Being a Better Writer: Garbage

Welcome back readers to another Monday entry of Being a Better Writer! I’ve just got one bit of news to talk about, and then we can cut right to the chase and talk about garbage.

That news? Life, The Universe, and Everything is NEXT WEEK! That is right! LTUE is literally around the corner of the weekend, this February 14th-16th. Will you be there? I sure will be, and I can’t wait! Hope to see you there!

Now, back to the the topic at hand. I’ll wager a number of you are pretty curious about what I’m referring to with a title like that. Garbage books? Garbage story? Garbage plots? Garbage tropes?

Nope. None of the above. Instead, I want to talk about something else. Worldbuilding garbage. That’s right, today is a worldbuilding post, that lovely topic of sitting down to draft and create worlds. But again, when I say worldbuilding garbage, a number of you may be thinking in less concrete terms than I actually am.

No, today I’m being absolutely straight. No metaphor or comparison here. I’m talking about actual garbage. Refuse, trash, debris, etc etc etc.

What does your world do with it?

Not a question we think of often, is it? But it can be one that can, while worldbuilding, raise a number of possibilities, or at the very least make us think on something from a new angle.

Consider, for example, your trash. What happens to it? How do you dispose of it? Is it a garbage can next to your desk or in the kitchen? What happens to it once the can is full? Where does it go? Who deals with it? Do you know? Or does it simply “vanish?”

Well, here’s the thing. It definitely doesn’t vanish. Refuse is refuse: Someone has to do something with it or it piles up. Waste from your home, for example, at least in the US, is collected in a larger can and taken to the side of the road for a garbage truck to collect (99% of the time. The US’s coverage with this system is so ubiquitous that I’ve been to rural places where the only vehicle in town that isn’t a four-wheeler or a boat is the town garbage truck). That truck then takes it to a landfill or a processing center. At the first, the garbage is dumped out. At the second, it’s sorted and separated, usually with an end-goal in mind of dividing up the garbage into smaller, more dedicated end-states, from compost to recycling.

Okay, so why am I bringing this up? What’s the point of focusing on such a system? What does it have to do with writing, or more accurately worldbuilding?

Well, maybe nothing. Or maybe everything. There are millions of books where a character simply tosses something into the nearest garbage can without a second thought, and little else is made of it.

But what about a setting where it isn’t so simple? To pick on one of my own works for example, in Colony the planet Pisces that the protagonists visit has a strict “no dumping” policy as the world is a sterile environment (which seems illogical until the big reveal).

However, this means that garbage and refuse was one of the things I had to consider when writing the world. The characters wouldn’t just throw things into a trash can to dump into the ocean when it was full; garbage would need to be stored or disposed of in a proper manner. Which, in Colony and for the small sub the characters were using, ended up being using the fusion reactor powering the sub to “cook” all disposables into inert chunks of baked carbon matter that could then either be easily stored or in emergency jettisoned into the environment without fear of too much contamination.

Now, does this play a large part of the book? Well … no, not really (at least, until the cause of the sterile conditions is revealed). But it’s a detail that lets the reader know “Oh hey, they thought this out.” It’s a small detail, and as I’ve said before,  small details really help a world come to life, feel like a place that’s real. In addition, they also reinforce ways that the world is different, which then lock into a reader’s mind to more thoroughly transport the reader to a different place.

Aside from that, working out background elements like “Where does the garbage go?” can also open doors to options you didn’t know that you had. For example, say you’re writing a classic medieval, sword-and-sorcery fantasy, and your characters are trying to sneak through a city without being seen? Well, hiding in garbage is a classic reality-based method of sneaking into and out of places, though it often came with its own risks. Knowing how this city collects its garbage and disposes of it could be useful information.

Don’t believe me? Well, try this on for size. Let’s jump to that example above. We’ve got characters that want to sneak through a city without being noticed. Well, let’s say … this city disposes of a lot of its garbage via a canal system. The city has a network of (mostly) well-laid out canals. Garbage is taken to central collection points by servants or homeowners, and dumped onto the barges. When a barge is full, it’s pulled outside of the city, where it’s either dumped or fed into … oh, lets say massive furnaces that are in turn used as some sort of production that shouldn’t be inside the city and doesn’t mind making a lot of smoke.

So our characters “borrow” one of those barges, waiting for one to arrive late at night or early in the day when the crew is tired, subduing them and taking their place. Then they move back into the city, doing the garbage crew’s job and then heading out the other side once they’ve got enough garbage.

Workable? Well, sure, there are some wrinkles in that plan, but it’s not a bad one. And even if they went with something completely different, you would still have a neat detail you could allude to that would give the city that “lived in” feel. Even just a single mention, for example, of the characters discussing the garbage scow as an option for sneaking through the city, or seeing one when they are sneaking and having one character say “I still say we should have used the garbage barge. No one looks at those things” keeps the world grounded (in the sense to the reader of “Oh, hey, they deal with that too”) as well as adding important “set dressing” that adds variety to the world (sort of like how cars and pedestrians in the background of a movie set give it a feel of being real).

And all of this, from the extra setting and options to your characters, come from asking a single question: Where does the garbage go? Who deals with it? How is it stored or disposed of.

