It might be useful, considering how much I discuss worldbuilding on this blog, to define exactly what I mean by the term. Why am I banging on about it? Why do I think it’s important, particularly for science fiction and fantasy?

Well, before I get into worldbuilding, I need to talk for a moment about setting. As I use the term, setting is the physical, cultural and social space in which the story takes place. For Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer1, it was early nineteenth-century Britain; for Gene Roddenberry it was the starship Enterprise and the Federation it flew through. It can be as small as a single room, or as large as the entire universe.

The setting of a novel is like the house the story lives in.

The problem is that a lot of SF&F uses unusual, one-off settings. So the author has to build the house from the foundation up, then take the reader on a tour of it. That’s why Vernor Vinge spends time explaining the Zones of Thought, while Helen Fielding can use the phrase “granny pants” without devoting a paragraph to them.

Now, one can build a perfectly adequate setting by simply specifying all of the places and contexts where scenes of the story will take place. Since even a novel has a relatively limited number of scenes, the true setting—the building made up of the rooms the story uses—will be relatively compact.

Unfortunately, readers live in the real world, which is much more complex and intricately detailed than a little setting-house.

A writer simply can’t build a setting this rich in the space of a novel, not even by discarding all plot and characterization to do it. And this is where worldbuilding comes in. It’s the art of making a simple story-house seem as complicated and spacious as the real world.

Sometimes the change needed is tiny. Sometimes it’s just adding the smallest fillip of extra detail: another species, briefly glimpsed; an expanse of farmland just visible over the walls of the city; a characteristic figure of speech.

“I too…Well, the Glaciers didn’t freeze overnight…” Cliché came readily to his lips, but his mind was elsewhere.

Not that The Left Hand of Darkness is the product of worldbuilding by means of lightweight, unobtrusive details. But that particular phrase is a perfect example of the subtle, pervasive and persuasive tricks that Le Guin uses to make her worlds more real. Of course Gethenian languages would use snow and ice metaphors in their clichés. We build figures of speech out of universal experiences, after all. And so, reading that, I believe in the world a little bit more.

None of this is news to most SF&F writers. Like characterization and plot, setting is a fundamental building block of storytelling. And the difference in effort between telling a story in the known world and creating a whole new setting is obvious. Most of the authors I read have achieved at least a workmanlike competence in making their worlds feel realistic, long before they’ve landed a publishing contract.

But what interests me is the difference between merely adequate worldbuilding and the really excellent stuff.

When a planet has one religion or one language; when its cities are interesting but have no long tail of history written into their stones and signage; when its inhabitants have heat but no fuel2, or transport but no parking2…well, it’s kind of like the building to the left. If the viewer is willing to squint a little, or pretend that a house is supposed to have walled-off windows, then it’s just about plausible that the top floor is larger than it really is.

And if the action is moving swiftly, like a car driving through the streets so fast that everything is a blur, the setting may not need to be more than a convincing shape glimpsed out of the corner of an eye. Sometimes a mere gesture in the direction of complexity is enough, because some books only need a tiny bit of worldbuilding.

But sometimes authors need to do more than the bare minimum. It rarely takes that much more—no one has to do a Tolkien and invent syntactically consistent languages for all of the nations and cultures of a world.

Indeed, although inventing languages, cultures, religions and typographies can be fun and useful, it also presents certain temptations to the writer. There’s a real delight in sketching out plausible alien worlds and the creatures that live on them, or outlining histories of empires the story will never visit. Exercises like that make the author love the world that much more, and that love will show in the writing. But it is possible to be so enamored with all of that background thinking, or so keen to justify the time it took, that the story becomes clogged with extraneous details, bloated with erudition.

What I enjoy—what I want to explore in this blog—is that fine balance between too little worldbuilding and too much. How can a writer give the reader just the right taste of a complete and complex world? What is the prose equivalent of the shutters on that last building?

  1. One of the notable differences between Austen’s use of setting and Heyer’s is how much explanation the latter uses in comparison to the former. Heyer describes clothing in more detail and uses appositives and asides to clue the reader into aspects of the society. Some of that is a difference in writing style, but some of it is that Austen was writing about her present, in which her audience lived. Heyer, writing about a vanished past, has to give the reader more details to hang on to.
  2. Spot the future blog posts

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18 Responses to Worldbuilding

  1. heresiarch says:

    “What I enjoy—what I want to explore in this blog—is that fine balance between too little worldbuilding and too much. How can a writer give the reader just the right taste of a complete and complex world?”

