I don’t remember why my daughter and I decided to check out the Amazon original series Just Add Magic, but I remember that I didn’t expect much. It was, after all, a live-action kids’ show (strike one!) with a cast of unknowns (strike two!) and a premise that promised the saccharine “every episode ends with an obvious life lesson” kiss of death (strike three!).
I didn’t expect much. But I was surprised by how much the show delivered.
The premise is that a trio of tween-age girls finds a magical cook book that lets them cast spells by cooking food. Their cooking creates as many problems as it solves, and they often learn lessons about family and friendship along the way.
Okay, that sounds pretty… um… yeah. Not great. You can see why I had such low expectations.
But the show delivers. The friendship at its heart is real; I can believe that these girls are life-long friends. They squabble and get jealous of each other, but at the end of the day, their love and loyalty win out–and not just because we need a “valuable lesson” at the end of 22 minutes. The family relationships are likewise real. We don’t have wacky idiot sitcom parents, but actual loving, competent parents who might be flawed but are clearly doing their best.
If the relationships are the heart of Just Add Magic, the titular magic is its soul. Over the course of the two seasons, the girls (and through them, the audience) discover the deeper mysteries of the cook book, its history, and how it ties into the secrets of their small town. While the episodes all stand on their own, each one peels away a layer of the greater mystery, and my daughter and I often found ourselves agreeing to “just one more” when the end credits rolled.
That said, it is a kids’ show starring kids. For some people, that’s enough to take it out of the streaming queue right there. And that’s fine. But if you’re willing to engage with it on that level, I totally recommend checking it out on Amazon.
Welcome to the third part of my series on how stories and storyworlds relate to each other. We’ve already discussed how storyworlds only exist to serve as backdrops for their stories, and how creating stories can develop new details for their storyworlds.
Today I’d like to take a brief look at revealing the storyworld through the story. There are three main things to keep in mind:
Keep it Minimal: Only reveal the parts of the storyworld that are relevant to the story. You may know the complete ecology of the two-headed bird-ape, but unless that trivia’s essential to the plot, you don’t really need to share that knowledge with the audience. Just mention the bird-ape in passing (“Jane tossed the bird-ape an apple. It caught the fruit in one mouth while continuing to sing with its other.”) and move on. Avoid the dreaded info-dump.
Think Organically: Reveal the world organically through character actions, words, and attitudes. Characters don’t spout well-known backstory, but act as though everyone knows it. For example, instead of having Jane explain to someone, “Bird-apes are vicious when they’re hungry, so we need to keep them fed,” have Jane stay a healthy distance from the beast and ask its keeper, “You just fed this thing, right?” You can get a lot of mileage out of inferring background by how the characters act.
Learn With the Characters: As your characters learn more about the world, so does your audience. Over the course of the story, more worldbuilding elements may become relevant; as they do, reveal them to both the characters and the audience. The Harry Potter books were great at this. While the author had a whole wizarding world fleshed out, she only gave us bits of its history, economy, and weird relationship with house elves as Harry ran into those elements, so it wasn’t overwhelming.
Thanks for joining me on this jaunt through the realm of mashing stories into storyworlds. As always, if you have any questions, suggestions, or great meatloaf recipes, please share them in the comments or hit me up on the various social media. And if you’d like more of my world-building thoughts, please come visit behind the scenes at my Patreon page, and consider helping support this website.
Welcome to the second part of my series on how stories and storyworlds relate to each other. As I previously noted, storyworlds only exist to serve as the backgrounds to the stories set within them. It doesn’t matter how cool your world of dinosaur-riding psychic elves may be if we never get to experience the stories of those awesome elves.
Today I’d like to discuss how creating stories can help you develop your storyworld.
That might seem a little backward. If the storyworld is there to support the story, why is the story supporting the storyworld?
Because stories are all about specifics.
As I’ve mentioned before, storyworld characters should be archetypes, not individuals. But when creating a story, it needs to be about individual characters.
For example, your storyworld might call for a priestly caste of psychic dino-elves who commune with the sun goddess, but your story revolves around a young sun-priest name Dovos who never learned to control his telepathy, so the tribe makes him wear a psi-dampening headband.
Again, storyworld conflicts are broad things, wide enough to encompass lots of different stories. But the conflict in your story is narrow, personal, and specific.
