science fiction

Worldbuilding Part 6: Nothing Matters Until You Make it Matter by Matthew Marchitto

Pages upon pages of worldbuilding notes, noble lineages, shifting political landscapes, it doesn’t matter.

Until you make it matter.

I’m always reluctant to start worldbuilding before I’ve started to write the story. All the bloody tears that went into that world can be erased with one wayward line of dialogue. I could always rewrite that line, but is that the right decision?

Sometimes the worldbuilding is wrong. Being beholden to a document isn’t the way to write a story. Instead, the story should dictate the worldbuilding. There has to be malleability to my worlds, there has to be room to move the pieces, realign the axis, erase an ancient king from its history.

What I’m getting at is that all the history and trade routes and political systems don’t matter until you make them matter. If it’s not on the printed page, then it’s on the chopping block. It can be changed, erased, altered, or never even see the tail end of a blinking cursor.

In this case, I think there’s a detriment to being over prepared. The story and characters should always come first, and the worldbuilding second. Being beholden to a worldbuilding doc is setting up a series of hurdles in front of your story. 

I say chuck it all and dive into the story, let the worldbuilding come after.

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.

A Pinprick in Time by Matthew Marchitto

This story started with the image of the Chronicler, though I wasn't sure what to do with it. I'd wanted to try and write extremely short fiction, so I decided to mix the two together and try to make a super short story mixed with the evocative image of the Chronicler. At 200 words, it might be the shortest story I've written, and maybe the hardest.


I’m a chronicler, and I’m dying. Before I go, I must find the impossible timeline.

I travel between realities, sailing past our possibilities, our mistakes. They echo in my periphery, an explosion blooming like a mushroom, the rat-a-tat of lead bullets, the arc of a bloodied sword, the crunch of a wooden club.

I sail to the center of eternity.

A pinprick of light pierces my vision like a sunspot. I hold it in my hands and extend my consciousness into it.

I see everything that is, will be, and has been. It fills me with heat. My flesh boils, my mind reels. But still I search.

And my eyes well with tears. A world of peace, without violence, without hate. Sobs wrack my chest. The truth I had known but hoped to be wrong is laid before me. It is a timeline without humans.

In my final moments I enter this world. Sit on the warm grass, feel the earth’s breeze on my cheek.

By the time you hear this I will be dead. I couldn’t find it, but I still believe that out there in the unfathomable infinities is the impossible timeline. Don’t give up.

Monolith by Matthew Marchitto

This is an oldie I wrote a couple years ago. It's set in a world that I never fully fleshed out, where a native species of scaled creatures called Goras fight off an invading alien force. And throughout the Goras' planet are these ancient monolithic structures that they revere. Honestly, I can't remember what role the monoliths were supposed to play in the overarching story.

This piece is far from perfect, but I've decided to post it as is. I only gave it a very cursory edit for minor typos and errors. Otherwise, it's presented in all its pockmarked glory. 


The monolith touched the clouds. They swirled around the top of the massive gray column like the clouds of a mountain peak. At the very top, Arlon thought he could see specks of snow. Around its base were skeletons of Goras that had come before him, their corpses mangled and twisted in on themselves. I will not fail.

The monolith had been here since time before memory, since time before time, and all the while it sat silently contemplating. Arlon, feeling the chill seep between his green scale plates and seek out his flesh beneath, reached out a hand and touched the monolith.

Nothing happened.

Am I not worthy?

Arlon had travelled through the grand forests and swamplands and into the realm of the Gora’s enemies, all the while hoping beyond hope that he would be chosen by the monolith. But no visions came to him, no whispered words found his ears, no otherworldly beings reached out to touch his flesh.

Arlon shrugged, his scales screeching against one another, and he craned his head to look toward the monolith’s peak. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps there is a way to show my worthiness.

Arlon marched around the base of the monolith, it was so large it would have taken him days to make a full rotation, but after a few hours he found what he had hoped for--a stair. A series of horizontal stones jutted out of the monolith’s gray stone. They were not connected, and some were farther apart than the others, but Arlon could climb it.

And so he did, reaching one hand above the other to grasp the stones and use those below him as footholds, he climbed. And climbed. And climbed. Arcing through the sky, the twin moons shone on him with soft pale light, and the sun rose once more. And still Arlon climbed, heaving from the effort, never stopping. How many days past he could not know, but soon he felt the cold chill of the monolith’s peak, and reached an opening at the very top of the monolith. Arlon crawled into it, hauling himself over the caves lip and falling to the ground, panting and heaving. And before he could bring himself to his feet, he passed out from exhaustion. How much time had passed he did not know, but he awoke to the sun high in the sky and its light warm on his scales.

