Let’s talk trash: dealing with garbage in fiction

Whenever you’re diving into world creation, it’s important to keep in mind what kind of trash you’re also likely diving into. While you can easily see today’s trash, particularly what’s in your own area, it can be hard to imagine new landscapes of garbage. So that’s what we’re going to overview today: How to forecast your trash, where to find information about the trash of the past, and why it’s so important to get it right.

One person’s trash . . .

Fun fact: The world that exists outside your door only applies to a select number of people. What you take for granted that gets translated to your writing in terms of description—background scenes, casual interactions with common-to-us items, what you see every day that is overly familiar to you—will be potentially foreign to your reader. If you travel, you’re already nodding along, thinking about places you visit that are different to your homeland.

There are subtle differences in packaging between Canada and the USA, for example. If you talk about Smarties up here, we’re going to think about candy-covered chocolates and potentially saving the red ones for last. The US? Hard sweet-and-sour candies. In the age of almost automatic international readership, you as author are charged more directly with ensuring accuracy as well as believability. Those two things should really go together, anyway. I know that as a reader, or editor, I’m not going to believe the story if it’s not accurate. If you tell me someone’s mouth puckered when eating a Smartie and your work is set in Brandon, Manitoba . . . I’m going to wonder what was wrong with that crunchy chocolate.

This applies to so many things beyond candy, from types of cars to cut and make of fabric for clothing. A sedan from the 1950s is quite different from the four-door you can buy today. Does the region and time you’re writing about use jute or cotton or wool or synthetic fibre or animal skins as the basis for their clothing? You’d be remiss not to ensure the everyday trash matches up to the world you’ve made.

A note on world-building: Readers have to be able to suspend their disbelief of the world they know to engage with the one you’re creating, and that requires it to be realistic. This means it makes sense according to the rules of your world—which means it’s accurate—and allows the reader to believe you as a narrator.

So while newspapers might make great trash in certain works, they’re not something I’d expect to see in most sci-fi or dystopian futures. How many scenes can you think of in those genres, whether literal or visual, that have a newspaper flying across them?

Trash collector

World-building is an incredibly detailed process. During your research—from comparable stories to historical fact-checking—you’ll come across lots of inspiration for your trash. Here are some points to consider:

  • Contemporary sources for trash trends exist. Check out government information (like this), organizations geared towards conservation (will straws still be trash in 50 years?), and corporate information on garbage collection and processing.
  • Read up on what goes into the technology you want in your world. What is involved in creating it and, therefore, what are the byproducts from its creation? Is that level of detail useful or necessary to account for?
  • What kind of pests are attracted by the junk and detritus you’re using?
  • If you’re featuring derelict or disintegrating objects, have you accounted for the time required to achieve the look you want? Lots of documentaries dive into what would happen on Earth if humans disappeared; you can learn enough to get you started there!
  • Similarly, consider the climate of the area. Is it wet, dry, windy? This might apply more to stories being developed for video games, but climate can influence the scenes you set in written stories as well.
  • Think about what items would go bad first and become unavailable in your story. Medicine, canned goods, toothpaste, and books all have different lifespans and durability. If you’re doing a large time jump, give a minute to think on how that impacts your garbage.

Your story might only refer to garbage once in passing. Great! It should only take you a few minutes to sort your trash and close that scene. That said, it’s a surprisingly common comment left during manuscript assessments or developmental edits that the author should consider this element of world-building, so review these components and let me know your interesting refuse idea or favourite use of garbage in another story.

After all, one person’s trash is another person’s inspiration.

Published by M Gardner

Editor and writing coach. I'm keen on helping establish and grow unique authorial voices for maximum impact in the reading world.

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