The map is not the story

A recent tweet reminded me of this famous adage by J.R.R. Tolkien:

"I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit."

Only... that wasn't wise. Tolkien toiled for 12 years on Lord of the Rings. He struggled with it and almost gave up many times. His job suffered badly due to burnout from working on the book. I wouldn't be surprised if the only reason why he didn't give up was fear of the merciless teasing he would have gotten from his good friend C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame.

That's my headcanon, anyway. Fact is, even great men can be wrong. Or, as a friend quickly pointed out, a genius is often the wrong person to learn from. They have extraordinary ability levels, you see. That's why we call them geniuses. Try doing things the hard way like they did, you're much more likely to fall flat on your face, and not even know why so you can learn from the failure.

I tried, you know. Tried doing just what Tolkien advised. It only wasted my creative drive for years.

My first sci-fi setting started out with a (galactic) map, and a grand history of the future. I carefully placed there a variety of worlds, where all kinds of different stories could happen. The technology and politics, too, were designed with purpose.

Can you guess how many stories fell out of it?

Three. Two of which were largely written by friends. And another friend was inspired to draw art of my imaginary alien species. Could be worse I suppose.

Much later, I tried the same thing again, with a planet rescued from the old mess and transplanted into my current setting. This time, the story I wrote with the express purpose of exploring it came out much better. It still felt unsatisfying in the end, kinda pointless and with too many loose ends. Not unlike the much-discussed Tom Bombadil.

So the next attempt started with one ordinary teenager thrown into a terrifying situation and having to survive in a strange place, among strange people, far from anything familiar. (It's such a common trope in my stories you could make it a drinking game.)

And this time it clicked, despite taking place for the most part in a tiny corner of the same planet, with the rest only talked about. The whole place still came alive better than first time around.

This time, you see, I was looking at it through the eyes of characters I cared about. Characters that mattered, as opposed to glorified tour guides.

That's what stories are made of, you see. Just like Lord of the Rings isn't the story of Middle Earth, or its great kingdoms. It's the story of one hobbit and his burden. Frodo alone brought the whole thing to life. That people later became fixated on flashier bits like dragons, treasure and magic is another story. No pun intended.

Either way, nobody cares about Tolkien's endless lists of kings and battles, or for that matter his elven poetry. Those are the bits he thought were the whole point... and it almost sentenced his life's work to obscurity.

Unlike him, we have the benefit of hindsight. Use it wisely.