by, Alex Yuschik
You guys already know my feelings on being engaged when you’re writing– if you’re not, then your reader won’t be either. But how do you make a world that your readers can slip seamlessly into and want to visit again? Especially with all the advice around telling you not to infodump or deluge your readers in backstory, it’s hard to find that balance of being immersive and inviting without drowning your reader in facts.
You already know you have to layer your information in gently. I’m not going to talk about it. The real question for me when I write is, how do I make this world awesome?
For this, I want to talk about how it’s done in Pacific Rim.
That I am in love with this film is probably news to no one. But the fact that it has such a huge and devoted following might be.
You read posts from fans analyzing how characters interact, displaying beautiful gif sets pairing characters with their jaegers, and art that gets you in the gut. No one’s pretending that this movie isn’t some goofball summer flick with “giant robots punching alien monsters in the face” (quote by an officemate) and you realize that in saying you like this you’re basically admitting you’re okay with that cachet.
And you like it anyway, you realize (or you do if you’re me), because the world is just so damn good.
So how do you pull that off as a creator? I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers on this one, because I don’t; it’s very much something that I struggle with when I’m trying to make fantastic stuff– how do I make this even bigger than the story in my head, how do I make people want to come back? But, I can identify a few things in this movie that I feel like could be cool to adapt into manuscripts (apart from the obvious need for more giant robots in our lives).
The first time the reader sees something happening that’s different, it’s a big deal. Just like the first time we see Raleigh and Yancy get into Gipsy Danger, it’s a huge deal– the audience hasn’t seen these characters inside their jaeger, much less know about the cool mind-sharing idea that lets them pilot it, even if the Becket brothers have done it before. For a protagonist who’s new to the world as well, it’s easy to work in world-building– the main character experiences everything for the first time that the readers do.
For characters already familiar to a world, that gets a little trickier, but is still very doable.
Sure, the Becket boys have fought in Gipsy before. But when the audience joins them, it’s fresh. We see Raleigh as this gung ho guy, and Yancy as the cool older brother. We hear awesome, get-revved-up-to-fight music, visually we’re informed about the state of the technology– you can see the metal spines in the suits, the matching logos on the crew’s jackets, how the pilots’ armor plates are slightly dinged up, and you get the feeling that Gipsy Danger is not a new operation. These guys have done this before, even though you’re seeing the neural handshake in full technicolor detail.
Even if you’re not introducing your readers to a fantastic world, there’s a special weight attached to the first time a character performs or learns a task. Like the first football match that’s described should be an epic ordeal, if one of your characters plays and it’s a major part of the story. Or if you’re writing about breaking into places, then picking a lock or exploring an abandoned building should be big deals the first time they happen. After, as the readers get more used to it, it’s okay to just breeze through. The first time Harry Potter picks up his wand, it’s a special moment in the series. But obviously later, he’s casting spells all over the place– tailor your readers’ experience to the characters’.
In creating the film, Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham said that their goal was to have the story fit into the world, not the world fit into the story. The worlds that we love the most are the expansive ones, the ones that we can imagine being in long after the story is over, the ones that make us seriously reconsider our academic year bans on writing fanfiction because we are just so desperate to get another hit of the creative magic that is that story’s world.
Call it self-insertion or just having a healthy imagination, but people love to fill in the gaps. If Ollivander’s existed only so that Harry could get his wand and move on, then why bother thinking about it too much? But tell us about the different types of wands and what they mean as Harry tries them out, and we’ll be thinking “oh man! I would totally have a holly phoenix feather wand!” or “ooh, wait, am I more a dragon heartstring person or a veela hair girl?”
Same thing with the jaegers. We’re only introduced to one at a time, but each has its own capabilities. Gipsy Danger’s analog protects it from electronic attacks, Striker Eureka is digital but the most advanced and fastest, Cherno Alpha is slow but an absolute tank, and Crimson Tiger’s three arms make for easy kills even if it requires three pilots. It also begs the question: who would you pilot with? We also know that there were other jaegers before these four– again, opportunity for the audience to create more jaegers and history in their head.
Plan out your world, but don’t hand-feed readers everything. Come up with cool lingo and don’t explain all of it. Give us cool options for characters and objects–either houses, robots, wands, or whatever. Have readers come out of your story hungry for more.
Whatever story you’re writing, use your world to encourage a sense of wonder. So much of world-building is making your world an even bigger thing than your story. One of the things that struck me cinematography-wise about Pacific Rim is how the kaiju and the jaegers are always larger than life– the first introductory shots literally show them being too big to capture fully in a frame, they are so colossally huge that your sense of scale is thrown from the start. Use all the shock and awe tactics at your disposal. If something is supposed to be a Large, Significant Deal, make the lead-up epic.
Probably the most useful thing I learned from Pacific Rim was that sense of scale. Not just for the kaiju and the jaegers, but also for the conflicts in the story. The world is having a governmental crisis– there are riots happening and people freaking out in the streets, but these things don’t take center stage. World leaders are convinced that this coastal wall idea is a great plan, even when it so obviously is not. Is there corruption happening there, bribery? We don’t know. That’s not the focus of the story.
That being said, direct the reader’s focus to where your main conflicts are, even though you’ll have other things going on in the background. You could just as easily rewrite Pacific Rim to be that story of corrupt leaders, told from the POV of a rioter in Manila or Sydney, with the jaegers crashing around in the distance and doing God-knows-what and exploding things. You could look at the daily life for the survivors, like how Raleigh had to earn his food by working on the wall– what else do people have to do to get by? How does Kaiju Blue affect the water supply? What about the black market of kaiju body parts? Think about it as a creator, but don’t feel pressure to work it into your central conflict.
Sometimes the best world building is the stuff that gets slipped in as background info. Like having your main character’s little sister and father working on a diorama in one scene and having her mention that it won first place at school in another. Or showing subtle changes in the environment, like a house falling into disrepair or slowly being renovated. Or seeing the changes in the jaeger suits over five years, from clunky armor plates to smooth, flexible black bodysuits. It’s not an in-your-face sign that the technology has advanced, but it’s there nonetheless, a quiet reminder of the steady march of time in the film.
Above all, make something that we as readers will want to come back to, to carve out our own space in. The beauty of Pacific Rim is that you want to pick out your own jaeger and choose a co-pilot– you want to inhabit this world, sea monster kaiju-aliens and all. Study your favorite books– what about Harry Potter and Divergent make you want to come back to those books? Give your readers’ imaginations some room to play.
As a writer, you are a lot of things: a character’s inner voice, the director of your own film, an arbiter of dialogue and a drawer of lines on maps. Get creative. Make your world contain your story. And, most of all, make something beautiful out of nothing.
Alex Yuschik is an intern for Entangled Publishing. She’s thankful for beautifully written books, giant robots, and you guys reading this, and she wishes you a very tasty Thanksgiving holiday. Find her on twitter @alexyuschik or on her blog.