lean storytelling

Worldbuilding Part 4: Show it all but keep it lean (featuring Mad Max and Judge Dredd) by Matthew Marchitto

I recently rewatched two of my favourite movies, Dredd (2012) and Mad Max: Fury Road.  They got me thinking about lean storytelling. 

Both are extremely action oriented movies, but they communicate their worlds and characters through the action in a way that doesn’t feel shoehorned. A lot of it is done with body language, concise dialogue, and an extremely brief spattering of flashbacks. The stories are lean, all the fat stripped away. I take a lot of inspiration from both Mad Max: Fury Road and Dredd (2012), and try to implement some lessons from them into my writing. 

Minor spoiler warning for both movies.

Mad Max sets up its world with some impactful visuals. There’s only a brief bit of dialogue to set up the tone, and then we are launched into the story. We learn everything we need to know from the imagery. The derelict cars being worked on, the starving masses clamouring for water. We even see Immortan Joe running through a lush garden, which isn’t addressed again until the end of the movie. It doesn’t need to be, that one shot gives us all the information we need to know about how Immortan is hoarding resources. 

Dredd does something similar. A bit of dialogue to set things up, and then we’re thrown in the deep end mid-chase. We see the over populated city, a few civilians apathetic to the crime taking place, and Judge Dredd’s near monotone* way of acknowledging a civilian’s death and the subsequent death of the perps. It all paints a picture of a city where crime is the norm. 

*Is it possible to have an angry monotone? That seems to describe Dredd better.

That’s just the first few scenes of each movie, they’re packed with this kind of imagery throughout. Telling us more and expanding on their worlds without resorting to infodumps or large chunks of expository dialogue. (There is some expository dialogue, but it’s kept brief and concise.) 

How can this translate to books? The general principle has already been around for a long time: Show, don’t tell

I try to infuse the worldbuilding into my stories in a way that doesn’t rely on infodumps.* I think one of the negative instincts some folks have (myself included) is to try and explain everything. After all, you did make that beefy worldbuilding doc, and by the old gods and the new you’re going to work those political machinations into your book! And you should, but the key is weaving them into the narrative in a way that has the reader doing the work for you. 

That might sound weird, you, we, are the writers. We create. We do the work. Yeah, but part of that is relying on the reader to put the pieces together. Just like how Mad Max and Dredd rely on the viewer to put the visual cues together to create the grander image. We set up the land marks, so when the reader reaches that first toppled waystone, they can see Stonehenge from across the field. They know where to go, we just planted the guide posts. 

*I know sometimes infodumps are necessary and might be the most efficient way to communicate certain information. I still feel that, in most cases, other alternatives should be explored. 

A lot can be communicated by a character’s movements, as well as how others react to that character. The way they walk, fight, and speak all add up to define them. Ma-Ma from Dredd is a good example of this. Everyone is tense and quiet around her, listening intently and scared to shit of pissing her off. But when the corrupt Judges are standing right in front of Ma-Ma, she’s the one that speaks in a clipped, controlled manner out of fear of pissing the Judges off. This is something where movies have the edge. I find it a bit more difficult to do in a book. Particularly since I like to keep my dialogue clean and concise. I can’t think of any good examples of movement in books really adding to the character (but maybe you can leave some suggestions in the comments!).

I’d take a guess and say about 15-20% of your worldbuilding will actually make it into the story, at least explicitly. The rest is hidden in the subtext. It makes up the bedrock of your story. Likely most won’t even notice it’s there. And that’s probably how it should be. 



This worldbuilding series isn’t planned out. I have a few ideas and general concepts for future posts, but in general I’m sort of making it up as I go along. Hopefully I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m repeating myself yet. I’m not sure when my interest in secondary worlds started, maybe with Warcraft or Redwall,* but either way it has become something I really do find interesting and enjoy talking about. I plan to keep yammering on about it as long as I have ideas, and I hope you keep popping in to read and share your own thoughts. 

Check out Worldbuilding Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I’d also recommend Chuck Wendig’s post on Mad Max: Fury Road.  

*Now that I think about it, maybe it started with Final Fantasy 6.

Edit (February 25, 2019): This series is about the things that I've learned, or am learning, about worldbuilding. It's me trying to level up my craft, and documenting the process. These posts represent my personal approach to worldbuilding, and the way I do it might not be right for you. I'm not an authority on writing, and so everything in these posts should be taken with not only a grain of salt, but a heaping bucket of saline.