    I feel that in addition to the question of how much worldbuilding is the right amount, it’s also a question of how one packs as much worldbuilding into as tight and elegant a package as possible. Good worldbuilders, I think, can convey the information of a five-paragraph infodump with just a clever choice of verb. Jo Walton’s incluing, in other words.

  2. Avram Grumer says:

    I’ve always admired how, in the Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe never refers to the sun rising or setting, but always describes the horizon moving towards or away from the sun. That’s how far in the future Severian is living — geocentrism has fallen out of the language.

  3. Fade Manley says:

    What can be awfully frustrating as a writer, I think, is that the infodump vs. incluing line can be drawn very differently for various readers. I really do love Delaney’s work, but it’s on the far side of what I can take for unusual and complex worldbuilding all thrown at my head at once; some of Stross’s work actually falls beyond that line, to the point that I can’t read it–even though it feels like I want to–because I’m spending so much time trying to put together the pieces of what this Strange New World is that I can’t enjoy the story.

    And there’ve been at least two books I picked up where I enjoyed the premise of the story, and the setting, but stopped reading because I was so frustrated with how much hand-holding the worldbuilding was doing. A character would say, “X!” in a way that clearly and cleverly implied the existence of Y, and then in the very next sentence the author would patiently explain what Y was and how X implied it.

    But in both those sets of frustrations, I think the problem wasn’t the strangeness of the world (or lack thereof), but how it was presented, and that’s not exactly the same thing as having the implied large world itself. If we’re going with the “moving down the street” metaphor, at that point it’s not about how well you’ve built your house fronts, but how well you’ve delineated what’s a traffic sign vs. an interestingly colored door on a house we’re driving past. Too little explanation is like having so many brightly-colored things all about that I can’t tell where to watch for the stop sign: too much is a traffic cop standing at every single intersection to bring me to a complete stop, check for traffic, and then wave me on again. Either way, it leads to rough driving.

  4. I think my threshold for infodumping is on the high side; I notice it, and it grates, but it doesn’t throw me out of the story. I rather enjoyed Little Brother, for instance, which contains long didactic stretches.

    I blame the years contributing to the university fanzine. I loved my fellow writers there, really I did, but some of them were very prone to long explanatory passages. Some of us, I should say, because I had some unfortunate paragraphs here and there myself.

    One day I will find something with as leaden incluing as we had then. And that will be a remarkable work, I am sure of it.

  5. Serge Broom says:

    Too much information, or too little… This reminds me of Dick Tracy in the 1960s. They never explained how his wristwatch-sized video communicator worked. They told us what it did and that was all we needed to know.

  6. Serge Broom says:

    Fade Manley… some of Stross’s work actually falls beyond that line, to the point that I can’t read it

    I had that same reaction to Hal Clement.

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  9. dnicolaas says:

    ‘Show, don’t tell’ I think is important here. If you have a reasonably consistent world in your head, showing a part of it will create the larger image in your readers’ heads. If nothing else, it will make them curious what lies behind it, so any telling later is filling a need.

  10. Lenora Rose says:

    Fade Manley: And there’ve been at least two books I picked up where I enjoyed the premise of the story, and the setting, but stopped reading because I was so frustrated with how much hand-holding the worldbuilding was doing.

    I recall at least one series where the writers footnoted all kinds of details, ranging from explaining what a trap was (In the context of a Regency level world where the context made it clear that they were talking a riding conveyance, not the other kind) to translating words from French to English where the words were the *same* but for one letter. (A motto, not a sentence. Liberté, Fraternité, Unité, IIRC) I’d have liked the story but that I felt like my intelligence was being insulted on every page.

    dnicolaas: I think it’s a bit more complex than simply whether you’re showing the details of the world or telling them – there’s definitely a time and a place where it’s simply easier on reader and writer just to tell a sentence or two flat out instead of finding some way to show everything – while simultaneously keeping the pace going, drawing the characters, filling in the plot, etc. That said, I prefer more incluing and establishment of the world based on the actions and reactions of the characters to events, even if the telling doesn’t turn into long infodumpiness.

