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Know Your Lore: Lore 101 -- How to fold a Tinfoil Hat

The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.

Out of all of the lore articles I've written so far for WoW Insider, none seem to garner quite as much commentary as the tinfoil hat series. Whether I'm babbling on about Elune being a naaru, the Lich King being a walking plane of existence, or the possibility that Azeroth is just a giant trap for Sargeras, coming up with theories and tossing them at you guys is an exercise in creative thinking.

Rather than go on with another crazy theory, this week I decided to go a different direction entirely. There are a few tricks to trying to predict what's going to happen with a book or an ongoing story like Warcraft. It's not just about coming up with wild ideas; they have to actually be plausible ideas. And it's not about what you think should happen; it's about trying to define what may come to pass. Today, we're going to take a look at the nuts and bolts of what defines a story, what makes up a tinfoil hat theory, and how to apply it not just to Warcraft but to anything you happen to be reading.

Knowledge is power

The single most important part of trying to come up with any kind of plausible theory in regards to story development is that you absolutely must have a grasp on everything that's come before. In the case of Warcraft, it's not just reading the stories in the novels, comics and manga; you have to know the story of all the games from Warcraft I up to Cataclysm. For a monster like World of Warcraft, you have to know each quest in game and how it interlinks to the others. In vanilla, not a lot of quest material was "important" -- for example, your typical fetch-and-carry quests could be ignored. But quest chains with stories, like the chains for Onyxia attunement, were clearly important to the overall story being presented.

Does this mean I remember everything there is to know about Warcraft at every given time? Yes and no. As far as I'm concerned, I collect useless information and store it just as readily as I store useless gray items and other junk in my character's bank. It's not just Warcraft -- other video games, other novels, movies, useless trivia ... there's a lot kicking around up there. This doesn't mean I'm a walking encyclopedia, though, nor does it mean I get all the names and dates right every single time (Draenor and Durotar, I am looking at you.)

But I don't need to remember every single last thing that happened at any given time because I know where to find the reference information when I need it. I've got all the novels and comics, the RPG source books (though the information contained in the RPG books is now being muddily defined as "non-canon"), the games, and pretty much anything Warcraft-related easily at my disposal for reference. On top of that, there are wonderful sites out there like Wowpedia and Wowhead that I can go to if I forget the name of that one quest in that one zone with the dragon where stuff happens.

Does this mean you need to purchase all that material? Nope! More often than not, your local library will have the Warcraft novels available. Or if they don't, most libraries have an interlibrary loan system that will let you get the books from another library that does carry them.

So why is it so utterly important that you remember all this stuff? For a couple of reasons. If you're making some sort of prediction regarding future material, you need to know everything that's come before. This is because there may be something back there that completely invalidates whatever crazy theory you've come up with. More importantly, though, you need to know the story before you can deconstruct the story -- and deconstructing the story is what tinfoil hat theories are all about.

Common threads

What's all this deconstruction nonsense about, anyway? It's storywriting 101, of course. Writers often have common threads in what they are writing. If you can figure out what all of the main threads are, generally speaking, you can predict what the next major threads are going to be. For example, in the case of Warcraft, many (and I mean many) of the typical hero/villain conflicts involve corruption or outright insanity. Sargeras started it all at the outset, but if you start ticking off the villains on your fingers -- Arthas, Deathwing, Illidan, Kil'jaeden, Archimonde, Kael'thas, the Scarlet Crusade -- the list goes on and on.

If you look at that list, you can pretty much construe that the likelihood of any villain in Warcraft actually being an okay sort who was just corrupted by one evil influence or another is incredibly high. From that, you can predict that the next major villain you see is likely going to be some pretty okay sort who ended up being corrupted. Does it fit? Certainly it does -- Blizzard's been doing it for years and isn't likely to change something that's become a standard in Warcraft lore.

Here's where we go a little deeper. You have your common threads, all lined up in a row, right? Generally speaking, if there's a series of common threads, there's a reason for that series of common threads. For example, the dragonflights are all in trouble of one kind or another. Deathwing's been corrupted, the Emerald Nightmare was haunting the Emerald Dream, Nozdormu was missing, Malygos was rampaging against mortality. Alexstrasza's flight was about the only one that wasn't in any sort of dire trouble.

That's your collection of common threads. But if all the dragonflights being in trouble represents a series of common threads all lined up in a row, then the likelihood is that there is one explanation for all those common threads occurring simultaneously. That's where you get theories like the one surrounding the Old Gods and the dragonflights -- there has to be a reason all dragonflights are experiencing some level of distress. The Old Gods were just one theory out of a million. Is it correct? Maybe, maybe not -- but the point is that it fits neatly within the continuity of the Warcraft universe.

What isn't there

There's this thing that magicians use frequently to pull off seemingly impossible feats of magic called misdirection. It's a form of deception. A magician diverts the audiences' attention to something completely unrelated while the real trick is being performed. That's why magic appears to be so magical -- because you're so busy paying attention to the thing they say you ought to be paying attention to that you don't notice what's going on right under your nose.

The same applies to writing. Authors deliberately leave out information or bring up something outlandish and unrelated to draw the reader away from what's really going on. At the end of a book or a story, you've got yourself a gigantic, grand, shocking reveal that is the result of all those inconsequential things being woven together into a cohesive whole. Whether it's characters who only show up for a page or two and come back later, or seemingly ordinary events in a character's lifetime, if you're reading a good story, it's all going to come back.

