The following is a guest post from Ellen Million, creator of the Torn World shared story world.
Too much information can be a serious problem.
I don’t mean those folks who want to tell you about their bizarre and graphic health issues, or the personal blogs that share way too much about their sex life or depression – although these can be problematic as well.
No, I’m talking about world-building: when your shared story world hits an inevitable tipping point where there is so much information and material that rather than inviting new participants, you send them running.
One of the beauties of shared story worlds is the immersive nature and depth of detail they can develop.
“Torn World” hit this point rather quickly – we have a big continent with a lot of isolated cultures, ecosystems and wildlife, a complete constructed language, and a huge cast of characters, to say nothing of the hundreds of stories, poetry and pieces of artwork to keep ordered. We went through several methods of attempting to organize and present the site content in an organic, easy-to-use way. It was a very enlightening process, and some things came clear as we worked to improve the organization of the project.
Provide a clearly marked starting place
In a purely chronological collection, starting at the beginning seems obvious. But, if you’ll be following several different unrelated characters, or worse (as in the case of “Torn World”), if you jump all over the timeline and have dozens of completely independent storylines, there may not be an easy ‘episode 1’ to point to.
One good solution is to make a landing page specifically for new readers. Explain your project from the outside in: who is involved in it, what are the broad setting parameters, who are the main characters, how does a new reader find more information about something they are particularly interested in, and – perhaps most critical for a shared story world – how do they get involved? Don’t get too caught up in specifics or in summarizing your entire story, but do make sure a newcomer can get a good sense of the flavor of the project from that single page. Make good use of hyperlinks so that a reader can find most everything they need from that single page!
Categorize and sort your material
Collect a concise timeline of events with links to the stories. This can be particularly useful for settings with just one or two major storylines. Balance posting enough information that a new reader can make sense of the plots from the summaries against spoiling any surprises you want a reader to discover by reading along. One solution is to have an optional ‘spoilers’ toggle that shows or hides key story resolutions.
Listing new stories as they appear on the site makes a lot of sense to readers who visit regularly and aren’t trying to catch up, but once you’ve got any kind of story backlog, a list of stories by date posted is just confusing, especially since they are likely to be counter-chronological. We experimented with letting readers create their own ‘digital anthologies’ (collecting up to ten stories to group together with some commentary), but found that it wasn’t a popular option.
Our solution was to create a database of story collections, grouped by theme (for specific world features such as sea monsters), storyline (for serials and stories that follow specific characters), genre (for common things like romance or adventure), type (grouping flash fiction and drabbles for people looking for quick reads), and contests, events and honors. Any article, story, poem or piece of artwork can be attached to any number of existing collections, which makes it easy for a reader to find something they like and then easily find other similar things.
The same stands for meta-fiction, those in-world explanations and resources for your setting. Be sure to organize them logically for your creative team, if not your readers, so you minimize necessary corrections/edits. At “Torn World,” after some experimentation, an outline format was found to be the most useful. A dedicated wiki is another popular option.
A search option, particularly for meta-fiction, is a very valuable resource to someone who has a specific question and is definitely worth adding!
Both the fiction and article sorting pages were pretty extensive to code, to be honest, and may not be possible if you don’t have a dedicated programer on staff, but at the very least, use a tagging feature in common software like WordPress and be diligent about maintaining consistent and detailed tags.
Introduce your cast selectively
A way to keep track of characters is critical, and most shared world projects maintain a database of characters as they are created and introduced in stories. Readers looking for characters they relate to (or just trying to get a good sense of the project) will look for a page that collects short blurbs for each character. In a sprawling world with a lot of creators, you’re bound to develop a whole lot of interesting characters. While you may wish to have a reference page that lists every character ever mentioned, a new reader will want a less dizzying collection of just the most prominent figures – make sure this shorter list is easy to find!
Rank these characters not only by how important they are within the world, but also by how important they are in story content. A king in your shared story world may be an important political figure, but if the stories being written tend to follow the hijinks of a few underdog scullery servants, those are the characters to introduce to your readers first. It’s useful to give some hints about how these people relate to each other, and even give some links to the stories and artwork they are in, though you may choose to link to a more detailed character sheet to do this.
Compare this overwhelming list of characters with this concise summary of the most important figures. Changing from the former to the latter saw a dramatic increase in new member participation and character adoption!
Cross-link like crazy
While you don’t want your entire page of fiction to be a distracting page of underlined links, it’s useful if there is a way to get directly from your fiction to any articles explaining particular world details. Limit yourself to linking the first use of a specialized term in-line, or collect related links in a sidebar. Likewise, linking to the featured characters is a good way to draw a new reader further in. It also keeps a reader involved longer if there is an immediate way to go to the next related story or piece of artwork, without having to go back to an index.
One of the beauties of shared story worlds is the immersive nature and depth of detail they can develop. With a little thought and care, you can keep your shared story world from becoming a tangled puzzle. These are often large, sprawling worlds – make them inviting and accessible for your newest guests!