Tag Archives: disasters

It All Falls Apart In The End

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

We’ve all experienced a time when things fall apart. Ancient software gives up the ghost after a harmless update. A roadway collapses despite people knowing it needed work. Larger disasters, such as the pandemic, confound us as things are just falling apart.

Why is it that the infrastructure of our lives goes to hell, even when we know it’s coming? Even when we made some effort to fix them?

I have a theory because of my work in IT, my interest in infrastructure, and my career in planning. Simply, we kick problems down the road until they accumulate, and many happen all at once.

Allow me to explain.

Imagine there’s a problem – a decaying road, an aging piece of software, an outdated government policy. The best idea would be to fix it, and maybe even make it better (aka “ruggedization). That is the best thing to do- but we don’t.

What we do is we partially fix things and kick a lot of the work down the road. We patch that concrete, we tweak the database connector, we throw in a new form and that’s it. The heavy lifting, the replacement, the reorg or whatever can come later.

Of course, when it’s time to do the real work, we kick it down the road a little more. No one wants to vote for that tax increase, no one wants to tell the boss how much that new software will cost. A half-baked attempt is made, and then we wait.

Because we’re not really fixing a problem, breakdowns come faster and faster. Software crashes more and more. Delivery lines snarl and fail yearly instead of every year or two. But we keep delaying a fix.

But it gets worse, because if you’re trying to avoid fixing one problem, you’re probably avoiding others. All those problems you don’t return, and they keep coming faster as well. Eventually, a lot goes wrong at once, and everything goes to hell.

In short, if you keep delaying addressing problems – be it software or infrastructure – the problems keep coming back all the faster until things break.

You’re probably nodding at this. We’ve all worked on that project or dealt that government official or were in that building we suddenly had to leave.  

A lot of what’s wrong in the word is the bill coming due – social meltdown, economic difference, bad infrastructure, the climate. We’re going to need to buckle down and fix things if we want a decent future.

Steven Savage

Way With Worlds – Ashes, Ashes, The World Falls Down

Tear Down Building

(Way With Worlds runs  at MuseHackSeventh Sanctum, and Ongoing Worlds)

My friend Serdar, in writing Flight of the Vajra (which I edited, I admit, but I enjoyed the hell out of it) is fond of noting the plot happened when he realized his setting didn’t hold together. The novel is basically about things not working, or as I like to put it ,having more questions than answers is bad, but more answers than questions is worse.

What Serdar says sounds both wise and flies in the face of a lot of the attitudes heavy Worldbuilders may take. We want things to make sense. We want it to hold together. We want it to work.

But sometimes the tale is what happens when it doesn’t work. Maybe it’s a disaster. Maybe it’s a transition. Things are always in transition anyway.

So before you look at your latest world, at your latest change, and decry how you can’t see how the kingdom survives, or the galaxy prospers, or whatever remember that you may have just found the story you were looking for. The world breaking is the story.

The problem however is that you don’t know if you’ve done bad worldbuilding or that you’ve created a good but unsustainable setting. Maybe the setting falling apart is because your exquisite sense of detail has led to an inevitable conclusion – or maybe you just did a crappy job.

So it’s time for some questions.

Question 1: Why Does It Break?

First of all you have to ask just why your setting seems destined to fall apart. I mean if things are going to break down you have to know why?

  • If it is because things just don’t seem to make sense, then the fault is probably yours.
  • If the falling apart occurs because of elements in the setting, it may just be an unexpected feature. If you see a race war between elves and dragons as inevitable despite a fragile peace that was hard-won you don’t have a problem – you have a game, a story, or a RPG session

Question 2: How Did We Get Here?

You look at your setting and realize it’s going to go down in flames. Is this a story to tell or is this a mistake on your part? Part of the question is asking why this is all happening.

  • * Are there reasons for the setting to get to the point f degrading that make sense in the context of the world? Can you explain why the Star Empire would survive the first hundred years but not the next two? In short, can you see your setting existing, but eventually falling apart.
  • * If you can’t explain how your setting would get to the point where it would then fall apart you have a problem. Essentially the setting has shoddy infrastructure anyway and falling over is your mistake, not a feature. It should never have been big enough to fall apart.

Keep Asking

Those two questions can essentially tell you if you have a story – if the breakdown makes sense and the setting is reasonable up to the point of the breakdown. With both those traits you have at tale – without, you have mistakes in your setting.

However, maybe that’s not what you want to great in a story or game or comic . . .

But I’m Not Interested In Writing It Falling Apart

Sometimes we discover we’re not writing the tale we wanted or crafting the game we intended. That’s a bit of a tough call. A few pieces of advice I can provide is:

  1. Change perspectives. Maybe the giant collapse is something you can write from a different perspective then intended. Maybe your perspective is the problem, and once you’re in a character or two’s heads the setting’s problems are things you want to write.
  2. Back up. Back up a few years before everything goes straight to hell, and tell your story from there – though the coming collapse may annoy you.
  3. Jump forward. Jump up your timeline and see if the setting eventually evolves to the kind you want to write.
  4. Re-engineer. The hardest thing to do is re-engineer your setting to remove the relevant apocalypse. That is something that’s a bit challenging and potentially can tempt you to dishonesty. I’d say go for it, but if you can’t truly do it, hen you have to conclude your setting is what it is.
  5. Quit. Not recommended. Staring over is kind of coping out and you have all that hard work.

Your call on these things. Though I’m not up for quitting – after all if you ram through you may find you want to write the end of the world after all.

It’s Part Of What You Do

Finding your setting is going to fall apart is one of the challenges of worldbuilding. It can shock us and surprise us and derail us.

However it’s also one of the benefits of the craft. Unexpected findings, challenges, settings coming to life are part of the magic of worldbuilding. Though it may alter our lans, at least it’s doing so in a way that truly surprises and inspires and comes to life.

Well, assuming its because the world was well built, but you get the idea . . .

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.