In Defence of Worldbuilding

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*The following post involves a terrifying amount of burger/restaurant metaphor*

The last book you read involved worldbuilding. There, I said it.

What’s world building? Well, it’s quite simple. It is literally the process of creating a world for an art form to take place in. Every novel has to have a world, whether it’s Earth or not. World building doesn’t just include the actual physical setting e.g. Hogwarts or Panem, but actually goes much deeper than that.

If you think of the physical setting as a burger bun, then the rest of world building is all that juicy meat and salad that sits right in the middle. I mean sure, the bun is necessary to hold it all together, but when was the last time your stomach really growled over two pieces of bread with a couple sesame seeds on top? What you want is the filling, right?

The filling of a world, however, is seen in the little things: why does nobody walk down 2nd street at night? Why is the grass blue by the lake? How do you get elected to government in the country?

Of course, government is a “big thing”,but in the grand scheme of a novel it could only be a minor feature.

Another question readers commonly have is not what’s in the proverbial burger, but why are we cooking it at all in the first place?

World building is something stereotypically associated with fantasy or sci-fi novels, where in many cases authors have a blank canvas in front of them and just have to dive in and start somewhere. It’s thought that fantasy authors waste hours and hours drooling over languages and maps and leave little time for an actual story to develop. This is an understandable assumption, but one that leaves a lot of novels outside these genres suffering from terrible foundations. It’s all-too-easy for an author in general fiction or romance to play into this and forgo basic research or background detail in favour of characterisation or plot.

But while many readers might argue they never pay much attention to the details built into a world, it is usually the case that the best writers blend these features so seamlessly into a story that the reader often doesn’t even notice they’re there. Instead they get a kind of subconscious knowledge of the world. It’s a bit like Inception. A good book kind of makes you feel like you are in the world and that it was your desire to be there, not the writer’s skill, that got you there. It’s like the waiter telling you he brought you the vegetarian option by mistake right after you’ve tossed aside your napkin thinking you just wolfed down a quarter pounder and cheese. Sure, you feel aggrieved you weren’t right, but didn’t you enjoy it all anyway?  Didn’t all those details taste so good, regardless of whether you profess to like them or not?

That’s what good world building does. But why talk about all the good burgers (reference noted) when it’s the blackened ruins you remember more? So instead of trying to defend world building by showing you the best thing on the menu, I’m gonna go right ahead and point out a few ways you might ruin a summer BBQ and piss off a lot of readers as a result.

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1) “I have bacon and cheese and tomato and lettuce and hot sauce and jalapenos and…and….and”

Nothing says bad world building like not knowing where to draw the line. One minute you’re wondering how big your city is, and the next you’re trying to figure out which tattoos the Grim Gang get when one of their members gets killed. Who are the Grim Gang? I don’t know-literally just made them up. My point is it’s very easy for good and bad writers to just forget they were in the middle of a story and fall into the pit of “well I can make FOUR gangs where you only had three. I must be better”. Details aren’t merited by their quantity. Any good reader wants something a) innovative and b) well presented, which leads me onto my next point

2)”Can I get you something to drink? By the way the special is a chicken fillet burger”

Your details are only as good as your delivery, and all that excellent creative ability goes to waste if you just walk around the restaurant that is your novel shouting “THE SPECIAL IS CHICKEN FILLET”. Maybe the reader might catch on you’re forcing the point.

What you want is for them to spy it on the corner of the menu, or catch a glimpse of it on a sign on the way in. Make the reader feel it is almost hidden; almost left in by accident rather than you just screaming it in their face. They’re a lot of ways a writer can dangle out this “oops did I mention that my apologies” hook, like blurring details into dialogue rather than narration, or creating plot strings that might nudge in a couple aspects of your world into the reader’s field of vision. Whatever option you choose, it’s important to remember to mix it up. Even when you use a trick, if it’s consistent throughout a novel it eventually becomes predictable and a little annoying.

3)”Let me take your coat. By the way the dessert is pavlova”

Dear God, your reader has only sat down for their dinner and already you’re telling them about dessert menus and the service charge. Slow it down there. I mean, those details weren’t even in the original burger metaphor so this is clearly world building out of control. This is referred to in world building circles *adjusts glasses* as infodumping. Infodumping is where you have a large amount of detail the reader needs to grasp the story but rather than dole it out piece by piece you just want to bring them the entire four course dinner (burger et al) to their table at once and hope they don’t kick up a fuss about it. Long story short, they usually do. Good writers use the length of their novel to their advantage. I’ve read a lot of novels lately that have been exploiting infodumping to appeal to a select portion of readers who collect facts about a world like gold dust. Most people won’t enjoy the overload though, so best to leave the bill at least until after they’ve finished their soup.

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4)”The bun is bread. Bread is flour. Flour is wheat. Wheat is cereal…”

This kind of ties in with number one, but here the problem isn’t the amount of stuff you’re packing into the burger as much as how much you’re talking about that damn burger. Think of it like a menu listing. A good menu quips a short two-liner on each item, and that seems to be enough to grab the attention of 99% of restaurant goers. What you want to avoid as a writer is writing a page on every single ingredient like people will flip out if they don’t know. You have to give the customer some credit (warning don’t give them real credit you need money). All readers/ customers are coming into your novel with a basic working knowledge, and if you keep spoonfeeding them they’re gonna want to punch you at some point (love how spoonfeeding works for restaurants here too, as an aside).

5)”Ya so that’s the burger. Meat and bun.”

As a converse to number four, don’t skim all the way back either. You still want your burger to be juicy and palatable. So invest your time in innovating. Bacon in a burger? Game changer. Somebody must have come up with it. The same goes for world building. Fan-favourites such as dragons and alternative universes all had to have started somewhere. So as a writer, try be the somewhere. If you want your world to be more than just a burger, then go ahead and start creating. At the end of the day, you’ll always find people who’ll eat it. Don’t try cook your burger like the place down the street just because they seem to have a staple crowd. For whatever reason, in a lot of cases people just won’t buy yours.

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6) “This is red onion not white onion?”

One of the biggest parts of world building is keeping a tab on it. Just go ask G.R.R Martin how his burger is coming along. You best believe he has to use one of those fancy sticks to keep that mess together. Anyway, if you want to keep a reader in that state of “oh I’m in a restaurant this is great I’m not paying through the roof for this” (commonly referred to as a state of disbelief), then you have to be bringing your A-game. No chef likes to see a burger come back in the door of the kitchen in the hands of a startled waiter. If you’re gonna do it, do it right the first time. Keep accurate accounts of place names, maps, customs etc etc. Don’t try keep all the ingredients in your head. Write down anything you need for your novel and if it relates to anything else, then make a note of that too. It’s usually something really stupid you mess up e.g. red onion-white onion (seen in a novel for example as somebody travelling 100 miles far too fast). It’s very rare you actually are so clued out that you forget the actual burger.

So, as you can see, creating a world isn’t as easy as bun, meat, salad, bun. It takes a good bit of prep work and if not done right can literally blow up right in your face. The best way to move forward is have a system and stick to it (but hey, still leave room for a little flair here and there). World building is a wonderful tool to have as a writer, and one that a lot of readers (either consciously or subconsciously) will welcome time and time again. No matter what genre you’re in, consider it a valid part of your work and invest time into making the all important transition from built-world to world-in-story. Remember, those burgers won’t cook themselves.

Order up!

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One thought on “In Defence of Worldbuilding

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