The scale

This is a prolem I’m still fighting with all my might. Here’s an example of it.

Let’s say I have a very basic ghost story. A person is being haunted by a ghost and tries to figure out why so and how to get rid of it. At first, I focus on the important things: the main character, the ghosts’ backstory, the way the situation gets fixed, etc. But then I encounter the world building and it all goes to hell.

“Where do ghosts come from?” I ask myself. “Do ghosts live forever or do they disappear after a while? Are there problems of overpopulation in the ghost world? Are there animal or insect ghosts?”

And the problem is, those are all legit logical questions. But the audience doesn’t need to know the answers for them. In this case, I’m “digging too deep”.

If the story is simple and basic enough, people are gonna catch on to what’s going on. Very few people are gonna ask the same questions, because we’re used to the concept of ghosts, we don’t need the extra explanation to understand what’s going on.

Most horror stories benefit from keeping stuff in the dark. “Under The Skin” wouldn’t have been so disturbing if we knew more about the aliens and their motives. Stephen King’s “It” was terrifying the first half of the story because nobody knew who the hell that creepy supernatural clown was and what he was capable of. When you find out it’s just a giant spider from the sewer, it kinda ruins the magic.

And you know how annoying those on-screen instructions can be in some games? Especially if they pause the gameplay to explicitly state “HEY BRO IF YOU PRESS SPACE YOU’LL JUMP”? I didn’t even think about that until some people pointed out that most great games of the past didn’t explicitly tell you that. Instead, they built the first stages in a way that allowed you to figure out the controls and game mechanics yourself, through trial and error. That was more entertaining and didn’t feel like you were being treated like a moron.

Same thing here. Of course, you can make a character spew exposition, the wall of text will probably take just one panel instead of the several silent ones. But the walls of text are tiring, boring and basically demonstrate that you either don’t want to put the effort into the “show, don’t tell” principle, or don’t think your audience is smart enough to figure things out on their own.

If you can’t find a way to deliver exposition other than “just text”, at least bother to present it in a less exhausting fashion. Put it into two word balloons instead of one, give it several panels with some demonstrating visuals, just do something.

At the same time, there’s the problem of leaving your audience lost and confused.

Let’s say I have another ghost story, but this time it’s no ordinary ghost story. For example, the plot revolves around the ghost world and depends on how it works. In this case, if you make up stuff like “the ghosts turn visible once they eat chocolate pudding”, people are gonna scratch their heads and go “Where the hell did that come from? Do ghosts eat? Do they digest the food? Do they have food in the ghost world? Why chocolate pudding? Does it have some physical effect of the ghost bodies? Do ghosts have physiology?” etc.

Basically, as soon as you bring something new and unconventional to the table, people lose that sense of familiar territory and expect you to explain the new rules.

But if you think that just explaining everything is a good way to go, trust me. NO. You’ll never find the end to the mountains of questions, and the deeper you dig, the more questions are gonna arise. You either need to be a genius and build a world so perfect, so logical and harmonical that no concepts conflict with each other, or just say “fuck it, I’m not gonna overanalyze it any further” at some point. You need to draw a line somewhere, but it’s very tricky to decide where exactly.

I don’t know the answer to that “where” question, and I don’t think there’s one, since it depends on the story. But it’s one of my biggest problems, just because I keep digging and digging and don’t know how to stop. I enjoy the worldbuilding, I don’t want to accept the traditional concepts just because we’re used to them, I love challenging ideas, but more often than not that attention to unnecessary details overshadows the attention to the characters and the plot.

I just want you to be aware of the both sides of this coin. Don’t create asspulls with no thought behind them, but also remember that some flaws are gonna be forgiven by the suspension of disbelief and you shouldn’t get stuck on them.

EDIT: I also wanted to add that it depends on the goal you’re going for in your story.

My first example is a simple, basic story, most likely very character-driven. In that case, the worldbuilding serves as a background to what the heroes are going through. Explaining the ghost stuff takes away from the emotions and character development you could’ve shown instead.

Something more epic, that involves many main characters, many different stories, many big important events, many generations, even, makes the worldbuilding the main star of the story.


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