Note: The following will contain shiny and chrome spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road. Consider yourself warned.
Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell. As writers, we’ve been given this advice time and time again. And it’s good advice and one that we should all take to heart. Lately, I have been working on a series of blog posts focusing on my theories and strategies around worldbuilding. However, after seeing George Miller’s incredible Mad Max: Fury Road not once, but twice in theaters (a rarity for me) I wanted to jump ahead of my series. I think the movie serves as an excellent example of how any storyteller can properly worldbuild.
So often I see new writers struggle with their worldbuilding. Both epic fantasy and hard sci-fi suffers from this problem, but it can happen in any genre. It’s easy for us to want to explain every detail. We know the backstories for our characters, we understand how our world works, we know the religions, the species, the cultures, the cities, the weather patterns, and so much more about our worlds. It’s exciting and fun, and so often we choose the dullest way to explain that: exposition. It’s hard not to fall into the trap. We want to share all this with the reader. We’re excited about it! But instead of focusing on plot, characters, and the story, we spend significantly more time on exposition talking about the world and less time on telling a good story and let the world reveal itself naturally. This is what Fury Road does perfectly and why I think it’s such a wonderful example.
Now, we should establish this is an action movie, so it’s fast paced and intense. But it’s also bizarre and fantastic and seems almost dreamlike in its strangeness. But it works, and it’s believable, despite its absurdity. And it works because of the way Miller handles the worldbuilding. Unlike most modern action movies, Fury Road doesn’t slow itself down to explain every nuanced detail to the viewer. It doesn’t speak down to the audience. No character goes into long speeches about how things got this way. Instead, with a few short scenes the wasteland gets established as a place. We understand who Max is (a survivor with a haunted past) what his goals and motivations are (to survive) and how he has ended up in the predicament he is in (captured by Immortun Joe and his War Boys). Along the way, we are introduced to the citadel and the civilization that has been built up around it. And this is all before the title card appears.
Miller continues this style throughout the rest of the film. So much is revealed, and Miller spends more time showing, and never slows down to tell and explain every detail. Everyone reacts as if all the strangeness is just perfectly normal, and it works. It was refreshing. In the first part of the movie, before we even get to the chase scenes the viewer is presented with a vignette of short scenes that allow us to understand the motives of the War Boys, their cult of V8, how they behave with one another, and even their social structure. In other films, we’d get voice overs explaining how everything works, or we’d have several scenes of slow dialog that spells it all out. However, Miller doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time. He recognizes that the viewer is smart, and presents it all as plot and moves on.
This is the subtle art of worldbuilding at some of its finest and writers should take note. By the time Furiosa flees with the War Rig, and before we are introduced to the Wives we have all the information we need on the setting. We understand the world, it feels alive, lived in, and deeply rich in culture and history. It allows us to understand why Furiosa is doing what she does, and why the Wives want to flee Immortun Joe. Even the characters are revealed through their actions. Each of the Wives is a unique person with different and varied personalities. Without being told, we figure out which one of them is the leader, the dreamer, the heart, and so on.
When I sat out to write The Stars Were Right, I made a decision early on that everything would be revealed from Wal’s perspective. He would tell what he knew as he came across it, and only so much as to keep things interesting. It would be done conversationally as if you were walking through a new city with a friend. After all, Wal doesn’t know everything, just as we, inhabitants in our world don’t know everything. We only know what is interesting to us. What Wal does reveal is enough for the reader to sort out for themselves, and it also leaves a mystery, and that keeps a world engaging. Wal’s belief in the world around him translates into belief for the reader and even in an unfamiliar world like the Territories can feel alive and real.
Readers are explorers. Whenever any of us set out to read, we want to explore the world you have built whether it is a high fantasy empire, a savage wasteland, a quirky small town, even a small family farm. Revealing that world to us naturally, and using the world to move the plot along is the perfect way to keep a reader engaged and the best way to build that world. This is the best takeaway we can get from Fury Road. Keep the worldbuilding simple and subtle, let the characters live in it as we live in our own world, don’t bog people down in exposition. It doesn’t matter how unusual or over the top your setting follow a similar pattern and like Fury Road, it’ll just work.
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