Synergy in Worldbuilding (and Beyond)

“Land of Psychedelic Illuminations,” by Brian Exton.

(I must apologize.  My last post wasn’t the clearest, as it came to me in several parts.  I think my whole spiel about using the elements in my story was more about worldbuilding than setting…but then again, the elements are setting, in a way, because they represent Nature, which always surrounds my characters.  This was all left too implied… Bah!  I’m just being a perfectionist again.  Forget I said anything.)

Okay!  So today…I’d like to talk about what happens when setting, character, plot, and all those other important storytelling elements come together in holy matrimony, so to speak.  (Or maybe it’s more like “holy polygamy,” which may or may not be a paradox, heh, but let’s not go there…)

Good Writing + Thorough Development + Cohesion Through Compatibility = Synergy

When all the elements of storytelling come together and somehow, in the mind of the reader, manage to transcend the sum of their parts, it makes for an amazing effect.  When you can’t remove one character, plot point, or detail of the setting from the story without it falling apart or changing altogether, then you know you’ve got something pretty tight (in every sense of that word).

There is a word for this phenomenon.  I believe it is called synergy.  Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term:

A mutually advantageous conjunction or compatibility of distinct business participants or elements (as resources or efforts).

Origin of synergy: New Latin synergia, from Greek synergos working together.

Everyone loves M-W (right?), so I thought I’d put that one out there; but honestly, I think we can do a little better.  Here’s how the American Heritage Dictionary, on, defines synergy:

  1. The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.
  2. Cooperative interaction among groups, especially among the acquired subsidiaries or merged parts of a corporation, that creates an enhanced combined effect.

Right, so key words are “compatibility,” “combined effect” and “greater than the sum of their individual effects.”

I love this word to death for two reasons: (1) because it’s one of those words that smacks of New Age and just sounds undeniably cool, but more importantly (2) because it accurately describes a particularly elusive effect that is really more of a feeling one gets or an impression one is left with than a real, tangible thing.  It is a quality of relationship between story elements, a kind of organic network of details that give and take from one another to produce something greater.  It is difficult, I think, to attain in a novel and can be hard to pinpoint when it plays out before your eyes, though you know it when you see it.

A story with synergy has just got that “It Factor.”

Examples Where Synergy is Achieved

Not too long ago I finished reading Kameron Hurley’s debut novel God’s War.  It is an exercise in worldbuilding, among other things, and I believe a successful one at that.  She features a style which is now being called bugpunk.  In an interview with Kameron on Mad Hatter, I read about the source of her inspiration for the novel: a time spent living in South Africa where bugs were simply a normal part of everyday life.  She runs pretty far with that idea in God’s War, incorporating it into the very lifestyles of her characters.  “Magicians,” for example, can call bugs to do their bidding, creating defensive barriers or offensive swarm attacks, among other things.

However, her worldbuilding doesn’t stop there.  Bugs are ginormous and scary in Hurley’s setting of the polluted and war-torn planet of Umayma, but they also serve an even deeper purpose.  All of the technology in this world runs off bug juice, really.  Bug-based technology allows the protagonist Nyxnissa to ride relatively long distances in her “bakkie.”  Bugs also allow Umayma’s inhabitants to communicate via radio.  There are many other ways in which bugs are useful in this world, to be sure, but those are some of the most prominent examples throughout the novel.

All of these details, and so many more, just came together very nicely, in my opinion.  It was all thought-out and cohesive.  It just felt right when it was all mixed together.

I could go into the numerous other reasons of why I feel God’s War is a success as far as worldbuilding is concerned, but that would make for a lengthy analysis.  I think that if you don’t mind ultra-tough female leads and a little head-lopping (for Nyxnissa is a deadly bounty hunter), then you should just go ahead and read it for yourself!

Other Examples of Worldbuilding Done Right

I also admire the worldbuilding of Martha Wells.  I especially loved The Fall of Ile-Rien series from her, which played with the idea of two vastly different peoples: one, the Rienish, for whom wizards and magic were the norm and even used in conjunction with technology; and another, the Syprians, who considered to any and all magic to be pure evil.  Of course, the two civilizations meet face-to-face and are forced into a circumstance in which they must work together in order to survive.

The Death of the Necromancer, kind of a prequel of sorts (from the same author), was also done very well, I think; it was nominated for a Nebula Award a while back.

These may not be the most well-known examples of incredible worldbuilding out there today, but they are some of my favorites because not only are their settings awesome and unique, but they directly contribute to the effectiveness of each story.  In fact, these novels would be entirely different if their settings were altered in any way.

What other good examples of striking settings can you think of?

Not all novels will have settings that especially stick out to the reader, but sometimes you come across ones where they do.  Also, worldbuilding does not necessarily have to involve creating a new world from the ground up.  It could just mean doing the necessary research to render a setting(s) in a realistic way–particularly when the story is set in a real-life location.

With that said…

What are some of your favorite settings from novels?

Movies?  TV shows?  What made them special or successful in terms of the bigger story, in your eyes?

Next week I plan on talking more about the actual process of worldbuilding and different aspects that must be considered–particularly when creating a new world.  (And if you think this is the last time you’ll be seeing psychedelic weirdness from me, think again–mwahahaha!  It’s just one of the many strange things that have inspired the ideas behind my novel.)


6 thoughts on “Synergy in Worldbuilding (and Beyond)

  1. >Good stuff!Firefly (TV series and the movie) was such an incredible setting. It had that Wild West feeling to it, lots of earthtones and lawlessness. So great.Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues…is a great example of setting. So vivid, so much detail. Very much prophetic of technology we have today.


  2. >OMG, I love Firefly. You just gave me a heart attack.I love how in the bonus material on the Serenity DVD Joss Whedon talks about how he came up with his idea. He said it was a combination of his interest in the American Civil War combined with a few other things (the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, ha!), but mostly the idea that the United States and China are two of the most prominent superpowers on the planet–which is why everyone in the movie and TV show can speak both English and Chinese. That kind of thought process and combination of ideas is what gets me so excited about writing speculative fiction. I think Serenity was probably his best work. (Wasn't really a fan of Buffy, actually.) There were so many quotable lines, it's ridiculous.Jules Verne, of course, will forever be a classic example of striking worldbuilding.


  3. >I really like the word "synergy" too. It's such a great word. But in the business world, "synergy" is one of those overused buzz words we're forbidden to use. Along with "outside-the-box," "leverage," and "customer centric."Despite that, I've always just liked saying "synergy." Synchronize – Energy


  4. >Yeah, it definitely has the potential for overuse.(Don't worry, though. I don't intend to gaudily string it through every single post I write, haha. I'm not a trendy person like that. Substance is a must.)


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