    I’ve used the line “He was human,” about a character, in a fantasy world where this was far from a given, and been told I should alter it, because it was both telling and passive voice, and show this instead. Thing is, it was the shortest way to get across the base information, and get the reader to the rather more interesting conversation that followed.

  11. Paul A. says:

    On the subject of the necessary amount of explicit explanation, I had an interesting experience recently involving a comic strip adventure serial in the local newspaper.

    (Aside: You don’t get many comic strip adventure serials in newspapers these days. This one actually ended nine years ago, but it had become such a fixture of the comics page that the newspaper immediately started running it again from the beginning.)

    It happened that I missed a day’s newspaper, and thus an installment of the serial, just when something interesting had happened — but the day after that seemed to me, to my puzzlement, to pick up the story seamlessly, as if there weren’t a day’s strip missing.

    When I got hold of the missing day a bit later, it turned out that the missing installment consisted of the action pausing for a moment while the heroes explained to each other (and thus to the reader) several consequences of the interesting thing that had just happened — all of which I had inferred from the subsequent action so smoothly that I hadn’t noticed they’d not been explicitly stated.

  12. Jacque says:

    Lenora Rose @10: “He was human.” …passive voice

    Huh? Pardon my ignorance, but no it’s not?

  13. Fade Manley says:

    Jacque, I find that there’s a horribly large number of people on various writing websites and the like who were either taught wrong, or misremember the teaching, such that they believe ANY use of “to be” in any form means you’re using the passive voice. And then, told that passive voice is badwrong writing, will go forth and helpfully tell other writers that “The hunter was releasing the hounds” is passive, and never even notice that the clause in “The hounds, released by the hunter, …” actually is. (Though I haven’t seen all that many people railing about passive participles, anyway, so maybe those don’t count.)

  14. Personally I love setting details, and it takes a very great deal of it indeed, handled very badly indeed, to throw me out of a story; I’m the sort of person who finds the fine elements of, for example, land tenures and rents to be fascinating.

    I deliberately use at least one first reader with a far lower tolerance for it to prompt me as to when I’m overdoing. “Steve — enough with getting in the sheaves!”

    That said, just as frequent as overdoing the infodump is getting things plain wrong — particularly in fantasy and SF, through the operation of the old rule: “It ain’t what you don’t know that’ll kill you, it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so.”

    Exemplia gratia, many people assume that age at marriage was always very early in preindustrial cultures. It is… in some. In others, it isn’t — in Shakespeare’s England, for instance, it was almost exactly the same as it is today (around 25-26 for females and a bit older for males).

    To take another example from a fine writer and careful researcher, in some of Harry Turtledove’s early books there’s a fantasy setting which is a close analogue to Greece, which grows the same crops including olives and vines and the Mediterranean cereals.

    But they have cold, snowy winters; they plant their grain in the spring and harvest in the fall. Quite wrong for a Mediterranean climate, or even for the closely similar one of California (where Harry was born). Olives won’t tolerate prolonged hard frost; and in the Mediterranean, you plant grain in the fall and harvest it in the spring or summer. I asked him, and he said at the time he’d just -assumed- that you planted in spring and reaped in the fall… as most non-agricultural Americans would.

  15. SM Stirling @14:

    Do you ever find yourself absorbed in the worldbuilding at the expense of the rest of the story?

    (Is this blog an example of someone who has exactly that problem? Why, yes.)

  16. “Do you ever find yourself absorbed in the worldbuilding at the expense of the rest of the story?”

    — oh, hell, yes. When I was writing my first novel I had a map the size of the floor of my living room, and at one point I found myself crawling around on it dotting in the trade routes for flax. Then I said to myself, ‘Steve, sit down and -write-, for Ghu’s sake.’

  17. But-but-but the trade routes for flax are important! I mean, if someone too far from the trade route is wearing linen that they shouldn’t be able to afford, then the whole premise of the world falls apart, and all of your characters float off of the planet as if gravity itself was canceled! And that plays merry hell with the plot.


  18. I resemble that remark…

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