Arlon now looked into the cave, it was a smooth and perfectly round tunnel, the sun’s light illuminated it from holes in the ceiling. He took the bladed chakram from his hip, and holding it firm in his hand began the long march forward. It was long and slow, but soon he came to a grand opening that led into a circular room. And in the center of this room was the decayed skeleton of a Gora, one such as him. He approached the skeleton, reached a trembling hand to touch its surface, and felt nothing but dry bone. The monolith had been his faith, the one thing his people could see from all their land, the one hope of another, a better place. And now he had climbed this ancient and holy place to find nothing but a corpse. There were no answers for his people here, no secret knowledge, no whispers from the afterlife.

The room led nowhere, there was no other stair, no secret room. And it was a long and slow walk back to the cave’s entrance. And as he stood at the lip of the cave, he thought, how can I return to my people? How can I tell them everything we believed was a lie. He couldn’t, because he couldn’t bear to break the hearts of a thousand generations with the truth that he was now faced with.

And so, with a hollow place in his chest and a tear in his eye, he stepped out over the precipice of the cave--and fell.

Techno Babble and Starkiller Base: How much do we need to know? by Matthew Marchitto

I have a love/hate relationship with techno babble. Sometimes, I love it. It can make a story feel smarter and more rooted in reality. Like all that information you’re being bombarded with is saying “this is how it could happen in real life.” But, on the other hand, it can feel cumbersome and dull. The temporal capaci-what is going to do the thingamajig now? Great, let’s get to the pew pew.

I recently rewatched Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and started to think about Starkiller Base and some of the questions that surrounded it. A lot of wondering how it got made, how it’ll move once the star is dead, and also how can it even suck up a star? Did it use warp technology? Also, the way warp speed works in Star Wars seems…

Does it matter? That depends on the story and the world. In the case of SW:TFA, I don’t think it does. Starkiller Base is the big bad, we know what it’s going to do, when it’s going to do it, and—to a degree—how it’ll do it. The point of Starkiller Base is that something is going to get exploded if it’s not stopped. We have all the necessary information. Technological details have never been the point of Star Wars, at least as far as I can tell. If this was Star Trek, that’d be a different matter.

This is a hard line to tow. How much information does the audience need? I don’t want to overburden them with a dump of information, but I also don’t want them to be lost and unable to follow along. There is also a certain level of believability, not realism, but in-world consistency that gives the audience cues as to how the world works.

Dragons, a staple of fantasy, shouldn’t be able to fly (at least not the typical image of a dragon). At best, they should be clumsy gliders. But when a dragon soars through the sky, we all buy it. It doesn’t matter how it flies, just that it’s a dragon and it can fly.

Now, if you had a dragon that could fly because it exuded fart clouds, okay a little weird but whatever, then you’d have established a rule in your world. So, if say, you had a another giant winged beast show up and start flying around, but it didn’t use fart clouds to fly despite its huge size, that’d create an inconsistency in your world. Once it’s established that big bulky things have to adhere to some rules if they want to fly, it becomes a glaring mistake when your own rules are broken. It messes with the world’s consistency.

Ultimately, how many of your world’s rules you have to communicate to the reader/viewer depends on the context. In the case of Starkiller Base, all we need to know is what it does and when it’s going to do it. The same tends to apply to most doomsday machines. There are a lot of other times when we do need to know how The Thing works. Especially in stories that are set in modern times or hard science fiction, but also if it’s just you breaking one of your established rules. If you’re going to break one of your world’s rules, the audience has to understand why or it’ll mess with the story’s consistency.

What do you think, is there such a thing as too much techno babble or not enough of it?   

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.

Flash Fiction Challenge (Space Opera Edition): The Coralhound Queens by Matthew Marchitto

This story was written for Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenge over on his terribleminds blog. The only stipulation that it be 1000 words of space opera. I couldn't resist trying to squeeze a space epic out of my brain place. I may have tried to pack in too much story. Still, I like the characters and the world. A bit more time in the editing grinder might have done it some good, but I'm still pretty happy with it. Here's my attempt at (a little over) 1000 words of space opera. 

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