ALERT] Obviously, the death of Voldemort at the end of the final book has enormous weight for the entire wizarding world, and even for the Muggle world, though few may be aware of it. Harry is transformed; every character is. And so is the world itself. But at the end of the fourth book, Harry knows that Voldemort is back — which has, again, huge consequences for him. But many in positions of power refuse to believe or acknowledge this, and so the world seems relatively unmoved by the tragedy of Cedric Diggory’s death. And this too is incredibly powerful. In both cases, the conclusions of Rowling’s narrative arcs are reflected in her worldbuilding, although in dramatically different ways. But in both cases the “reaction” of her setting to her plot points carries emotional weight.
In the Forelands books, the resolution of my narrative conflicts is more similar to the 4th Harry Potter book model, and, I believe, is powerful because of this. A war has been fought. Characters who my readers love have died. And yet, prejudice and mistrust between the races remains, making the suffering of my characters seem somewhat (though not entirely) futile. That was intentional. Wholesale change — a complete disappearance of all prejudice and hatred — would have felt contrived and utterly unrealistic. And so my plotting was influenced by my setting, and also had an impact on my setting. The Thieftaker books are similar in this respect. My readers would not believe my stories if Ethan’s inquiries into murders changed the course of American Revolutionary history. But I find ways to allow Ethan’s work to have an impact on historical events, and I also allow those historical events to shape the conclusions of his inquiries.
In my view, plot and worldbuilding ought to be tied together throughout the narrative arc of a novel, just as I made clear in my first Creative Intersections post that worldbuilding and character point of view are closely connected. The bottom line — the point of this series of posts — is that it’s all connected. There are no independent elements of storytelling. When our narratives are working well they link together character, setting, and all the other ingredients of our stories.
So, how do you link plot and setting in your work. Can you share with us some examples?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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