May 202020


In 2007, M John Harrison, a genre author of some renown, posted an essay on what he saw as the scourge of worldbuilding in genre fiction. It was Harrison’s contention that genre creators were so enamored with “worldbuilding” that it was crowding out important things like character, plot structure, and what we now call “rule of cool.” Importantly, writers were cramming irrelevant worldbuilding details into their works simply to demonstrate they’d thought of them, rather than focussing on characters and story.

In addition, he decried the rise of a certain type of fanboy that searched for every inconsistency and failure of realism in a fictional world, to crow about how they’d found a plot hole. You know, the CinemaSins types. Those who tear down works over trivialities and dismiss the emotional journey.

These were good points, and worth articulating in the climate of the day. Unfortunately, he coined this the “Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism,” presumably because he’d grown to despise his audience and wanted us all to know of his contempt. Even more unfortunately, people took his good points regarding extremism in setting-over-story and over-applied them so broadly that now we have the opposite problem — realistic portrayals of anything are scorned and everything is chaos.

Enter: Late-Season Game of Thrones, and Picard.


In one of my more popular posts I point out that the great thing about Game of Thrones is that it took the Standard Fantasy Honorable Paladin, removed him from a spurious world that rewarded him simply out of narrative fiat, and placed him into a real, breathing world with other real people to explore how the story changes when the author isn’t covering him with Plot Armor. The result was complex, rich stories that people ate up.

When the show runners ran out of source material they fell back to “creating cool scenes,” such as Jamie’s infamous charge at Daenerys’s dragon. It was the fallout from that scene that told the audience “There is no more story here. No characters. Just a series of scenes we think look cool that are strung together chronologically. Don’t expect any consequences to anything. Don’t expect people to make sense.”

This is death for a long-running narrative. Cool scenes are perfect for shorts, and for music videos. They can be heart-wrenching or life-affirming, when taken on their own. But when Inigo Montoya finally tracks down the Six-Fingered Man, we expect him to try to kill him. For him to forget that the Six-Fingered Man was right in front of him, and wander away to some other part of the castle, is inexcusable. Those aren’t the actions of a human, those are the actions of an automata acting on the whims of an author that wants to prolong this revenge narrative.

Game of Thrones was a tragic example, because it started off well-written by someone who cared about the world and the people within it. Picard never had that problem, it didn’t give two damns about anyone within it making sense from the very first scene. It was a naked cash grab. Picard had a singular purpose – create individual scenes that pop. Any scene, taken in isolation, is generally pretty good. The dialog is well written and well acted. Exchanges of emotions would be compelling, if they were taken as vignettes without any greater context. Action scenes would be visually interesting and seem to matter.

The problem comes when you place these scenes in a chronological order and try to imply that they are related to each other. There is no conceivable world where the actions we see on screen are those that real humans would take. No government would ban taking box cutters onto planes and not ALSO look into who was behind the 9/11 attacks. No person would see a loved one stabbed through the chest and not call for medical help. The actions taken cannot be attributed to humans. They are taken purely for the benefit of the camera, to create a scene for an audience that does not exist within the world.


Powerful scenes emerge naturally from good story-telling. They are rare, the culmination of a lot of work during the telling of a story. Scene-chasers don’t want to do that work, and they don’t care about the story. They simply want the accolades of a moving or exciting scene. An impatient writer that just wants to jump from powerful scene to powerful scene without first building the people, the story, and the world in which this can actually happen isn’t just lazy. He’s the equivalent of the over-eager virgin stripping his date’s pants off before taking the time to flirt, tease, kiss, and caress. It will be terrible for everyone involved.

Perhaps this is a problem of perverse incentives. Afterall, it is the scene where Hodor holds the door that we all remember and talk about, and not the seasons of build-up that made it meaningful. It is the 72-second Action Scene clip that gets posted on YouTube that draws attention. It is the tearful confession that’s shown just before the Oscar winner is announced. Everyone wants to write a good scene.

But those pressures have always existed. So perhaps it’s that now too many people hold disdain for the work of building up a coherent world to set a scene within. Of creating and fleshing out the real people to populate a scene with. Now this work isn’t part of the work of the creative person, it is imposing a Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism, which true artists shouldn’t sully themselves with. It’s the nerds who care about what happened to the hero when he’s unhorsed mid-battle and the camera faded to black, only for him to wake up, alone, in complete safety. It’s the nerds who care about knowing why transporters work to get kidnappers into someone’s apartment but not out again. It’s the nerds who care about someone betraying everything they and their ancestors have worked for (in service of preventing humanoid extinction!), simply because it’s convenient for the protagonist.

