World Building and Never Ending Stories



It seems today that fantasy has been hijacked by “world builders”—writers so enamored by Tolkien that their No. #1 priority is to build convincing worlds. While I am all for convincing worlds, I am not all for it if it hinders the telling of a story or takes the place of one. I won’t mention names, but many of today’s most popular fantasists don’t seem to so much be telling a story as writing a textbook for their daydreams. I am often left asking myself, what’s the point of this book? Tolkien was less a story teller and more professor of history and linguistics. He translated Old English classics like Beowulf and Sir Gawain & the Green Knight into modern English. While this brought a level of expertise to his writing, it did not bode well for the future of writers wanting to emulate him. As much as we may want, none of us can be Tolkien or can hope to achieve the same kind of success. We would have to live Tolkien’s life and study everything he did to match his style, and even then, why would anybody want to? Writers must draw from their own experiences to tell their own stories. And most importantly, story telling must be no. #1. True story tellers, it seems to me, are more often found in Sci-Fi. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke were true story tellers. In the fantasy realm, Ursula K. Leguin, Peter S. Beagle, and J.K. Rowling are true story tellers. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter, by the way, also builds a convincing world, but she does it in a subtle fashion that services the story. Did anyone really need a history lesson of Hogwarts before taking an interest in the tormented boy living under the cupboard?   

Despite my love of fantasy, I more often find enjoyment in a good classic or even in modern fiction. I adored The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaleed Hosseini and wonder whether I can capture the same intensity of emotion in the fantasy genre.

I also hate it when books do not conclude or do not conclude in meaningful ways. This seems to be another symptom of world building in that the details take up too much room to allow for a conclusion. What is it about this new trend of books that doesn’t give an ending to a story? How can you tell if a writer is any good if he doesn’t even end it? I may be old fashioned, but a story for me must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. George R. Martin’s Game of Thrones has no ending at all. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness that Comes Before does the same thing. It is for that reason that I have recently started to appreciate R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf Trilogy and Margaret Weis’ and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance. While they may cater a bit more to the youth, at least they actually tell a story; at least they know how to end things in a way that feels satisfactory while leaving enough mystery and intrigue to make a reader want to pick up the next in the series. 

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