Picking up the story of poor Dovos, maybe the conflict of the storyworld is a cold war between two major elf tribes. In the story, this conflict is specifically between Dovos and a high-ranking elf lord who he discovers is a spy for the other tribe.
And then there are the details of the storyworld that are too tiny to be seen from the storyworld’s thousand-foot view. When you’re dealing with the big picture of the storyworld, you don’t necessarily zoom down to what type of tea that people drink, or what their favorite sports are. While these are the types of details that can truly make the world feel real, they’re also irrelevant until you need them—that is, in a story.
Maybe we need a scene with Dovos following the spy and watching him meet a contact in a public space. A park or sidewalk cafe seems right, but what do those look like in this world? Hmmm… (sounds of smells of a brief, intense brainstorm) Ah! A public grazing space for small domestic dinosaurs! It’s one part dog park, one part pasture, with people spread out across maybe an acre of grass, each following their dinos around.
One final note: Once you develop all these specifics for the story, make sure you roll them into whatever documentation you have for the storyworld. You never know when you’ll need to reference them again in some other, future story. Future-you will thank you!
As you might expect, the Empire of Venom & Silk storyworld is full of spiders. But while they’re all giant spiders, there are actually several different types of giant spiders stomping around and ruling the place. Thanks to the heroes of the Patreon, here are the most commonly-found types:
The most common of the invaders are called “stalkers” and make up the mass of the spider army. Stalkers are the size of lions, and commonly travel in large groups. While their intelligence is only slightly above that of an animal, stalkers are excellent hunters. They have exceptional eyesight, use pack tactics, and can overpower a man with their sheer strength. Fortunately for their prey, stalkers can’t run as fast as humans can sprint, and have been known to lose interest in prey they can no longer see.
The spiders called “striders” stand about 12 feet tall on long, spindly legs. They are fast-moving and nimble, and tougher than their thin frames would suggest. Striders are intelligent, and often found in charge of military and logistical operations. On the battlefield, they command swarms of stalkers. In the occupied lands, they oversee the slave population and ensure proper production.
A possible sub-species of the striders, “collectors” have a tangle of prehensile tendrils they can uncoil from beneath their abdomens and with which they can pick up people, objects, or even stalker spiders. Some of these tendrils have barbs at their ends that inject a paralyzing venom. Collectors are known to step over people, paralyze them, then haul them away with their tendrils.
Physically similar to the striders, “weavers” have distinct, bright coloration. While the other spiders may be able to spin webs, weavers specialize in doing so. Their webs cover the occupied cities, and provide homes for the invaders. When humans need to be secured for transportation, or a human-occupied dwelling needs to be locked down, weavers are there to help with their webs.
Weavers who are gifted in magic are called “spell-spinners.” They use their webs to form mystic symbols that power their magic, and shape enchanted webs to create arcane artifacts. Spell-spinners seek out Milk of the Earth, and are rumored to use it to perform perverse experiments in the occupied lands. There are far fewer spell-spinners than any other type of spider, but they appear to be the leaders of the invasion.
These enormous, hair-covered spiders stand at least 30 feet tall and serve the invaders by transporting prisoners, raw materials, and arachnid troops to where they’re most needed. Their cargo is packed into webbed baskets that hang from the spiders’ sides, and passengers cling to the beast’s underside or ride on top. Titans are slow-moving and slow-witted. Most need either a weaver to sit on its shoulder and drive it, or a specially-marked guide spider on the ground for it to follow; without either, a titan is likely to get lost or simply stop moving. Nevertheless, the creature’s size make up for its disadvantages. Once this behemoth starts moving, it’s virtually unstoppable.
The riders of Ahbiz were once human. Now they are battle-thralls: soulless creatures swaddled in silks and armor, wielding swords and spears against those who should be their allies. These thralls ride pony-sized spiders called “war-mounts,” which control their actions. War-mounts are biologically joined to their riders by thin cables of webbing inserted into the thralls’ spines. War-mounts are fast, with thick abdominal carapaces, which make them brutally effective cavalry.
The “mind-riders” are about the size of a human head, with stunted legs and oversized fangs. They use their legs to attach themselves to a human’s back, then use their fangs to penetrate their victim’s brain. Through this connection, they create a mental link between themselves and their host. Some mind-riders totally dominate their hosts, turning them into slaves with no will of their own. Others communicate and negotiate with their hosts, allowing the humans to exchange their life for their freedom.
