You’re knee-deep in your series about ambidextrous alien octogenarian acrobats who take over the world one trapeze act at a time. You’ve got a first novel published, another in the editing stage, and at least three more half written or mapped out on coffee-stained notecards in your writing room. (This room is actually a walk-in closet you’ve soundproofed with recycled packing materials from the past year’s mail-order binges, but hey, what struggling author has an entire writing room?)
Okay. Suddenly, in “real life,” ambidextrous octogenarian acrobats land their spaceship in Death Valley. Now you’re writing a series that needs to stay relevant and incorporate the fact that apparently such villains have three legs and are myopic. The myopia is a real problem for you, plot-wise, since it’s hard to hypnotize prey through coke-bottle glasses or bi-focal contact lenses.
In short: how do you keep your series authentic and relevant when technology and large scale current events change how readers interact with your worldbuilding?
My Pox series, begun in 2012, is set in a post-plague world. I built it slowly, putting it aside frequently while improving my craft and of course, attending to my day job. Last March I decided it was then or never, and I’ve since released two books on Amazon and will soon release a third.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about this process of keeping your world relevant:
Don’t Forget the Toilet Paper
Include a few eternal key details that give your work authenticity. You can rely on the human condition here. For example, after the horror movie that was 2020, it’s only logical that any scene in which YA characters are packing their car to flee for the hills during a pandemic requires a snarky comment about how much it will suck to run out of toilet paper. That’s because people will always need toilet paper. It’s never going to be irrelevant. This, as well as something like Zoom fatigue, has become part of our shared experience.
Now, the future version of Zoom may not be called Zoom. But if you use a name that is recognizable in context, like “V-room” or “Emeet” you’ll be covered. We’ll always need to connect. And people will always be frustrated by tech glitches even if we don’t specify what kind of tech or what kind of glitch. Ask yourself: what changes are likely to remain a part of our shared experience?
I’m guessing murder hornets. Ugh.
Take a Wiki Approach
By this I mean: Pitch crucial technology or plot details toward a “layperson” audience.
Most likely, experts in a field, if they’re enjoying your story, aren’t going to roll their eyes too much over your getting a high-level tech detail wrong. Unless you’re writing in a niche market, aim for the middle of the road with your jargon and scientific explanations.
For example, before Covid hit, sketchy details on viruses and poxes and mutations and vaccines would have sufficed for my series. But now the average person knows viruses can’t be cured through antibiotics and would expect masks to play some part in post-plague world attire. Thus, for dystopian worldbuilding after March 2020, I’ve had to figure out for myself, as well as my readers, if the feral-cannibal-producing strain in my series is due to a mutation or a variant or a bacterial reaction, and so on.
This info admittedly wasn’t easy to deliver concisely in the novel itself, but Wiki helped me get a grasp of what readers might need to know. Basically, I look at what Wiki shares on a topic, assume the average person will know about half of that, explain it at that level in the novel wherever it needs to go (while avoiding an info dump), and try not to use any language that would require a footnote if on Wiki. In short, your readers probably don’t care if you use the Latin plural of virus, but if you do include it, get it right!
I made that up. Sort of. Anyone know if there is one?
Which brings us to…
Balance, Some Teetering on the Brink, and More Balance.
If you create a detailed, futuristic world intended to be Earth, you will always run the risk of your premise later seeming outdated or negated by technology or world events. We can boil this down to the “cell-phone effect.” How many older movie or novel conflicts would have been resolved with a simple phone call, etc? A novel set in 2040 about a black-market organ harvesting ring will fall pretty flat if we’ve figured out by then how to make affordable organs with 3-D printing. This idea can scare writers into not writing future worlds.
However, we must not fail to embed specific, concrete details into our worldbuilding. That’s what makes our writing vivid. So the key here is balance. Decide what you can leave vague and what you need to define. Leave room where you can so you’re not painted into a corner. Focus on the danger, the drama, the conflict. That won’t age out. Unless you’re writing hard sci fi, you probably want to get into the crux of the problem and not the minutia of the solution or technology. Say the protagonist lives in a world where, oh, I don’t know, teenaged tributes are forced to fight in arenas while horrific cyberdogs attack them just as they’re about to escape. The hook is the conflict, the fight, and the characters, not how the cyberdogs were created or colorized or dropped into the arena.
Lastly, Get Something Right.
Do this by picking at least one detail of your world to expand upon that you can get right and which cannot be updated into being wrong. An example of this would be the desert in the Dune series. Herbert went for authenticity and evocation of emotion. These scenes were hot, dry, sandy, eyeball-scorching, and gritty. No matter how many times I read Dune, I still find myself stopping mid chapter to get a drink of water.
Sure, it’s a fictionalized world, which helps the author avoid technology advances muddying up his series, but moreso, the setting details steal the show and will always eclipse any minor incongruity re space travel. No one cares if there’s a plot hole involving g-force. Why? Because Herbert was an expert on Arrakis! And giant sandworms! And stillsuits! And partying on spice!
Yes, it’s been challenging to write about a post-pandemic world while we’re enduring a pandemic, but it’s also been fascinating to watch life imitate my art. I hope you allow yourself the freedom to create the world your heart longs to write about. In the end, readers will connect with your ideas and characters more than the technicalities of one or two plot details. Have fun, and happy worldbuilding! If you’re stuck, I have a blog post on writer’s block to get you unstuck.
Kendra Griffin, Professor of English at Aims Community College, is the author of Young Adult speculative fiction novels The Pox Ward and Apocalypse Thoughts. Learn more about her work and creative writing workshops here or sign up for her newsletter (Get The Pox). Apocalypse Thoughts will be free on Amazon from 4/9-4/12, or you can enter the Goodreads Giveaway!