When I was five years old, my parents took me to the movies. I remember seeing both Flash Gordon and The Empire Strikes back the same year. Although I was young, I remember feeling like Star Wars was part of a much bigger universe where things happened in places other than the ones that we saw on screen.
Now that I’m older, I think I know why. Star Wars was gritty. The Rebel equipment looked beat up, used and cobbled together. C3PO spotted another droid who looked exactly like him, and followed it, eager to talk to another “3PO Unit.” That made me think that somewhere in the galaxy, there was a factory stamping out tall, human-like golden protocol robots that were all identical. Lucas screwed that up in Episode 1, but I’ll get to that later.
By contrast, everything in Flash Gordon was . . . well, flashy. Once he and Dale left Earth, it stopped existing for all intents and purposes. Occasionally they mentioned wanting to get back to Earth and save it, but the actors didn’t really sell it for me. Instead it seemed to be all about Ming the Merciless wanting to marry/sleep with Dale and his daughter wanting to marry/sleep with Flash and Flash trying to stop all of that. I didn’t really get the feeling that there were places outside of the ones that Flash and Dale traveled in order to fight against Ming. In other words, like the backless maiden in the old Arthurian stories, the worlds were empty set pieces waiting for our attention.
Two techniques that writers are told to follow when writing include “show, don’t tell” and “Chekhov’s Gun.” Show, don’t tell means that you should portray the action in a way that the readers can feel it, rather than through exposition. Basically stated, the rule of Chekhov’s gun is “whenever you place a gun on the mantel in the first act, it must be used by the third act.”
These are both very good at preventing sloppy writing. But when we employ them, we must also take care that they don’t limit our world building. If everything your character touches somehow ties into the plot, you give the impression that your world only exists around the characters.
Instead, while you write, you should take care to hint at a broader world that occurs outside the scope of your plot.
In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien portrays a handful of events that occur in a world that is much larger than the one we see. Each of his characters speaks a different language. There are songs that refer to deeds that we never see on screen. When his characters walk through ruins, each of the places that they pass has a story. Often we have the barest hint of what that story was, but no more. (Such as in Weathertop, where the hobbits battle the wring wraiths. In the greater story, the ruins were once one of the greatest fortresses and watchtowers of Middle earth. )
The Harry Potter books also have a complicated backstory that is only hinted at in the books. Harry has to attend (and frequently falls asleep during) History of Magic, which is all about an endless and complex history of goblin wars. We never find out about what these wars were fought over, but there is a hint that the goblins have a very complicated society. In addition to the chocolate frog cards (a Checkov’s gun) in the first book that help resolve the plot, Harry and Ron also collect cards for other famous wizards. Each character has a favorite sports team (some of which are never seen in the book). Rowling weaves so many hints at the greater world into her books that she can skillfully hide Checkov’s guns among them that pay off in the seventh book without anyone spotting them.
Back to Lucas and Star Wars (I bet you thought I forgot him). When Lucas originally filmed A New Hope (episode IV), his world was one of the first to look lived in. People sat up and took notice. That lived-in look influenced later directors like James Cameron when he directed Aliens.
But then Lucas went back and filmed the first three stories in the trilogy. And he tried to tie everything in. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough that C3PO was a random droid swept up in Luke’s adventures. Now he was created by Anakan Skywalker himself. In trying to make his story neat and tidy, Lucas suddenly limited the scope of his world.
The real world is not neat and tidy. In trying to give your story the feel that it’s set in a real world, you need to strike a balance between being messy with hints of a greater world beyond the limits of your character’s current adventures, and putting in just enough things that will tie in later.
One of the best ways to do that is to build slightly more of your world than you plan to use for setting. Then you will be able to pick and choose your references to that larger world. Just don’t get caught up in the same trap that Tolkien did: Spending more time world building than you actually do writing. Tolkien actually had notes for thousands of years of story. Yet the only stories that we have from him are a handful of short stories, the Ring Cycle and The Hobbit.
With a little bit of practice and the help of a good workshop (or a few good writer friends), you should be able to find the right balance.