Being a Better Writer: Worldbuilding – Part 2

This post was originally written and posted March 17th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Welcome back! In case you missed it, this week’s post is Part 2 of my writings on Worldbuilding, of which Part 1 can be found here.

So, last week I focused primarily on building the material you would need for your world: From following the chains of causality to making certain that you didn’t leave gaping holes to coming up with new twists on tried-and-true ideas. This week though, I’m going to dive back into something that was touched on briefly in Part 1: the actual presentation of the world itself.

By this point you’ve sat down and brainstormed up most of the details for your world. You know how the magic/science works. You know who the characters are. You know what the plot is and possibly have a decent idea of how to get from point A to point B. But now comes the real question: how much of this world that you’ve created do you want to share with your reader?

Now, your immediate reaction might be “all of it.” Which, if it is, means you’re definitely going to fall on the detailed end of things. I mentioned last week that when you sit down to write your story, all of your worldbuilding presentation is going to fall on a sliding scale that bounces between two points: minimalism and complex, You can probably infer what each of those entails, but let’s have a quick recap, just in case.

Minimalism is exactly what it sounds like: you give your reader the barest details they need to get by. While you have this world with all these fascinating elements, you don’t want the elements of that world getting in the way of the story, and so what detail does exist is sparse and straightforward. A great example of this is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. Despite having a large, massive world, Tolkien actually offers very little detail. You meet Tom Bombadil, but never get a straightforward explanation as to who or what he is unless you search Tolkien’s notes and extra materials. You run into a Balrog but it are given one line of description, despite there being paragraphs worth of backstory related to who it was and where it came from in Tolkien’s own notes. Right down to the actual name of the Balrog.

Complexity is the exact opposite. Where minimalism strives for the barest of detail about your world, complex is … well, I think you can guess. In a complex story, your reader is going to learn about everything. If there is a pitched political struggle between the monarch of a nation and the nobility, and that is why X noble is going to help your heroes, than your reader is going to learn about it. Possibly including the history of the struggle, what started it, and where it’ll end up. Even if your characters are only going to be involved for a few hours at most. This is The Wheel of Time, where upon reaching a city, you’ll discover what the city’s main and secondary trades are, who the ruling class is, what level of crime they have, etc. Your reader is going to know as much as they can about this world as you can get them to.

Now, both of these ends are extremes, and with your writing, you’ll find that there isn’t a set point on either of these. Odds are, like everyone else, you’ll be on a sliding scale somewhere between these two points. For example, going back to the Balrog, Tolkien easily could have given more exposition. It wouldn’t have been hard at all for his singular answer to the character’s questions of “What is that?” to have been expanded a few sentences as they ran to give a little backstory on the Balrog and what/who it was. In a similar method, one could go through Robert Jordan’s work and cut out sentences about the world that aren’t 100% plot-relevant and cut down on the amount of detail quite a bit—all while still leaving the same story. In fact, if one were dedicated enough, they could probably turn the two series on their heads, making a version of The Wheel of Time that was minimalist, and one of The Lord of the Rings that was dripping in complex detail.

So, when you write, it is up to you to decide where you’re works are going to fall. Are you going to divy your world out as little as possible? Or are you going to delve into as much detail as you can? Will you be somewhere in the middle, like Harry Potter? Regardless of what you choose, there’s one important thing to remember.

None of these approaches are wrong. Anyone who tells you differently is being foolish. A complex worldbuilding work is just as worthy and deserving of adoration as a minimalist one. They will likely appeal to different types of readers, but just because one reader does or doesn’t like a style does not mean it is wrong. Every time I see someone online claim otherwise, a part of me cringes inside. In that moment, one of two things is happening: Either they are asserting their own opinion as fact in ignorance, or they are lacking in technical knowledge to explain what they really have issue with. So let me reiterate: Complex or minimalist works are both completely valid.

But …

… this isn’t to say they can’t be done poorly. Now, a bit of a reminder here, when I say “minimalism” I am not referring to the work as a whole. I am referring to the world, not the rest of the story. Same with complexity. Got that? Good.

So, now comes the tricky part. Because both complex and minimalist worlds can fail regardless of how interesting they are, each in different ways. Each will bring their own challenges. It isn’t enough to say “I’m going to write minimalist/complex” and then throw it all in the pot. Because if you do that, you’re only going to learn by trial and error that each of these styles comes with a challenge when writing it.

First, we’ll look at the challenge of writing minimalist. Sounds easy right? Just keep details fairly sparse?

Wrong.

