World-Building: Mind the Gap

There is a Gap between what you know about the world you build, and what your audience knows about it. You know this already. After all, it’s obvious. What may be less obvious is why this Gap is so important, and the benefits and potential pitfalls it represents.


What is the Gap?

You made up your world, so you know all there is to know about it. Your audience only knows what you’ve told them and cannot hope to have your encyclopaedic understanding. This is normal. You don’t want games full of endless (and irrelevant) details about the world they’re set in, and balancing the amount of exposition you use is a perennial challenge in stories… at least it is if you want to write them well.

You have almost certainly come up with all manner of information about your world that doesn’t fit neatly into whatever you’re using it for at the moment. This will remain hidden for now, possibly emerging in a later project, possibly remaining concealed forever. This difference in knowledge between you and your audience is The Gap. At least, it’s today’s Gap. As you invent more details The Gap widens. As you tell more tales The Gap narrows. The Gap ebbs and flows. Secrets are revealed only to be replaced by new mysteries. The Gap is ever-changing yet always present.


Why is it Bad?

There are several inherent problems with The Gap. Here are two:

  • Temptation.
  • Lack of Empathy.

The temptation is your understandable desire to share all the cool stuff that you’ve come up with. All creators know the feeling. You’ve been having so much fun in this new universe that you can’t wait to tell people about it. That cool secret that the vizier has, the best way to tickle a dragon, how to do the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs… all that good stuff. You can’t wait to share. Well hold your horses, boss. You might need to keep that to yourself.

A common mistake of inexperienced world-builders is to give in to the urge to spill the beans too often or too soon. This is often cited as the root cause of plodding, exposition-heavy writing that stalls its own pacing with pages of irrelevant world detail. In reality, the world is there to be a setting for a story and needs to serve that purpose.

If you’re tempted to share a piece of your world’s history, ask yourself whether doing so works in context of the story you’re telling, game you’re testing, screenplay you’re writing… Would someone say that? Is it needed for the plot, the flow of play, or for character development? Does the game work better if players understand this part of the backstory? If not, then you may want to resist the temptation to put it in. Less is often more.

By empathy, I mean your ability to understand how a member of your audience sees your creation. The Gap is the difference in what you know and what they understand. To start with, this Gap will be total, and you need to lead them through the maze of this fictional creation very carefully, building juicy morsels of relevant knowledge on top of each other to build a tasty whole. But you need to do this without burdening them with endless pieces of fictional minutiae that will leave them confused and give them indigestion. They can only remember so many cool characters, famous events, and obscure types of spell. Adding more will simply push one of the others out of their short-term memory, and they may need to know that first one so that the plot makes sense.

The greater empathy you can have with your audience, the easier it will be for you to guide them through learning your world, and the more they will enjoy that experience. If you can see things from their place on the learning curve you will be better able to feed them what they need to follow along and to see things as natural and believable. This is always going to be a challenge because The Gap will always be there and you can’t entirely unthink all that you know. However, understanding that it’s worth trying to do so gets you at least part of the way.


Why is it Good?

Like the problems, the good side of The Gap is multi-faceted. Two of my favourite facets are:

  • Secrets and Suspense.
  • Illusions of Grandeur.

The first benefit is straightforward. You want to create suspense in whatever you’re making, and stories are always improved by surprises. You can only have these if there is a Gap because both secrets and suspense rely on revealing something from within it.

You also want to create a world that appears real to your audience, and part of that illusion is getting them to believe that it is complete. If they were to wander in any direction, or ask any question, there would be a coherent, consistent, and believable answer. Just like reality. More so, in fact, because the real world is sometimes a bit short on convincing answers whereas you will be expected to know it all. Of course, you haven’t really worked out the answer to everything they could possibly ask, but you have to put on a good show. Luckily, you have the perfect weapon here: in your stories you get to ask the questions as well as give the answers.

The illusion you’re going for is that the world continues off-screen, wherever they look. So mirror reality. Include inconsequential details and asides that don’t give enough purchase on the reader’s brain to distract them too much, but which pique their interest. These morsels suggest a world beyond without burdening the audience with the details and are often much more interesting for their implications than they would ever be for their details.

Think about the real world you live in for a moment. This is the only reference point your audience have to compare your fictional world to. You assume that the real world is real, but why? You’ve never been to most of the countries on the planet, or even all the states or provinces in your country, yet you believe they are there. Perhaps you only know a couple of facts about Paris or Berlin, but they sound like interesting places to visit. What about exotic and ancient cities like Beijing, or Timbuktu? Or bustling metropolises like New York or Singapore? You have an image in your head about these places even though you have not been to all of them. And even if you have been somewhere, a city is a big place and you saw only a part. In truth, The Gap exists between what you know about reality and the totality of what there is to know. You, and everyone in your audience, has spent their lives learning that as far as reality is concerned, The Gap holds the answers, whenever your author lets you peer in. Use this training in your own work. Just colour the background of your fictional world with broad strokes and worry about the details later if you ever need to. Allow your audience to believe in The Gap too, and assume that therein lies the answers to all their questions, just like it does in reality.

You build the illusion, and The Gap is a big part of what allows you to create it. Unless a piece of information is required for your central story, just hint, tease, and suggest in the way that real people do about passing subjects, and your audience will believe it because they have spent their lives learning how to.

The Gap is your friend.

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3 Responses to World-Building: Mind the Gap

  1. tornquistd says:

    I think of the Gap as a chest of Secrets and Suspense not sure about Grandeur perhaps you are talking about scale/size of the world created?

    • Quirkworthy says:

      The most obvious parallel for grandeur would be scale, but that’s not the whole story because it can apply to small worlds too (by small I mean both physically so, and in terms of only exploring a small part of a larger whole).

      The illusion of Grandeur is about using the hidden information within The Gap to create the appearance and feel of reality, with all the majesty, mystery, and onion-like layers of complexity without having to actually detail everything in that way.

      Wherever you look, there is more, and it all fits together like a finely-tuned Swiss watch. However, because we have The Gap, and because we have an audience that is trained to think this way, our fictional world can appear grander by implication than it is in the actual stuff we reveal alone.

      If that makes sense.

      This is definitely the most vague and touchy-feely of the concepts here.

  2. Pingback: World-Building: A Vast Zooniverse |

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