worlds from home...

Top Down vs. Bottom Up: Starting Small

In Design Strategies, Written by Thomas on March 21, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Some storytellers like to have everything planned out: they’ll know exactly how many pimples the villain has roughly 1000 years before you ever hear of him. (Nothing wrong with that!) Some like the thrill of not even knowing who their characters are until they sit down. If you’re the former, you should read this article to understand the other side. If you’re the latter, you should read this article to understand yourself. (Cue life changing epiphany.) 

(This post is part of a series. If you missed the first one on top down design, treat yourself here.)

Doing things bottom up means starting with the nitty gritty – a character, an event, an object – and spiraling outward. You know that the the prince has been murdered and his family ring stolen, so you build the criminal organization that plotted the act, but was beaten to it. Who beat them to it? The prince himself, of course, who faked his own death and is now in hiding.

The great thing about bottom up design is you can start making content immediately, and you can make it where you need it. You can implement from the word “go.” Got a project deadline next week? Bottoms up, my friend. All your friends decided to come over this afternoon and you’ve got three hours to write, shoot, and edit the award-winning film you’ve been pretending to work on for months? Time to hit the ground running with detail.

But even if you’re not procrastinating, grinding out some actual content has massive motivational benefits. It’s one thing to have a big encyclopedia of your world, but your mom, no matter how much she loves you, will be more excited to check out an actual story or song than a dusty encyclopedia entry. Trust me, I know from experience.

One of the benefits of top down design I mentioned last week was being able to refer ahead to other parts of your work. This is certainly true, but if you don’t mind cheating, you can accomplish almost the same thing working bottom up. The trick is to do it in a way that leaves you some wiggle room.

What I’m saying here is: be vague. Instead of, “What Stan didn’t realize is that in two years he would be attacked by vampires, move to Bucharest, and develop his own clothing line,” say something like, “Stan had an inkling of shadowy ill fortune waiting to jump out at him from a dark alley far from his native land.” Why not reveal the particulars of Stan’s eventual run in with the undead? Simple: you don’t want to commit to something you might regret later.

This sort of bottom up style can also have interesting results as you try and justify the things you’ve already done. Sometimes having to this is a bad thing, but it can be an interesting creative tool. Take, for example, this song I worked on, called “Black Gold”:

If it sounds like a song about oil, that’s because originally it was. But Jeff, another “homebrewer,” and I decided we wanted to include it in the homebrew, so we were faced with interpreting the song’s earthy lyrics in a way that made sense in our world.

“What,” we asked ourselves, “could this character have wanted so badly that he was willing to kill for it?” The fact that it had to be able to “pour” out of the ground made it even harder. So Jeff dug up plants in his garden and I lazed around, and eventually we came up with a solution: a man in search of his fortune digs open a well to another world, and in his lust for its riches kills those he hired to help him. The black gold of the title is the color of the light that shines from the well – a primary color never seen on earth.

(If you’re curious, the droning at the beginning and end of the song are intended to synesthetically represent that new primary color since we can’t, for obvious reasons, present it visually.)

If we had possessed the foresight that goes along with a top down design, we might not have had to retroactively come up with a homebrew explanation for our song. By the same token, we might not have come up with a concept that I like so much, either.*

The point is, with a little work, you can turn a weakness into a strength. Meaning that starting with details and building by the seat of your pants might not be such a bad idea. Any of you guys had a similarly positive experience? Or a really negative one?

Whether yes or no, don’t fret. Next week we’ll figure out how to build from the top and the bottom both, and all your problems will disappear.

Alright, maybe not all.

* A caveat: Things don’t always work out this well, and there’s a certain risk relying on this method. If Jeff and I hadn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for the song, all our time and effort would’ve been wasted, and we would’ve been stuck with a song that, while good (I think it’s good, alright?), is woefully isolated from our larger creative project. But if you’re a bottom upper at heart, maybe that danger just thrills you.


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