About Writers, world-building, writing technique

How much world?

Alex’s Sci-Fi World by Matt Schaefer

I don’t write, or even read, much sci-fi, but I do have a trilogy planned that takes place on another planet. I don’t know if it qualifies as sci-fi since the inhabitants are as human-like as hobbits and face very human problems. Really it’s just an excuse for me to give free rein to my imagination by writing a story about humans without the constraint of respecting earthly reality.

But of course they inhabit a world which has other constraints, so I’ll have to decide how much of that world to describe. In other words, the world-building issue. We always have it, but a story set on earth can rely on shared assumptions about how the world operates. Not so on another planet, where we can make the world as we want, but then we have to replace those unwritten assumptions with explicit information. What will my inhabitants eat? How will they dress? Travel? Communicate? What are their towns and cities like? The list is almost endless.

Here are a few thoughts on the matter from some proper sci-fi writers:

Alastair Reynolds. My approach to world-building is a bit smoke and mirrors – there’s only as much as you need to carry the story. I think of it as one of those sets they used to have for cowboy films: the facades look good, but if you walk around the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewage system works to tell a story about someone on another planet.

Nnedi Okorafor. My stories tend to start with the characters. Then I look through their eyes (or however they “see”), minds, perspectives to observe the world. Typically this happens the moment the character exists. So I know the world not long after I know the characters. I walk through it, I smell the air, listen to the gossip, observe its insect world, hear its history through various perspectives, and so on … I experience it.

AnnLeckie. I try to choose details that are real – the whole of human history and culture is fantastically varied – and that seem to fit together. In real life, cultures and histories are full of things that contradict each other. There will be one common narrative of how things happen, how people live and eat and so on, but people won’t actually always do things that way. I try to include such moments, because it makes my world more three-dimensional. I also leave some things unexplained or just referred to, as though the world is much bigger than just this one story and won’t all fit in the pages.

Kim Stanley Robinson. I don’t like the term world-building. I’d say there’s no such thing – it’s a term out of a vocabulary that grew in writing workshops to help writers talk about the craft of fiction. But the writer should remember that these diagnostic terms are not what the reader feels while reading: the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen. So the writer should focus on somehow forwarding the story. That’s the only imperative: make that “willing suspension of disbelief” go into action, and take the reader away.

These are just excerpts – the full article is here. It’s given me some useful pointers on how to set about it. But I’m sure you have others – whether you write sci-fi or not, how do you build your worlds?

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37 thoughts on “How much world?

  1. I think the question goes to what you want to say and world building is part of how you say it. My daughter writes fantasy romance and her worlds are so complete that they include the world’s history, because the culture is interrelated with her characters and their relationships. Me, I only add environment to scenes as needed for the story because I have this story to write, you see, and anything else just gets in the way.

    A very author-personal, question, Curtis!

    Liked by 6 people

    • mimispeike says:

      What is needed for the story is according to the writer’s perspective, of course.

      I go heavy on relationships, as a motivating force. I am aware that I go extremely lightly on physical description, so lightly that I make a joke of it at one point. (A cat is a cat is a cat, right? It’s what’s inside his head that’s important.)

      I admire atmospheric description, I wish I could figure how to do that, to get that in, but I don’t think that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Posing a question in the same spirit as the Reynolds quote and GDD’s comment also makes sense for other genres, including nonfiction.  Before going into lengthy detail about a sewage system (or sex or torture or …), ask

            Does this advance the plot?

    If the answer is negative, the next question is

            Why the Hell is it here?

    Unless it’s a red herring in a mystery, I usually find it hard to think of a good reason.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Advance the plot – a little more restricted than GD’s ‘as needed for the story,’ which could also relate to character. But I think the message is the same – no extraneous explanations just because we’ve thought it all up and now want to put it in the book. Yep, I’m with you there.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yes, indeed.  Details that don’t directly advance the plot are sometimes needed for the story anyway.  When aspects of character or setting make the plot more convincing and engaging, I am happy to credit them with advancing the plot in a broad sense.

        A nice example is J.G. Follansbee’s *The Disappearance of Hogan’s Corner* in *The Rabbit Hole Volume 2*.  Follansbee tells me enough about the people and the weather that I root for the people and find their problem and its solution plausible, after I accept some specific necessary weirdness.  Follansbee rightly abstains from Dickensian detail about the make and trim level of Miriam’s SUV.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    It may seem like I do a lot of world building, but what I feel I do is describe relationships, and the dynamics that allow a cat to be who he is, and the family background that made him who he is. And the political and cultural upheaval of the time is central to my core assassination plot, which I often refer to as my so-called plot, because my real story is the absurd antics of an adorable, super-talented cat.

    The plot is: in a contentious world, a group of traitors plan the assassination of Queen Elizabeth. The story is: Sly gets wind of the treason. He heads back home to England to intervene. Who he meets along the way, what he thinks of them, what they think of him, is the real story.

    You can’t truly understand him without understanding what drives him. If I take it to extremes, having him write page-long poetic diatribes based on the natural philosophy of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-on-Tyne (who had a penchant for putting her theories into verse), it’s because it’s so much damn fun, and makes Sly even more fun than he is already.

    IMNSHO. (In my not so humble opinion)

    Liked by 6 people

      • mimispeike says:

        The editor I hired had a problem with, not my story, with the way I my structure my telling. I acted on a few of her suggestions, not that one. She advised me to segregate my rambling into alternate chapters. A chapter of action would be followed by one of reflection. I disagree with that completely.

        She said I’ve written a picaresque book. Like what Cervantes wrote, no clear goal or destination. I love being in that company.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Fun and informative blog post!

    Good points made by the writers quoted here, especially this one: The writer is not actually building a world; he or she is engaged in an act of verisimilitude: the appearance of having created an entire world for the characters to move through.

    Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Orson Scott Card, et. al. — renowned masters of this art.

    Raymond E. Feist? (censored bleep) I encountered a scene in one of his novels in which–for three pages!–nothing happened but that the protagonist walked around at court being introduced to an interminable number of names and titles that meant absolutely nothing to the reader. THREE PAGES of this! I could not believe an editor didn’t flag this problematic passage as the deadly dull speed bump arresting all forward narrative momentum that it was. (Tolstoy this wasn’t, folks.)

    I have never read another Raymond Feist novel, in fear of encountering another such hideous, soporific, wordswordswords logorrheic upchuck from dear Mr. Feist.

    I’m sure he’s a lovely fellow. But even now, years later, I burn with fury (not really, but this makes for better copy–heh!) when I recall that waste of my time and his effort. If I met him at a book signing I’d slap him till he falls! (Untrue: this is a bit of frothing-mouthed, Harlan Ellison-like hyperbole):

    Feist: “Jesus Christ! What did I do?”
    Carl: “You know what you f@#king did! Pages 213-216!”

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Yep! I read beyond that. (I’m a masochist; I finish every novel I start.)

    I can’t answer your question: I’ve forgotten everything about that novel except those 3-4 pages of literary molasses. (BTW: the pages I referenced in that two-line skit were cited at random; they do not correspond to any actual pages of any Feist novel.)

    Liked by 5 people

  6. DocTom says:

    World building…hmmm. I think you need to differentiate between what the author knows and what ends up in the novel. Consider Tolkien’s LOTR trilogy. Two and a half books worth of story and half a book of appendices. For those who want to know the name of Theoden’s great, great, great grandfather, or the correct pronunciation of elvish names, it’s all there; but J.R.R. knew better that to try to put it into the novel. That level of detail is wonderful for rabid fans, but is ignored by most readers.
    However, it does wonders in helping the writer with continuity. Gene Roddenberry was very proud of the research team for Star Trek (which kept track of the ST universe, there was even a guidebook for potential script writers) because it kept them from stupid plot mistakes.
    As always, it is easy to differentiate the good writers from the others. Back in the 1980s there was a bit of a fad in sci-fi/fantasy of sprinkling alien language words throughout novels (probably due to JRR’s influence). Better writers at least added a glossary to the back of the book (following Tolkien’s example), but there were a number who decided the reader should be able to figure the meaning out from context. How some of them got published always beat the hell out of me! I know I gave up on some and just threw them away since I had no idea what was going on.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Whatta ya mean, Tom?! You don’t enjoy furrowed-brow parsing of such problematic passages as:

      “Xalcorr was terribly late again and tef knew it. Dilating the transmutive melcorr in tefl third grasp appendage, tef visio-aural contacted tefl 5th-level Archon at tefl slave-work architected despair kennel.

      Tef well knew that if tef couldn’t spittle-mandelbrot reorient-orbit all the quarks necessary to dampen the quantum foam erupting at the break point of the continuity rupture, this particular universe’s timeline was, as tefheim cheeped back in the gork-strewn breeding locale of Ig Vippr Donnybruk, “a parkenton of faloose schnozzle-shrek”.

      Tef hopped into the bubble-canopied gotherenow discus, punched the ludicrous speed actuator, and rocketed forward into swirling clouds of methane and argon, scarcely cognizant of the bifurcated Sharmal Weps and dervish-whirling Gorter-forts tef almost un-corporated in tefl cindered discontinuity wake.

      Could tef Rurkerfop the continuity rupture in time, tef brain yigged. Tef did not data full surmise. It would come down to a frantic kekka-stalt of 5th-dimensional tool wielding; the outcome was, as tef thought-imaged to tefl fourth personality, in the writhe tentacles of the Nieper Puck correlated present-becoming-the-past.

      Liked by 6 people

    • Good point, Tom. For me, it relates a lot to character (maybe because I’ve never yet set a book beyond what is ostensibly the real world). But I spend a lot of time working on each character’s backstory, which I find precious when it comes to describing their present behaviour. Then I just have to resist the temptation to put it in.

      Liked by 3 people

      • DocTom says:

        Well Curtis, I think you are as much of a world builder as the sci-fi writer. You have to build the micro-world of the character in much greater detail than I do. My daughter reads a lot of fiction and is always commenting on who does good characterization and who doesn’t. A good character doesn’t do things that don’t make sense based upon what the reader has been told about them – they have history – and the better the character, the deeper the history, or apparent history as revealed by the writer. But at the same time, just like I don’t have to know how the sewer system works in any of the cities of Barsoom, I don’t need to know what type of fish or brand of nail polish Magali prefers. BTW, I always enjoyed your characters because they were true to themselves.

        Liked by 5 people

        • Thanks, Tom. True, setting and characterisation are just two different dimensions of a story, but both rely on similar techniques and judgments – knowing what to put in and what not, the details that will give them substance and make them believable. Get them right and we’ve pretty much won (ok, it helps if we also have a cracking good story line). Then as Kim Stanley Robinson says above, “the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen.” That’s what we strive for.

          Liked by 3 people

  7. Peter Thomson says:

    I’m with Ann Leckie – the details create that sense of immersion in the reader. That the character is enjoying a dish of fried insects while wandering the cordage section of the Old Market does not advance the plot, except in so far as they are on their way to the next scene, but it adds the depth which would otherwise leave things flat.

    For the scenes to tie together with the character convincingly, there has to be some outline, however vague, in the mind of the author (‘these people are uptight, this place is decadent…’ sort of thing). I suspect there’s more ‘world-building’ going on than the builders realise.

    For myself, I like books that make places I would like to visit as well as people I would like to meet.

    Liked by 2 people

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