What Theme Parks Can Teach Us About World Building

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Deep in the woods of Louisiana, there stands a stately manor all alone, pristine on the outside but for the grey, drooping foliage all around. The mansion’s long and storied past is littered about, literally, in the form of a graveyard. No matter the time of day, once you enter this house, a gloom sets in. You’re beckoned inside by a disembodied voice, into a cobwebbed-draped foyer. The curiosities mount and the mysteries thicken as you delve deeper into the house, encountering floating candlesticks, bulging doors, a crystal ball inhabited by the head of a medium. She summons the spirits, and from then on you are the spectator of a ghoulish revelry. There are in fact 999 ghosts inhabiting this mansion, but, as your host says, there’s room for a thousand…

This is, of course, the basic plot to Disneyland’s iconic attraction The Haunted Mansion. Believe it or not, a well made theme park attraction can tell us a lot about the writing process. Attractions start with a story, a central idea of a narrative that the viewer either watches or moves through (or even interacts with). And just like crafting the story of a novel, the writers hone that story, adding layers of details, till it becomes a fully fleshed idea.

Every little detail in The Haunted Mansion has a story behind it. Every character has a name and a history, every scene has a narrative, every prop a purpose. There’s the widower, Constance, whose portrait you see in the Stretching Room early in the attraction, and whose ghost you see later in the attic, along with portraits of her four (murdered) husbands. Or there are the remnants of story elements, like the raven, who shows up four times throughout your journey, serving as a framing device, but at one time in the development of the attraction had actual dialogue.

But all of these things, every prop and character, are fleeting. You only glimpse them for a few seconds before you’re whisked away to the next scene. The Haunted Mansion has a relatively leisurely pace, compared to say, The Indiana Jones Adventure (which has its own very important story tricks I’ll get into in a later post). But even still, you get only the barest glimpse of some things — I always want to explore the attic scene in more detail, or walk around the graveyard free from a Doom Buggie.

There’s an important lesson in this. The fleeting glimpse is on purpose, for a few different reason. One is that, the longer you look at something, the more you see its flaws, the seams, the wires. Another is that, were you to spend a lot of time exploring one particular element or one character, you’d lose the thread of the story, and the experience would be altered and perhaps ruined.

And finally, there’s the mystery. Knowing absolutely everything in encyclopedic detail might appeal to some, but I’d wager they are a narrow subset of the audience. One of the best things you can do to engage a reader is to hold back. I talked about this some in my last blog, about how you must resist the impulse to include everything, no matter how cool you or your beta readers find the details and side characters. It can derail your story, but it also derails the mystery.

It can be said that the best thing to happen to Jaws is how glitchy their animatronic shark was. Cutting the shark’s screen time way down saved them from having to make it believable and made the horror even more intense when it did arrive. It works the same in thrillers, scifi adventures, fantasy epics, and dramas. Not showing can be just as powerful as showing, because the reader’s imagination will fill the gaps. Case in point, the new Godzilla film, which is being praised for the fact that it waits a long time to show you the titular beastie. The same principle works for world building materials.

So all those fleeting things we see whiz past us on a theme park ride, or all the cool, bizarre settings and characters in our favorite books, we don’t really need to see all of it for the story to work.

To finish, I invite you to watch the video below. It is a ride through, including part of the queue and preshow, of a new attraction in Hong Kong Disneyland called Mystic Manor. It’s an incredible technical feat and one of my favorite theme park attractions, despite the fact that I’ve never been to HKDL. Watch it and see for yourself, and see if your imagination starts pondering where all the magical items in this attraction came from.

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