Saw a tweet from Sam Sykes the other day which has been kicking around in my head ever since. I tried to find it to post, but I can’t seem to track it down, so you’ll just have to put up with a loose paraphrase. Essentially, Sykes, in response to the newest Star Wars movie, Solo, observed that he kinda preferred not knowing exactly what the Kessel Run was or what Han and Chewie got up to. He worries that this “obsessive canonization” cheats the audience out of their own imaginations, which are more evocative and powerful anyway.
The thing that stuck with me here is the simple fact that I love worldbuilding (and I get waaay too obsessive about it), but I also very much understand that worldbuilding does not create story and, in fact, it can potentially take away from story. I think Sykes has a really important point there – leaving spaces in your world building allows the reader to fill in blanks in potentially wonderful and exciting ways. As a writer, you shouldn’t even try to explain everything – you merely need to fill in enough so that the audience can do the rest.
Reading is a collaborative process. That sounds weird – reading is done alone and writing is done alone, so how is this possible? Well, the reader and the writer are still engaged in a kind of collaboration, just one that is separated by space and time. If you read a book of mine, you are getting my end of a story. You, however, as reader fill in many of the gaps in that story. And furthermore, you fill them in typically in a way that makes the story more interesting to you. The more I fill in for you, the less work you have to do (which can be good), but also it makes your imagination do less for you. Imagination is key, though – as a writer, you want your book to set the reader’s mind aflame with possibility and wonder. Too much detail can kill that magic.
Star Wars is a perfect example of this. Much of the magic of the original trilogy was rooted in the fact that it hinted at a much larger world, but didn’t bother to codify that world. You were left to wonder what Kessel was, why Tibanna gas was valuable, what the Old Republic was like, etc., etc.. For every mystery it revealed, it hinted at more mysteries. People sunk themselves into that world because they wanted to explore (and they could explore!).
Think, then, of the let-down that the prequel trilogy was. We saw the old republic and fought the clone wars and they were, well, kinda lame. The Jedi were dull. Even Palpatine was a bit of a bummer. Anakin Skywalker? We didn’t even like the guy. The desire to reveal too much about the world – to canonize even more – was a killer. When you throw in the obsessive canonization contained within the EU, we quickly arrive at one of the major reasons The Last Jedi got such negative reactions from hardcore fans. They felt as though they already knew what could and should happen, and then the movie changed that. They felt as though they were dealing with an already explained world and that TLJ was breaking the rules. And, in a sense, they were right, except that the world they thought they knew was being rewritten, and so all the old stuff doesn’t apply anymore. This, incidentally, is good for the long term health of Star Wars, but it doesn’t seem that way to people who have gotten themselves invested in what is “canon” and what isn’t.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that every detail you nail down in a story is a detail you can’t change later very easily. The more you nail down, the less can change. The less that can change, the more stale the world becomes until, at last, it is rigid and boring and only appeals to those old hardcore fans (who are always the minority, anyway). As a writer, then, it becomes an important challenge to figure out how much to reveal to keep the story evocative and immersive and how much to leave blank so that the audience can build an even better world into their imagination.