This post was made possible through the support of the heroic patrons of my Patreon page. If you’re not a patron yet, I’d encourage you to swing by the page and see what we’re up to.
As you might guess from my endless blog posts, RPG projects, and various freelance projects, I’m a little obsessed with storyworlds. But obsession isn’t always a good thing. While I get caught up in the characters, setting, and conflicts of the storyworld, it’s sometimes easy to forget that they aren’t the point.
The point of a storyworld is help tell stories. The only reason it exists is support the stories you want to tell. If you have an amazing storyworld, but no stories, it’s a fun thought exercise, but ultimately useless.*
Similarly, stories aren’t about their worlds. Stories are about characters. Now, those characters may be shaped by the world around them, and their conflicts may arise from that world, but without characters… well, you don’t really have a story.
Over the course of the next week or so, I’ll be looking at how stories and storyworlds relate to each other. Specifically, I’ll examine how stories themselves help develop storyworlds, and how much worldbuilding should actually be exposed in the story. Should be a good time!
* One sort-of exception to this rule is the ever-popular tabletop RPG sourcebook. A guide to the Greyhawk fantasy setting for Dungeons and Dragons, for example, is a full-blown storyworld, but contains no stories. As such, I’d call it futile except for the infinite player stories it supports at the table. While the product doesn’t have stories, it inspires the audience to create their own stories, and that’s just as good.
Long-time readers know the drill, but here’s a quick refresher for the uninitiated: while I don’t do reviews per se here on the blog, I do occasionally write recommendations–which (okay, I’ll admit) are like reviews, but always positive.
Today I’d like to recommend the movie Split, the new thriller from M. Night Shyamalan. Yes, it’s been out for a few weeks already, but it wasn’t until I’d heard glowing reviews from multiple sources that the movie jumped from “check it out if shows up on Netflix” to “see it while it’s still in theaters or regret it FOREVERRRRRR.” I caught it last weekend, and I’m glad I did.
The less you know about the plot, the better, but just so you know what you’re getting into, here’s the premise: A guy with multiple personalities kidnaps some teenage girls. Wackiness–horrific, shocking wackiness–ensues.
It’s a small, tight movie. (I mean really tight. It’s claustrophobic at some points.) There are only a handful of actors, and their performances are all impressive. James McAvoy, as the kidnapper, is brilliant as he flips from one personality to another. (I’m not surprised. It’s the sort of role actors love to do.) Anna Taylor-Joy, as one of the kidnapees, brings a lot of depth to what could have been a very two-dimensional character. And Betty Buckley is great as… a character who doesn’t show up in the trailer, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut.
Like many people, I was a big M. Night fan until The Village… then completely gave up on him after The Happening. But after hearing good things about The Visit, and now watching Split, for the first time in years, I’m looking forward to what he does next.
(And yes, there’s a fun bit at the end. I wouldn’t call it a twist, but it’s… a fun bit.)
For the past few weeks, I’ve been up to my metaphorical elbows doing game design on Steel Dragons, an upcoming new game from QuickCharge Games.
Steel Dragons is a co-op adventure board game in which each player takes on the role of a hero who fights monsters, uncovers ancient secrets, and works with the others to complete their quest before the world falls into chaos. Broadly speaking, the gameplay feels like Runebound meets Arkham Horror… in a steampunk version of medieval Japan.
The Steel Dragons setting has all your favorite feudal Japanese elements (Samurai! Ninja! Warrior monks!), but in a steam-driven world quite different from our own. For one thing, there are steam-powered vehicles and automatons. For another, the setting is infused with a mysterious substance called “smart steel” which gifted people can use to create weapons, armor, and even living creatures—such as the eponymous steel dragons.
The most unique element of the Steel Dragons project is that it’s a digital board game. That is, while it’s totally a board game, with card decks and dice rolls, there’s no set-up, clean-up, or endless card shuffling. You just install it once onto a laptop or tablet, which serves as the game’s board, then log into the game using your phone, which serves as your hand of cards and your personal play area. It’s pretty cool.
