World building can be fun, sometimes even a distraction that helps us feel like we’re writing when we’ve actually not moved forward on the story, all for the sake of finding the right feel or atmosphere.
Many writers have a sense of the places that their stories are set in, knowing the mood, the environment, and what it feels like to walk the streets, halls or equivalent of the places in their world. They mightn’t have the details written on the page, but if pressed they often know how a place smells, how the air feels, how quiet or loud it is, and many other factors. They’re all important parts of creating a convincing world, but there’s more to it.
A house might be pristine once it’s built, and for the occasional days when the residents expect visitors, but somewhere lived in always has a degree of disorder to it.
Decay and degradation through use are part of the realism. Things break. Things get dirty. They get messy. Sometimes they’re actually taken apart and put back together, or replaced entirely. Beyond the physical nature of the world, it has a history. Events in the world’s past affect the world, whether they’re natural or artificial phenomenona. The expanse of civilisation, earthquakes, wars, meteors, floods, continental drift – all these things alter the state of the world. Some of these have caused the world to become the way it is, and that’s where we begin to get depth of environment.
The overall story you’re telling might have been possible in another environment, but it would have had differences. While the condition of the story is often that the normal world gives way to extraordinary circumstances, nothing happens in isolation. The ordinary circumstances by which the world reached its status quo before it was turned about by the one you’re telling, that’s part of your story’s history.
It isn’t just the environment though. The character have lived lives before your cold open, they’ve made mistakes, borne their guilt and confirmed their bias. They’ve failed or succeeded, and they still carry it. Unlike the homes and buildings and vehicles and transports of the world, there’s no way to wipe their slates clean. They carry their shortcomings with them, and the events they’ve lived through have informed the sort of people that they are.
What’s happened? That’s what you need to discover. Play the detective and find out what’s pushed people into the lives they lead, and see if it tells you why they act the way they do next. Be the archaeologist and uncover what’s in the past of the world that might be a predecessor or latent spark for the incident that’s happening now. In short, find the Understory. It’s another layer to storytelling that may or may not be relevant to the one you’re trying to tell, but simply knowing it will open up your creativity and may lead to small hints and details being added. Whether the reader is told about what happened, or if it’s just an event looming over the present, it adds another layer.
Thinking about your current story as a flow-on to a non-existent one, or a sequel to something you don’t intend to write, allows you to have callbacks to the ‘historic’ material of the world in a natural way. The events and changes of the understory aren’t waiting around as an info-dump, but something that still echoes throughout your world.