Words about worlds

Worldbuilding: Unanchored Detail

by | Jan 24, 2024 | Worldbuilding | 0 comments

A large grassy lawn is surrounded by high evergreen hedges.  Statues, cloaked in green tarps, stand at intervals around the green.  Bare trees peep over the top of the hedge.  The mood is mysterious.

CC BY-SA 2.0 by Alan Hawkes, part of the Geograph project and hosted on Wikimedia Commons

Think of a series of stories you love. Can you think of a moment when a seed of detail, planted in an early book or episode and left behind, suddenly sprouts and blooms several stories later? Have one? Now ask yourself, did the author truly know that moment was coming, or did they make it look like they knew that moment was coming? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Either way, the payoff is so sweet—but there’s an extra layer of gloating involved when we meant to do that, or can make it seem like we did. That gloat is ours for the asking. There are several ways to get there. Let’s take a closer look.

First, if we’re talking about a role-playing game, we should use our Players! As part of the first chapter of a campaign, we can ask our Players a few questions that add detail to their Characters. If we’re running a Fae campaign, we might ask, “What does your Character claim?” We’ll take note of the places, objects, and concepts that they claim to own or influence. Later, we’ll pick a couple of details that seem promising. Toward the end of the PCs’ next side-track, we can weave in a half-overheard conversation, a comment from a mysterious stranger, or a chest in a lonely hut, tangentially referring to that detail. Then, we leave it be. Later in the campaign, we tie the main plot back to that old side-quest, loop in the target detail, and it looks like the hand of Destiny was guiding the PC all along.

If we’re writing a book or a script, we can do the same thing. It can be a bit harder without the Players, those marvelous collaborators. No two people think alike, so working collaboratively significantly enriches a world. Still, we can do it: for each Character, we write a bit of their backstory. We pick three details that are set in stone; then, three more that are at least half-true. Then, we write two questions and don’t answer them. Instead, in the first few chapters or episodes, we write little flashbacks that lead up to what might be an answer, and stop short, stepping back to the present time and moving on. These questions are our opportunities. As we’re writing along, chapters or even seasons later, we may find a dove-tailing question. “How would the heroes know this?” or, “For the big plot, I need the larcenous heroes to get some experience in high-rise heists first. Okay, so how can I do that? Wait, what if that mentor I never identified was also a thief, and the mentor needed a favor?” Now, we can go back to that flashback, pick up where we left off, weave in the mentor earning that favor in a scene that parallels some amazing thing that our hero recently did, and it looks like we planned it that way from the start.

Never answer all the questions in one season, or one campaign, or one book. The remaining questions let us write tie-ins and revelations in the sequels or following seasons. Done with polish, it can look like we planned two years ahead.

We can create our own questions, too. Add small details, and don’t explain them. For each Character, we might pick an item that they will frequently wear, or an object that we will keep in their background. If we’re running a role-playing game or a show, we can ask the Players or actors to choose. Some of these details may never become important; others will become the answers to questions that we don’t even know we are going to ask yet.

One character might wear a wrist cuff for two seasons before it comes off, revealing a plot-altering scar or tattoo. We, the writers, didn’t think of the scar until we needed it—we just asked the Player to pick something to wear, they picked the wrist cuff, and two seasons later, we found a question to which that character could be the answer. Another character might tend a plant for months. The plant persistently appears in the background, looking like décor. Sometimes, when the character has had an emotionally trying time, we fade out on them, tending their plant, anchoring themselves in the moment. Months later, it turns out that they have been using the plant clippings to make a sympathetic ink. Are they a traitor or a hero? Tune in next week to find out…

Of course, these revelations have more impact if we have been giving the characters periodic, ambiguously mysterious moments. Do it! Let one character wander off at odd moments. Another one occasionally drops into a language even they don’t understand. A third periodically exchanges messages with an anonymous being. We’re building up a great atmosphere of secrets and intrigue, even if particular details never go anywhere.

If we have a gorgeous storyarc, packed with foreshadowing and bristling with tantalizing revelations, we should still use these techniques. Plans derail. Players move away, Characters die dramatically appropriate but unexpected deaths, actors get better jobs, new novels scoop our plotlines. When that happens, we will be so glad that we kept all these mysterious little subplots and cloaked hints around. We can pick and choose from those, add a new idea, and re-weave the fabric of our tale. The join might be visible in spots, but it’s a lot better than losing an entire arc.

Standing this technique on its head can also lead to amazing moments. We discover a story beat we need. Following these suggestions, we can look back at our stack of unanswered questions, undeveloped backstory hooks, and collection of ambiguous hints, and see what might link up with our target beat. Or, we can ask ourselves, “Why wouldn’t the heroes have a connection to this moment?” and see where that leads.

For instance, that high-rise heist. We can link in the mysterious mentor who knows the inner secret behind the heist and reveals it to the PCs. That will make a great story. Or, we can ask the question, “Why don’t the heroes know the inner secret?” The answer may reveal powerful story beats of its own. The heroes are hired by a rival who used to be a good friend. The inner secret is integral to the rival’s past history. Why wouldn’t the heroes know the secret, when they knew the rival so well back then? Perhaps the rival hid the whole story back then because it was part of her own bitter story of lost love. All this time, this rival has been needling the hero about their lost love, and it turns out that the rival lost someone of her own. Now, the rival’s remarks in retrospect take an entirely different tone, transforming the relationship forever, and it looks like we planned the whole thing.

Unanchored details, deliberately ambiguous flashbacks, and unexplained moments give us a chance to tie our world together as we continue building, making us look like precognizant magicians of plot. We aren’t, but we put in the work to look like it, and we’ll certainly take the credit.


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