Top Down or Bottom Up?


By David Flin

You’ve got your pencil poised to start making notes to develop the outline of your new timeline. You want to make sure everything is consistent, that it all hangs together, and that you have enough detail that you can extrapolate into other areas of the world as required. The question that arises is: “Where do I start with world design?”

There are two options available: starting from a single change, a Point of Departure (POD), and then working out what the consequences will result from this POD; or to start from an overall view of what the world is like, and working out how this will impact the details. The first is design from the bottom up, and the second is design from the top down.

What really doesn’t work is trying to do both, and choosing a specific POD and an overall world view at the same time. It’s possible to envisage a specific POD and combine it with a general shift in attitude, but beyond that, conflicts in world view will invariably arise.

A couple of examples are in order. In Six East End Boys, I had a specific view of what I wanted the world, and in particular London, to be like. In order to achieve that, I needed a POD far enough back that the necessary changes could feed through. I needed an atmosphere where riots and disturbances had become part of the scene, in order for the authorities to take harsh action to bring about the repression necessary for the story. That naturally led to looking at the 1980s, with things like the miners’ strike, riots in Brixton and Toxteth and Handsworth and Moss Side and others. That gave me a starting point. Making the 1984 Brighton Bomb have a worse effect would bring about a backlash from the Establishment. From there, the interim period between the POD and the start of the story was detailed using very broad brush strokes. It was very much a Top Down design. I knew the end result I wanted, and worked from that.

By contrast, another story of mine, Bring Me My Bow, is much more of a Bottom-Up development. It starts with the premise that the First World War never started, that a Cold War-type situation developed between the two power blocks, and that the societal changes brought about by the havoc of the War have been delayed or avoided.

From here, we can work out what the consequences might be. Women suffrage, for example, was partially passed as a result of the support the Suffrage movements gave to the war effort. No war means that we can expect the pre-war tactics to continue, and a probable delay in granting even partial female suffrage. The Russian Revolutions of 1917 arose in part from war-weariness, and without the war, it’s unlikely that they would have taken the form that they did.

Bottom-Up design is essentially a lengthy game of consequences. If this happens, then it has this consequence, which in turn results to this.

Sometimes the consequences might not be what you initially expected. In Bring Me My Bow, the central action moves to Persia, where a number of competing consequences interact. No WW1 means that the Ottoman Empire isn’t falling apart quite so much in Palestine and Mesopotamia as in OTL. Russian involvement in Persia is changed somewhat. With Britain and Russia notionally in the same power bloc, the confrontation these two had over Persia had to be rethought. OTL, Germany had limited involvement in Persia after WW1 for obvious reasons. Here, that’s not so clear-cut, and part of the Cold War devised here involves a lot of playing the Great Game in a variety of locations around the world. And that was without even touching on the issue of how Persia itself might have been altered by the absence of WW1.

Which to choose? Top-Down or Bottom-Up design? Which is the best? Unhelpfully, the only answer is: “It depends.” The important part is what the focus of the Timeline is. As the examples I quoted suggest, the first requirement is having a story to tell.

How do you choose whether to use Top-Down design or Bottom-Up design? It all comes down to what the focus of the story is. If it’s examining the journey and how things develop, then that suggests that a Bottom-Up design is best. There’s likely to be surprises along the way, and this method has one big advantage. When characters in a Bottom-Up timeline have a choice to make, they (and the author) are doing so based only on what has happened, and without the benefit of knowing how things will turn out. That gives a more realistic method of making decisions. It’s how the characters would make the decisions, based on what they know.

A big disadvantage of this style is that it can result in a loss of focus and digressions. Since there is no fixed destination, it’s easy to wander down side-roads and into dead-ends.

If your writing style includes having things planned in some detail, and you are uncomfortable with sudden surprises in the direction things are taking, then Top-Down is probably a better choice. The big problem with this approach comes when you find that something that develops during the course of developing the timeline contradicts the overall intention. Fixing this can lead to complications. You then have to choose between changing the overall vision to fit the developments, which can have knock-on effects elsewhere, or you make sure that the developments twist back to fit the overall view, and this can lead to some awkward scripting to get that to happen.

One way of developing ideas and seeing how well, or not, they work, is to write a little vignette to get a flavour of the piece. A vignette can be a very useful exercise in getting a little snapshot of an idea or concept. Now, how do you write a vignette? Well, that’s a subject for another day.

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© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

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