Building a world: The writing process for Imperia

One of the key ways we’re trying to make Human Space real and interesting is through ‘snippets’: short pieces of writing, perhaps tucked away in tooltips, that talk about the places, people, and events that made the world the way it is in 3050 AD. In today’s blog, I want to talk a little bit about my writing process and what I’m trying to achieve with these snippets.

The format for the snippets arose pretty organically from what we wanted to do with them: they would be short extracts from in-universe texts, that would first and foremost establish atmosphere, but on top of that hint at historical events, characters, and institutions by allusion. By going with this kind of always-partial (in both senses of the word) narration, we can make the writing much more interesting than some horrendous info-dump: as Pavlos rightly pointed out, ‘lore’ is boring.

More than that, this format helps reinforce the sense of distrust, corruption and ambiguity that we want Imperia to evoke. We have a canonical timeline of events in the history of the Empire, but you’ll never get to see it. What you will see is a range of different sources’ takes on events, replete with their own spin and particular disingenuities, from the Technik manifesto Technology for Humanity‘s techno-utopian fanaticism, to the sanitised Imperial party line of the Continuing History of the Empire, along with numerous one-off sources such as recorded conversations. Using these ‘sources’ also provides another avenue for extremely condensed storytelling: citing the time, the place, the author, and so on, in a single line can suggest a world beyond what the text describes.

When I’m writing one of these snippets, I start with the item to which the snippet will be attached – usually a House, planet, or constellation of a particular culture – and work out what aspects of that subject matter I want to show off here. It might be two contrasting sides of a culture, or some hint at how a House made their money. Then, I consider what source or sources to invent for it. And then, obviously, I write it, trying as best I can to get into the mindset and the writing style of the sources’ authors. Often the best way to communicate something is through the juxtaposition of two or more short snippets – two conflicting accounts can suggest a third truth underneath, or snippets from sources speaking at different times can illustrate some social or political change without having to describe it outright. The incidental details, too, are very useful – they can say all sorts of things about Imperial society and cultures in passing. Some cast new light on other snippets elsewhere, when you compare them with one another. Sometimes the whole story is in the citation, and the snippet is just a little piece of atmosphere, or a red herring. The overall idea is to provide a very high density of little hints, in a format you can read in ten seconds, and let your imagination do most of the work.

Next time, it’ll be Steve on the blog again, talking about the planets and how detailed they are – until then, Ave Imperator!


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