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The World Builder’s Disease

Did you cry when Elliott had to say goodbye to E.T.?

Millions of viewers did. Steven Spielberg told E.T. so brilliantly that they were completely immersed in the story. The main characters felt so close that they feel what the characters felt. In that final scene, the viewers became part of that imagined world.

Sci-fi author Ansen Dibell describes this effect in her great author’s guide “Plot”:

Although a story is of course nothing from first to last but an author’s idea anyway, we forget that while we’re reading. We treat the story as real, the characters as people we care and are concerned about. We imagine our way into it and don’t want to be reminded it’s an elaborate lie, a made thing, a puppet show in which some author is yanking the strings.

The fantasy of an author that takes us along emotionally the way E.T. did, for example, is actually a lot of work. A good story is so good because the author has built a whole world mentally, because he has carefully developed the characters with their desires and goals. A good author is actually a world builder; first in his head, then – via the story – in our heads. The more coherently the world is built, the more convincing it seems.

But there is also a dark side to the skill of world building. It becomes visible when the author falls in love with his world a little too much and wants to explain every tiny detail.

Imagine Spielberg moving into that dark side: The movie would have started by explaining in great detail the anatomy of the alien. Maybe it would have continued with a technical description of their spaceships. Sounds boring? It almost certainly is.

Ansen Dibell calls this the World Builder’s Disease. When it infects authors, they become obsessed by their own worlds. The most visible symptom is that they annoy their readers with never-ending descriptions of their imagined world:

To the degree that we’re conscious of the puppeteer, that awareness keeps us from holding on to our conviction that words on a page can be worth our tears, our laughter, or our love.

Now, how much in love are you with the world you have created with your product? Many communicators fall prey to the World Builder’s Disease. They are stuck in describing the world as opposed to letting us immerse in the world. Letting us feel how this product will improve our lives.

Let us in into your world. But make us fall in love with it first before you tell us all the boring details. Make sure that we want to know the details because your story resonates deeply. The right time to tell us the details is when we ask for them.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz



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