Authors do not write information that isn't somehow relevant to the story at hand. Every tiny detail is placed there deliberately. If there weren't a point to that information, it wouldn't need to be written out, after all. So part of prediction and coming up with these wild theories is deliberately looking for that left-out information, for those little inconsequential events that don't seem to have any real importance. Nine times out of 10, the reason those little events are there is because they are all pointing to something way bigger than you'd think.

Alternatively, authors will deliberately omit information -- not because it isn't important, but because it will be revealed later in detail. This type of thinking is the kind of thing you saw highlighted in the latest Ask a CDev.

Q: Where is X? (X = Calia Menethil, Turalyon, Alleria Windrunner, Med'an, Gallywix, etc.)

A: There are several "missing" characters in the Warcraft universe, but they are not forgotten! While we'd love to talk about these characters, doing so would spoil a number of the plots we have for Cataclysm and beyond. Believe us when we say that you will definitely hear about these characters when we're ready to talk about them!

Missing characters? There's a reason they are missing, more likely than not. Missing events and lore, plot holes? Chances are there's a reason for that too, and it's something we'll see addressed at some point. For example, when you look at the current state of draenei lore, you'll notice there is really very little there to pull from. You can assume this is because someone didn't feel like writing all that information out -- or you can assume that it's because it was deliberately omitted. If it was a case of deliberate omission, guess what? We're probably going to see that later.

And if we're going to see it later, we might as well try making some sort of grand and crazy theory about it all!

Pulling it together with evidence

Perhaps the most important thing you have to keep in mind when making these wild speculations about stories and lore is context. The theory you come up with has to make sense within the context of everything we've seen before. It's not just about crazy theories; it's about what is plausible, probably, likely to occur. When you're coming up with tinfoil hat theories, it's not about what you want to see happen in a story or a game. That's what fan fiction is for. Feel free to write the story in any way you see fit.

What it is about is looking at the sum and scope of everything that's come before, and then trying to predict within the context of it all what's going to happen next. For example, would Elune actually being a naaru make readers happy? That's about a 50/50 split right there; die-hard night elf fans would hate it if that were the case. Is it likely? Given all of the evidence we've seen, sure it is, and it'd fit in with Warcraft lore as we've seen it presented already.

But you can't simply make a statement like that and expect people to believe it, which is why you have to gather evidence to support it. In the case of Elune being a naaru, there is plenty of information both in game and out, when lined up neatly all in a row, that points to the possibility of a naaru origin. The illustrations of Elune that we've seen, the fact that her crown resembles naaru architecture, is pretty telling right there.

Beyond that, though, we have the things that haven't been said. Elune's role has never been clearly defined. She's been called a deity, but that's what the night elves believe. What about everyone else? Night elf priests use something similar to the Light than priests from the other races, but it's always been referred to as the powers of Elune, rather than the Light. Who's to say that isn't a common thread that can be given one explanation?

The Most Important Question: Why?

Why? Why bother coming up with theories? Why try to predict what's going to happen? Why try and guess what the author is going to do next? I first learned about story analysis in an AP English class in high school. My class was introduced to the concept, and then we took up the onerous task of trying to unravel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Over the course of ripping the story apart, we used a book called The Annotated Alice in which all the various references that Carroll was trying to make were carefully outlined.

The thought and care put into writing that book and the sheer amount of references contained within it absolutely fascinated me, and it still does to this day. As a writer, I know when I put a story together that I have a common theme in my head, reasons for slipping information in and reasons for leaving information out. I love the process of it all. There's an art to writing a good story that draws people in and surprises them, and part of that art is knowing the technical parts behind the process -- what a reader will respond to emotionally, what will consistently bore people.

It's an art, but it's also a technical process, and I like picking apart the works of other writers and seeing how they do it. In the process, I pick up tricks that help my writing along. It's sort of like watching a tutorial on life drawing or digital coloring; you always find some useful information in those tutorials that you can apply to your own work and improve it. But that's the really technical answer to the question.

The simple answer? Because it's fun! It's like shaking a carefully wrapped present and trying to figure out what's inside before you open the box. It's fun to try and figure out what happens before it happens. It's fun to discuss that sort of thing with other people and see what they think about it -- especially if they've got ideas of their own. It's fun trying to fill in plot holes that were left vague or unfinished. If you're right, there's satisfaction to be found in that. If you're wrong, then you're still surprised by whatever the real answer happens to be.

So remember, if you're trying to come up with a theory behind a story, whether it's Warcraft or something else entirely, keep in mind what the author has to say, what he has said before, and what he isn't saying. Don't get wrapped up in trying to write the story for yourself. Look at the story as it unfolds, and find the next step that would logically make sense. And don't keep the information to yourself -- sharing speculation is what the fun is all about!

Tinfoil hat theories definitely aren't for everyone. Not everyone enjoys picking stories apart and trying to figure out what makes them tick. But for Know Your Lore, tinfoil hat articles are some of my favorite ones to do because it gets you guys talking, thinking, questioning and discussing the story behind Warcraft. To me, that's the ultimate kind of fun.

For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.

Filed under: Lore, Know your Lore

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