I’m an engineer by trade which means that, as I look at the world around me, I’m often searching for design and questioning the purpose and meaning of what I’m seeing. When I look at my built space I often ask, ‘why this column right here, what’s it supporting?’ ‘Where does this vent go?’ Etc. This trait isn’t reserved for engineers alone, however and we’ll often find our audiences digging for meaning and context in our stories. I think signage is a helpful shorthand here.
When you’re walking down the road and you see a sign that says something like, “Don’t pee in the flowers” aren’t you struck struck by the question ‘why the sign?’. It strikes me as pretty obvious that someone ought not to pee in someone’s flowers but when we search for context we come to the inevitable conclusion that someone at some point peed on that person’s flowers. And the flower person didn’t like that. So they posted signage. From here your mind drifts, why would someone pee on someone else’s flowers? Could they not reach a bathroom in time? Is it a neighbor having a feud with the flower guy? The point is this. Every sign has a meaning and if you take the time to consider it the implications of almost any given sign are very broad.
As we take our audience on guided tours of our world all we’re really doing is showing them some signs that they derive the deeper meaning from. It’s not always economical or interesting to explain the sign. Sometimes it’s simply best to leave a ‘don’t pee on the flowers’ sign and let your audience’s mind reel at the possibilities. Rather than say ‘dwarves are greedy’ explicitly why not have dwarves haggling in the background over a trivial purchase to make sure they ‘get their money’s worth’? Let your audience explore the meaning of that interaction rather than tell them explicitly.
In short, Worldbuilding can be like an iceberg, the audience sees the very top of it, that’s the part you made but the real joy for an audience is uncovering their own theories about what lies beneath.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
James wrote this! James is a host on the Worldcraft Club Podcast. He loves tabletop rpgs, running and drinking too much coffee. He lives with his wife and young son somewhere in Central Pennsylvania.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.