The challenge with minimalism is knowing what to cut, what to skim, and what to keep. For all its light touches on some subjects, LotR made sure that what it did give you was carefully selected. Ever tried drawing a picture with only a few lines? It’s harder than it sounds. Because the less detail you have, the more focus is put on those details that remain. A single line that is out of place calls far more attention when it’s only one of six lines. Likewise, if you’re going to be light on world-detail in your work, you’re going to have to make sure that every detail you do offer serves its purpose to the fullest. You can think of it as going through and selecting the most important details about your world. It may be true that Vice Chancellors have emergency authority over the police force, and that it’s considered polite to “buy in” to a drinking game among X culture, but which detail is going to be critically important? Which one fleshes out the aspects of your world that you want to draw attention to? The film versions of LotR cut Tom Bombadil because despite being an amusing side, they really didn’t add much to the world as a whole. Yes, it was part of the background of the world (especially if you dig into who he actually was and why the ring didn’t bother him) but in sum, it added very little to the overall story, and in the interests of more interesting details, it was cut.

With a minimalist world, you’re going to be giving your reader less detail than they normally would, so it falls to you to decide what details are the most vital to your vision. You’ll have to be the one to pick through all the material you’ve created and decide to deliver “this fact, in this place, at this moment, with this much exposition.”

Now, onto the inverse. While with minimalism you’re going to stretch detail as far as you can, with complexity you won’t need to worry about that. Your reader is going to find out about everything relevant to the story, one tick at a time. Except … you can’t just dump it on them. This is where most people have issue with complex stories: they find one that isn’t exactly well written and end up disliking it not for the detail, but for how it was presented.

Bottom line: You need to figure out how to get this detail to someone without appearing to infodump (the act of dropping large amounts of information on the reader in paragraph after paragraph). So, how do you go about doing that? There are a couple of ways.

The first, and most classic, is to write yourself a character known as “The Watson.” The Watson is a character who doesn’t know what’s going on or lacks knowledge of the world, allowing another character who does to explain it to him (and the reader) as the story progresses. It’s an old classic, and the easiest way of presenting and easing your reader into the world without dumping large amounts of exposition. Ever wonder why so many generic fantasy stories start with the heroic chosen one who’s a know-nothing farmhand? So the author can do this to you. Harry Potter is actually an example of this, although a really, really good one. Harry knows nothing about the world, and neither do you, but fortunately Harry happens to be surrounded by characters and friends that are more than willing to explain things to him and the reader.

Another common approach is to have a character muse on details about the world or notice them. This works quite well, especially in smaller doses, as it has a two-fold benefit. The first is that you get to tell the reader about the world, but the second is that you also get to tell them about the character! What your character notices, comments on (to themself or others), or muses about not only educates the reader about the world, but also about that character. After all, if your character details a city’s merchant connections, or muses on the lack of guards (while quickly giving a rundown of prior guards noticed in the area) that tells you about them as well as the world. This two-for-one kind of method is the one I tend to prefer using, as it flows very organically, although it does mean that sometimes I need to put your character in the right place to be thinking/talking about something.

Lastly, there’s straight, narrated exposition. How much of this you can get away with varies from work to work and depending on what your narrator is like. In my own experience, the stories that get away with the most narrated infodumps are often comedic in nature, such as the works of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. This is because once again, the infodump gets a secondary purpose of being a set-up for a punchline. For example, in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, one of the earliest scenes gives a few paragraphs to the description of a man who no one will speak to. It’s straight infodump, concerning how he came to the University, how no one talks to him, what he looks like, etc. All without preamble or stated purpose other than to explain why people would be passing the salt around him.

Then, halfway through the book, the main character, in need of a phone, knocks on a random door and asks “Can I use your phone?” as soon as the door opens only to find that it’s the individual from the dinner, who simply stares at him for a moment and then says, in shock that that was the first time anyone has spoken to him in seventeen years, and shuts the door.

Brick joke. A three paragraph infodump for a brick joke. But we as an audience are OK with it because it’s going to be funny. We know it is! We put up with random paragraphs delving into details about the world because we know that by the end there will be a joke, and we’re wanting that. And along the way, we learn things.

So that’s a clever, consistent way to infodump. Of course, having a humorous narrator in a serious work won’t work quite as well, which is why you’ll need to play with your infodumps much more carefully. A paragraph here. A few lines there. All the while making sure it falls into consistency with the tone, character, cast, and world that you’ve established. You cannot write comparisons to ancient Rome, for example, if Rome never existed. Doing so will break immersion. Taking this approach takes practice, but it can be done.

Now, here’s the thing. I haven’t covered every method here, just the more commonly occurring ones. As you get further into writing and reading, you might find new ways to present your world, and add them to your toolbox. What I’ve mentioned here are some of the more common (and general) methods for doing so.

In any case, now you have your world, and now you have your approaches to putting that world into your work! Will you try for minimalism? Complexity? Somewhere in-between? Will you use a Watson? Or will you take another approach?

The choice is up to you, but whatever you try, I wish you the best of luck! See you next week!

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Worldbuilding – Part 2

  1. Good advice. Something that might help world-builders on the minimalist end of the spectrum: when you’re trying to figure out what to cut and what keep, understand how the descriptions you’re providing relate to the overarching narrative. If the description contributes to the plot, it must be kept; if it’s extraneous to the plot, it might be cut.

    Liked by 1 person

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