This question can even apply to more mundane settings. Sure, we know where garbage goes on a normal, day to day. Walking through a building, you just toss it in a trash can.

But who collects that? How much of it is there? Working part-time at a convention center, I can tell you that something so simple that many of us take for granted—throwing trash in a trash can—is actually much larger as a system than people take for granted. Dozens of trash cans all across a building need to be kept from overflowing (and believe me, many would in mere hours if there wasn’t a team assigned to keeping them from doing that) and that material disposed of.

Okay, stepping back for a moment. The point of this post isn’t to encourage you to worldbuild some amazingly detailed magical or science-fiction garbage disposal system and then build a story out of it (though that can happen, and if it does, more power to you). What I am trying to encourage is asking of more questions about systems of your world that may or may not work as well as you’d assumed by default.

This extends past garbage. “Where does the waste go?” is a valid question. But so is “Where does food come from?” Or “How does this city stay clean?” or “Who is doing upkeep on this space station?” or even “Who manufactures this stuff?”

All of these, as well as many, many more, are questions you can ask that, in the process of answering, may help you figure out and lock down key details of your world, characters, or even plot.

To pick another example from my own work, take Shadow of an Empire. A lot of that story’s events ride on the rail network as well as the pneumatic pipe system used by the Indrim Empire. Well, you know where those came from? After coming up with the magic system, I asked myself what sort of solutions it would offer for various day to day elements of the world. Which included transportation and messenger services. Building out from that led me to building a postal network that became both the pneumatic pipes and then fed into the dedicated rail network (among other things and avenues of research).

And, well, the results speak for themselves. If you’ve read Shadow of an Empire, you know how and why all characters involved, good and bad, work to use that network to their advantage. It’s a core element of how the world works.

Which is why I ask you “What about garbage?” What sort of interesting developments in your world can you discover with simple questions like that? How does your Fantasy or Sci-Fi city get water? Heat? How do they keep cool if there’s too much heat? What about power? Where do their resources come from?

Asking questions like these can have another benefit as well in helping you avoid traps. Yes, you read that right, it can help you avoid mistakes and traps as well. How?

Well, suppose you’re working on a logistical angle of “Where does this come from for my city?” and you realize that what you’re thinking wouldn’t work. Say … water in a desert city. Water is going to be very important to any developing city, but where is it going to come from? Will it be rationed or scarce? If it’s so scarce, why are people there in the first place? What’s the trade-off that makes the extra work for water worth it?

Asking questions like these can aid you, even if it doesn’t feel like it. While it may make the worldbuilding more difficult at times, or even necessitate cutting something, think about why that would be. If you cut something because you can’t grok it in the world … the worse alternative is leaving it in where readers will fail to see it.

Seriously, this happens. I’ve had it happen to me, and I’ve seen plenty of other people and even reviewers complain about it as well, that a certain place, city, or moment was really cool … but made no logical sense whatsoever in-universe. Because while it’s neat, or cool, or even just “plot convenient” it doesn’t make sense for a city to be at X location, or for said character to be carrying said heavy macguffin, or whatever.

The problem is that the author never considered elements like the garbage question, but a large number of the readers did. And when that happens? It’s like finding a gingerbread house in the middle of the forest. Okay, that’s cool and unique, but who built it? How has it not gone stale? What’s the rat problem like? There’s a lot of suspicious questions raised by this bread building, Miss Not-a-Witch, if that is your real name.

Now, in the case of that example, you could use the elements of “this doesn’t make sense” as an actual plot device, as the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel does. Obviously something is up with a Gingerbread house made of sweets. But there are many books and stories that don’t do this, where the author charges ahead because they have a really cool idea, not realizing that the cool idea isn’t supported by any sort of logic, and the moment any reader stops to ask “Wait, but …?” the whole thing breaks down.

So again, as we pull back, I’m not saying you need to create a massive sewer network for the next city your characters will stop at, complete with blueprints and detailed job assignment breakdowns (cool … but questionably useful unless you make it so). Rather what I’m saying is that you should at least ask the basic questions a reader might so that there is an answer. Even if you don’t give it.

For example (and again picking on my own works), there are plenty of background elements in how things work with Colony or Shadow of an Empire that aren’t either shown or stated … but the story has already provided enough information that the reader can work out the details on their own. They’ve had enough details dropped answering other questions that, when a new question arises, they can think of answers using that information all on their own, thus answering the question of “How does this happen.”

Why? Because the base is there, even if it’s not fully explained. But the reader is capable of building to it because they’ve been given the tools they need and seen the finished product. There’s enough there for them to connect A and C through B all on their own.

So, bringing everything back to a conclusion: Ask yourself about the garbage. About the water. Ask questions about where elements of your setting come from. And if you cannot answer them, perhaps back up and think about it until you can provide an answer you’re comfortable with. Then use that answer to flesh things out in your story, to give the reader small details that serve to make things come to life. Or even give them tools to figure things out on their own.

It’s a simple question. But the act of asking it may open up avenues and opportunities you’d never considered.

Good luck. Now go get writing.

And if you enjoyed this post, consider supporting the creation of more by supporting on Patreon or buying a book!

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