Wednesday, February 27, 2019

"Where Does The Poop Go?" is The Most Basic (and Ignored) World Building Question

When we sit down to build worlds, we tend to focus on the big, sexy topics. How does magic work in this strange, new world? What forces power the drives that let the Astro Navy reach the outer rims? How many social orders are there within this great dystopia, and what led to their savage struggles for dominance in the decaying world?

All of that stuff is important, no doubt. It's fun, it's engaging, and you're going to spend a lot of time on it. But there is another question you need to answer before you start writing. A question that a lot of us tend to ignore.

Where does the poop go?

Because until you know that, you don't know shit.

Why Does It Matter?

If you find yourself flabbergasted, asking why it is important to your story that you know where your world's bodily wastes go, chances are that it isn't. Unless you're pulling an It and having a monster who lives in the sewers, or you're going for a musketeer-style underground infiltration, it probably doesn't matter all that much to the narrative that you understand where all that excrement goes.

But from a world-building perspective, it is one of the most important questions. And it's far from the only one.

Okay, I'll bite... why?
How we deal with our waste is one of the fundamental questions of society. Do we have big, public engineering projects that deal with it (whether we're talking New York or ancient Rome, doesn't matter), or is it just a mad free-for-all where everyone just tosses it out the window? If the former, is the system old and crumbling (which could symbolize break-down in infrastructure), or is it well-maintained and sort of taken for granted? If the latter, does all this waste cause sickness? Or is civilization significantly far-out in the wilderness that you have plenty of room to fertilize the fields, as it were?

The way your world deals with poop is just one of the many nuts-and-bolts questions you should have the answer to. Even if that answer is, "It's set in 2011, so they have whatever modern sewer systems we're used to," you still need to have that answer.

This applies to all those niggling, homely questions you may not want to make time with, but which you still need to answer in order to give your world that bedrock foundation it needs. Questions about what people eat, what their hygiene is like, and if they put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us do. Questions about who trades with whom, what commodities are valuable, and how certain items made it to the other end of the world. Especially if your story isn't set in a world that has Amazon Prime shipping, and a massive global trade network that links one end of the planet to another.

The ho-hum, everyday matters need to be examined, and decided upon, just as much as the big, world-shattering ones that typically inspire you in the first place. Because you are going to nail down those big questions completely. But it's the bolt with the missing nut that's going to trip you up in chapter 12, and leave you shouting at your screen.

Every. Single. Time.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post! Hopefully it got some wheels turning. If you've got a foundation question that you feel is just as important as where people poop in your world, then leave it in the comments below!

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  1. I believe the most modern fantasy cities have a complex system of gelatinous cube and ooze filled pits for their toilet system... Personally, I love the idea of having that symbiosis with creatures you normally find in dungeon systems and giving them a good reason to be there.

  2. I used to work at a local city Water Treatment plant , and it's alot cleaner and more hygienic with all the safety equipment now installed .