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Excerpt from Melissa Scott's 1997 Lecture
Building a World

copyright © 1997 Melissa Scott

An idea alone isn't a story. Once you've got an idea that excites you, you have to work with it to create a setting, characters, and ultimately a plot that brings that idea to fictional life. The idea itself obviously dictates some of your choices, but the choices you make at this stage will also affect the way your idea develops through the plot, so it's worth taking time and care with them.

Whether you're doing it first or last, however, your goal is the same: to create a physical and social background that supports your story the way sets and costumes support a play. Science fiction as a genre functions by telling an essentially unrealistic story in a realistic fashion. A well-developed, detailed background helps create that realism, the willing suspension of disbelief that readers want to bring to any novel. A poorly-developed setting can break that suspension more quickly than almost any other factor. Setting also supports characterization, whether or not you've worked out your characters first. If you have, your goal is to imagine societies that could produce your characters, and a physical world that will support that society. If, like me, you start with setting, you're letting your imagined reality influence your characters at an almost organic level. Personally, I find that starting with setting helps build in complexity -- instead of tailoring worlds to fit my people, I end up creating people who belong in their worlds, and spring from the contradictions and inconveniences of it. But, whichever way you work, at some point you find yourself playing a giant game of "Twenty Questions" as you try to figure out how your world should work.

Most of the time, your "what if" already suggests some limits to your setting, and that's the place to start. After all, if your idea involves multi-planetary travel and a human-settled galaxy, you would have to work unreasonably hard to set the story in the near future in, say, Vermont. Conversely, if you're interested in the electronic cash idea I mentioned in the previous chapter, it's probably to your advantage to keep things close to the present day and possibly to restrict yourself to the solar system, if not the planet. A story about a new, improved form of FTL drive implies multiple planets even if all the action ends up taking place on shipboard -- two factors there that your setting has to account for, a multi-planetary culture and the starship. A story about the first development of FTL, on the other hand, still requires the starship setting, but implies that, if other worlds have been settled at all, they were reached with great difficulty and at slower-than-light speeds. This in turn implies that most of your characters know only one planet well. Your goal is to strike a balance between complexity and complications, to make your story interesting without making telling it unreasonably hard for yourself.

Thanks for dropping by!...

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Updated Nov 30, 2002
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