Lately, I’ve become enamored of a late-night cartoon called ‘Archer,’ the adventures of a snarky, lazy, hedonistic (but ultimately eerily capable) super-spy, whose interactions with his ex-girlfriend, his emotionally abusive mother-who-is-also-his-boss and a bevy of loony tunes are utterly hilarious.  What’s most fascinating, though, is the world they live in, where technology seems modern, vehicle designs are stuck in the 80s, and global politics are squarely in an era best described as ‘James Bond O’Clock.’  Soviet Russia is still a force, the KGB is still a threat, and not once have they broken the spell of the story being told to try to give us an explanation of why.  More impressively, I’ve never really thought to ask, a testament to how engaging the antics and adventures of Codename: Duchess and company have become, to the point where thinking about the hows and why is clearly missing the point of the show.  A similar effect was seen in the much-beloved ‘Firefly,’ where the future-world-that’s-coming had a strong Eastern influence, but didn’t have to write a Silmarillion-style endless infodump episode to explain WHY.

The MS-QOTD (pronounced, as always, “misquoted”) has a perfectly functional suspension of disbelief, so long as you give a reason to suspend, asking: Given the choice, do you prefer that creators explain their complex world-building techniques, or just let them play out?

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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  1. June 10, 2013 at 11:34 am — Reply

    A little of both. While it is usually a fun ride to just let it play out, sometimes a little explanation helps put things into perspective. I also rather like small glimpses into why things are the way they are that we can later put together like a puzzle rather than episodes that sit down and say “Okay, this is why things are the way they are and here is a flowchart to help you along”.

  2. June 10, 2013 at 12:05 pm — Reply

    Usually just let them play out. World building is like salt, just enough to enhance the taste of the story, but not so much you overpower the tale so as to make it unpalatable.

    One of the charms of the Buckaroo Banzai movie is that you know a lot of thought went into world-building the background of BB and the Hong Kong Cavaliers, and their place in that world, but it all kind of emerges throughout the story organically. If your characters are engaging your story should unfold naturally with your world coming into focus as the characters do their character things within that world.

    Krull, has a lot extensively planned world building in it too, but you kind of get hit over the head with it, repeatedly, and it’s really tough to keep it all straight throughout the movie to the point the film often comes to screeching halts as we run up agains exposition time and again.

    If your story begins with-

    Prologue: In the 23rd century of the Epoch War the Glefrenian Harbor Masters have turned on the Ockdops Rebellion to side with the Imperium of Perpetuity in order to gain control of trade on the strategically important planet of Gup. Gup is the sole source of the Guppenium, the key mineral used in the production of Blah, blah, blah. Then every character goes on to explain in great detail, his place in this world…

    … I’ll probably check out.

  3. Bill the Ckir
    June 10, 2013 at 12:27 pm — Reply

    It’s almost always a better storytelling technique to get the story going quickly then drop in the exposition in little bits here and there. Which is what Joss did with Firefly. It’s better storytelling than the 70’s comic book style “Hey, do you remember last week when .or the 80’s Buck Rogers series intro. Although occasionally a Jurassic park style info dump (the film they show) is needed to explain things.

  4. Gary
    June 10, 2013 at 3:34 pm — Reply

    I nearly always prefer minimal explanation. It’s easy to create plot holes through exposition, and I’d rather have that suspension of disbelief.

  5. June 11, 2013 at 4:17 am — Reply

    “Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!”

    I feel much the same way about world building. Show, don’t tell.

    • June 11, 2013 at 7:25 am — Reply

      As long as your new hands aren’t also touching you in strange places…

    • June 11, 2013 at 11:14 am — Reply

      Well-played, my friend… Well-played.

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