If this all sounds a little bit familiar, it might be deja vu. Or it might be that you remember me talking about this game a couple years ago. The game slid to the back burner when our lead programmer got recruited to fight off robots from the future in a shadow war that devastated much of Nebraska, but now we’re back, and the future is safe from robots. You’re welcome, America!
Want to stay up to speed with the project and feast your eyes on a steady drip of awesome artwork? Just join the mailing list, follow QuickCharge on Twitter, or like QuickCharge on Facebook—or all three, just to make sure you don’t miss anything.
Do you want to punch ghosts? Do you want to help support a local gamer family in need? Of course you do! Come on down to Crit Castle this Saturday, February 11, when Gamers Giving is hosting an all-day mini-convention. There will be RPGs, board games, an amazing auction, and more! You can read all about it here, and pre-register for games (including my Ghost Punchers game) here. (And if you can’t make it to the event itself, you can still donate to the cause here.)
The following weekend, I’ll be joining legions of other gamers at Genghis Con, the longest-running game convention in Colorado. Here, I’ll be running Ghost Punchers on Thursday and Saturday, and a new Karthador adventure, Sky Pirates of Karthador, on Saturday night.
These events are always a blast, and I look forward to seeing you there!
Last week, I wrote about how storyworlds can adjust their focus from one story to another, but need to adjust their audience’s expectations to match. I then promised to talk about what this has to do with your own worldbuilding efforts—then neglected to do so… until now!
Before going further, I should point out that what we’re talking about here is basically marketing: not so much about building the world as it is about promoting the world that you’ve built. It’s stuff to keep in the back of your mind while still in the building stage, but isn’t technically about the craft of worldbuilding itself.
With that out of the way…
Here are three things to keep in mind when considering audience expectations:
Know Your Audience
Have an audience in mind when you’re making (and promoting) your world. This can be challenging (I know I have a hard time with it), but try to narrow your focus beyond just “people who like cool stuff.” Personally, I’ve found it useful to define the audience in the negative by saying, “People who like my world definitely do not like (blank).” By defining who your audience is NOT, you can figure out who your audience actually IS.
Know Your World
This is where we actually set expectations. Know your world’s genre, tone, characters, and conflict. Know what aspects of those are most appealing to your audience (see above). And know that if you try to trick your audience by setting an expectation that will never been met, you’ll lose the audience’s trust and loyalty. (“You promised me werewolf romance! There are werewolves, but all the romance is happening with the vampires in the next town!”)
Ones you’ve determined what expectations you want to set, craft that message (“It’s a tragic romance pitting werewolves and vampires against each other in 1950s Michigan!”) and keep it consistent across all media and all stories. Storyworlds are made for telling lots of stories. The consistency between those stories is what keeps the audience coming back for more.
Are there more factors to consider for properly informing your audience what you’re story and world are about? I’m sure there are. And there’s probably a line between letting them know what to expect and giving away spoilers. I’m likely just scratching the surface, but that’s all there’s time for—and I suspect not everyone’s as interested in this aspect of things as I am. 🙂
(Hmm… now I want to write a 1950s vampire/werewolf love story…)
Over on the Patreon, I’ve been talking about getting back into the Empire of Venom & Silk storyworld, and how the first step is to compile the various blog posts from last year into a single, easy-to-reference document.
Well. The first step of doing that is to put together a list of all those posts… which I’m doing right here:
- Spinning Up a New World – And so it begins!
- A Tone of Spiders – Talking about tone…
- A Setting for Spiders – Setting…
- Heroes (and Villains) of the Occupation – Characters…
- Eight-Legged Conflict – and Conflict
- You Are Here – Oh, it’s a map of the continent!
- Touring the Empire – Part 1 – Top tourist destinations of a spider-infested land!
- Touring the Empire – Part 2 – More points of interest!
- Magic, Mad Sciences, and the Milk of the Earth – Talking about how magic works here.
- Circles, Faces, and Elder Shrines – Creepy features!
- Visions of Venom & Silk – Discussion of imagery, with pictures by Eric Lofgren.
I skipped a couple posts in which I dithered and waffled of what to call the world. And I ignored all the Spider Siege posts, since those are more about game design than world-building, but otherwise, this post should serve as a good index for all things EVS so far.
If you’re a newcomer to Empire of Venom & Silk, I recommend starting at the top link and working your way down. It’s not only a cool fantasy world, but a proof of concept demonstrating how I go about creating storyworlds.