A character in these situations is not in a living world full of real people. There are no human interactions to explore here, because there are no other humans. There are no consequences of choices to explore, because there are no consequences. These are sterile sets that exist only to provide spectacle for a camera. There are no people here. The writer has created a dead world.


“Who cares?” I am sometimes asked. “Can’t you just watch the show and enjoy it?”

It depends on what you want. Hell, on the far side of things, slapstick cartoons don’t even need object permanence as long as they are entertaining. But if I’m not in the mood for a cartoon? Can’t people inhabit a world designed to maximize on-screen drama?

One of the common effects of schizophrenia is feelings of immense importance placed on common experiences. The schizophrenic feels as if they are constantly within a defining moment of history, as if there is some supernatural focus on them specifically, and struggles to explain why this is happening. Common answers are attention from God, or aliens, or the CIA/FBI/Illuminati. 

The fact that the world is engineered for an audience is in itself deranging. The Truman Show is about a real person trapped in a dead world — a world designed to bring emotional scenes before a camera. Redshirts is about a character trapped in a dead world — a world that literally pauses when commercial breaks occur, so interesting scenes aren’t missed. Rick in Rick and Morty appears to know he’s playing for an audience.

A world where nonsensical things happen for the purpose of entertaining an outside observer is distinctly different from one where a normal narrative can happen. In all the above cases, the fact that the protagonist is in a dead world where nothing matters is what the story becomes about. All of these works are varying levels of surreal, and all of them are ultimately existential in nature. The struggle to find meaning and purpose within the meaningless existence of a dead world becomes the narrative.

If the story doesn’t become about the unbelievability of the world, then not even the protagonist is a relatable human being. The story degenerates into a series of images that have nothing to do with our common understanding of what it is to be human. There are no characters on screen, there are only puppets that pantomime human actions. There is no life anywhere, merely corpses animated by a deranged lich king who giggles as they emote strongly at one another, tears summoned to their eyes for aesthetic effect, words summoned to their lips that signify nothing deeper within. The writer has created not life, but a mockery of it.

You cannot have characters without a world for them to inhabit. You cannot have meaningful actions that are only there for spectacle. For a story to matter it must have some depth the audience will never directly see that it’s built upon. It must have a world that has been created with at least some care for those that will live within it. Worldbuilding is what prevents dead worlds.

  5 Responses to “The Grasping Hands of Dead Worlds”

  1. Thank you for this post. I completely agree.

    I personally like really good worldbuilding, but just neglecting it is not what kills a series for me. (Sure, I will ask “What do they eat?” if they are in a big city surrounded by desert, but it’s no dealbreaker.)

    What kills a story is if the characters are acting inhumanly and make decisions that are incomprehensible to me. Especially if they completely disregard their previously established motivation and character. You don’t need to invent a fictional language for your characters to use, they can even use modern slang (even though it peeves me at least a bit), but I should not be constantly shaking my head while reading about their actions. Or wonder why anyone else who is not a named character goes along with their crazy actions.
    I should be able to put myself in their shoes and come to similar conclusions, or at least recognise it as how at least some people would reasonably behave.

  2. Second post after sleeping over it and giving it another read.

    I really like your coining of “scene-chasers” in the third section. That really seems to condense what I’ve been trying to describe myself. (I tried to google the term to see if it was used before, but found mostly porn so it probably won’t catch on.)

    Even though I’m in general a fan of fantasy and science-fiction, this seems to be infecting the TV shows of that genre in particular. It seems like the shows that are grounded in real life rarely do that. Either because the writers themselves know the depicted situations from their own experience or they get expert consultants for what they are writing.
    As soon as you get into the fantastical they seem to think they can do whatever they want. Just write cool or emotional scenes and then simply put some basic connecting tissue between them without any thought. Just chase the next cool scene. It’s like a kid who wants to eat only dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner since that tastes the best. Sure, it seems cool at first, but ultimately you’re not going to be happy.

    Maybe though I’m just a smelly nerd who is raging. I don’t know. (I’m not really raging anyway. There are more than enough good books to read. I’ve accepted that there won’t be a Star Trek or Star Wars show or movie I’ll really like.)

    • In an earlier draft of this post I explicity compared this lazy, scene-chasing writing to pornography, so that’s rather approriate. :)

  3. I like this post and really think it does a good job articulating what is so bad about a lot of shows and movies (and some books). I especially like that that its making an attempt to go beyond preaching to the choir and explain what wrong with continuity failure in a way that appeals to common ideals like character and drama.

  4. This is largely what I dislike about many American comics – particularly anything having to do with Superman. My previous term for this was things made of Plotium – a material that does exactly what the author needs it to at any point in time. I like the phrasing “dead world” better – it evokes what goes on when the author looks away.

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