I think some people think writers, as they build their fictional worlds, simply sit down and invent the details, putting together characters and places and storylines like someone puts together IKEA furniture. We’ll call that the Allen Key Approach to World Building.
I suspect, though, that most writers don’t build their worlds that way. For me, anyway, the process is as much like discovery as it is like invention. In writing poetry, I have tried to bend my mind to an idea or image or form. As a result, I’ve come to think that form and content emerge together. It is a good exercise in writing, but in creating worlds, in shaping stories, the process for me is more reciprocal, and far more accidental. Stephen King describes the beginning well:
Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing right at you out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up” (Stephen King, On Writing).
King goes on to talk about how the idea of Carrie, his breakout novel and an upcoming movie with Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, came from that crash of two unrelated ideas coming together–in this case, taunting girls in a locker room and supernatural powers. There is symbolic value in the original Carrie novel, most predominantly the image of “blood.” But that symbolism emerged out of the writing, and King only seized upon it in the editing and rewriting stage.
C.S. Lewis also describes the process of writing as a kind of discovery–in this case, a windowsill watching of the world in his imaginative garden.
I have never exactly ‘made’ a story. With me the process is much more like bird-watching than like either talking or building. I see pictures. Some of these pictures have a common flavour, almost a common smell, which groups them together. Keep quiet and watch and they will begin joining themselves up. If you were very lucky (I have never been as lucky as all that’) a whole set might join themselves so consistently that there you had a complete story; without doing anything yourself. But more often (in my experience always) there are gaps. Then at last you have to do some deliberate inventing, have to contrive reasons why these characters should be in these various places doing these various things. I have no idea whether this is the usual way of writing stories, still less whether it is the best. It is the only one I know: images always come first (C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 32-3).
In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not. When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love (C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, 32-3).
Substitute brewers for jam-making housewives and you can bring both those images together into one. In that way, subcreation is also like being in love. And as writers, we know that our beloved can be moody and temperamental at times.
Lewis goes on to talk about the shaping of the author’s desire, the discipline to turn it into a story. But sometimes the force of the story moving forward and the character development in their natural environment is beyond out ability to control. Ursula Le Guin, considering the creation of her Earthsea Cycle, admits that some things seemed to be outside of her specific manipulation:
At the end of the fourth book of Earthsea, Tehanu, the story had arrived at what I felt to be now. And, just as in the now of the so-called real world, I didn’t know what would happen next. I could guess, foretell, fear, hope, but I didn’t know.
Unable to continue Tehanu’s story (because it hadn’t happened yet) and foolishly assuming that the story of Ged and Tenar had reached its happily-ever-after, I gave the book a subtitle: “The Last Book of Earthsea.”
O foolish writer. Now moves. Even in storytime, dreamtime, once-upon-a time, now isn’t then (Ursula Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea, 3).
“Now” moves. Although Le Guin as author created the world of Earthsea, it is inauthentic for her to exert the sort of control that says, “this is the last story.” This quotation comes from the beginning of her collection of short stories and historical background to the Earthsea Cycle, and she went on to write a fifth book, The Other Wind. Now moves on, and if the author is wise, she will tumble after her work.
It may seem what I’ve described is quite a mystical process. I think it is. Authors who reject the Allen Wrench Approach are today’s mystics. The mystics and prophets and lovers of history have often been called fools. Perhaps we should, with Ursula Le Guin, admonish ourselves: O foolish writer! And then, when we’ve admitted our folly, it is time to look out that window again to our own imaginative gardens.