Temples are places of worship, sanctuaries of knowledge, and monoliths to that which has come before. And sometimes they have Zelda bosses at the end of them, but that's beside the point. In this series, I will be exploring the elements that make up the pillars of storytelling. No figurative stone of the storytelling temple is more important than another, and they all work together to make something, that alone, they could not. Join me for part one of this multi-part series into the temple of storytelling.
My 8th-grade teacher handed out maps to the entire class and told us we were now responsible for the development of a whole settlement. (This is definitely on my resume, by the way). There was the vast ocean to the east, the land spotted with different topography, and an inlet, coursing up into the new world. Should I have a ship full of settlers land near fertile soil, but be a little too close for comfort to the potentially aggressive tribe? Or settle the rocky beach that's easily accessible, but will we be able to grow corn? We had to reason out the best places to settle, then deal with the consequences. Home would be influenced by what was around our new lives.
This is what creates culture. A community is affected by the geography, resources, and other groups of people that are around them. The way a society dresses, what materials they build their houses from, the language they use, and the traditions they keep, all flow from where they live. Do they make their home in a place that snows eleven months out of the year? They probably have more ways to describe snow than someone from the tropic jungle. Do they have no fertile land of their own, but rely on trade with minerals from the mountain nearby? Then they probably hold the best merchants in high regard. Does a group of people have to deal with dangerous fauna on a daily basis? Maybe the culture is rooted in the tradition of the hunt and lore of the forest. These kinds of things will mold a culture.
This is no different in storytelling. Whether you are basing a story in a real place or creating your own, the world that sets the stage will influence everything.
“I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances). The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
I can fanboy all day about the master of world building who created locations, culture, functioning languages, types of food, detailed history, and relationships between the different groups that populated Middle Earth. Tolkien created an entire world, so elaborate that you could end up knowing the history of his narrative more than our own planet's past.
I want to focus just on the geography, for now. Tolkien made a picture in his mind what his fantasy world would look like, then went from there. Why? Doesn't a deep story need compelling characters and a plot that allows an audience to become invested? Yes, those are important, as we will see as I continue this series, but they flow from the setting. These elements all work together, but when creating characters and story elements, the setting can create realism in the development.
Think about it. Tolkien made sure to meticulously have a handle on the distances between the places in his created world. It may sound like an entirely unimportant thing to worry about, especially to start with, yet, he was able to make the journey feel that much more believable. Characters weren't suddenly in places that were long distances two chapters ago, only to appear right next to each other in the current section. Every step feels grounded in reality for the Fellowship as they made their way to Mordor because Tolkien took the time to create a realistic map and stuck to it.
I don't want to make it seem like world building to this detail is only important in completely author created settings. In fiction, even places in the real world are utilized for the writer's creation. Actual locations provide the blueprints for the author's vision. The more an author immerses themselves in the facts of a setting, the more believable that fictional adaptation is.
One of the best ways to learn about a particular city, country, or region is to look at a map. There's something in the layout of a place that can give you and idea about what the people must be dealing with. It also gives you a realistic idea of how the characters would describe where they are. Think about where you live. You know it better than any place on the planet, more than likely. You wouldn't need to ask directions, or know which areas not to go to after dark, or what the popular places are to eat at. You understand the dynamics. For your writing, you need to know the location of your setting better than your characters do, as if you live there too.
This also leads to unexpected discoveries, even after you have already begun writing. In the second draft of the novel I'm working on, I switched some of the locations of the setting. This, of course, led to new research, fitting in some of the story I had already told into a new place. I had two characters escaping the forest, but in this new location, outside of medieval Metz, the forest was far off from the city. This was a change from the original draft where the forest was right against the city walls. I needed a place for them to escape to realistically. That's when I so happened to discover a little chapel sitting at the edge of the forest, St. Hubert's. With research, I found that it existed back in the setting of the story. Had I not looked at a map, I wouldn't have one of my favorite scenes from the book.
World building is a starting place. It shouldn't be all of your focus, so, don't hinge everything on it, hoping that it will be interesting enough to carry a story. Let me spoil that line of thought, no matter how fascinating a world is, without meaningful characters and a plot to drive a story forward, that world is a hollow beauty full of potential adventures never to be properly told. The temple of storytelling is all about balance, all aspects working together.
Looking over the simple map, with the coastlines widening at the end of the bay and rivers meandering their way to the sea, I carefully made my choice on where to settle the first colony in this new Jr. High planned world. (God help us). I took the ship as far up the river as I could before it became too shallow. There was fertile land perfect for farming with river access for trade. The locals seemed friendly enough, even though it took some time to communicate with them. Some of the settlers didn't like that we placed so much trust in them, however. In spite of the fact that I was trying to change the course of history, and live in peace with the native tribe, too many other settlers allowed their fear to control their decision making. So, the colony would grow in that fear and mistrust, wanting to protect the new farmland, laying the foundation for the kind of people that would develop there.
You see, a story already beginning to bloom out of the simple location of the setting. There's conflict, potential character roles, and a plot that can go in a few different directions. The more details about the farmland, the tribe, and the settlers own backgrounds, would all lead to deeper plot points. And, it all began with a map. Allow the world you create, whether complete fantasy or something from reality, to shape the characters and the story appropriately. The setting can be a character all its own. So when you write, create that new world and take your readers to places they can almost reach out and touch.
The first blocks of your temple of storytelling have been set.