Worldbuilding. It is the bane and joy of many authors, readers, and literary masochists. In SFF, worldbuilding is arguably the most important element to the two genres. It’s what gave us settings like Earthsea, Westeros, The Union from the First Law, The Stillness, Transall Saga’s future mutant wasteland, Cittagazze from The Subtle Knife, all fantastic settings created from painstaking research and inspiration. But how much is really necessary? And of that worldbuilding, what should you actually be showing? The following short series of posts are my general thoughts and opinions of worldbuilding today in the genre. None of the models below are perfect, each is observed from twenty plus years of reading, fifteen plus from roleplaying/tabletop, and ten years of scrapped settings, world bibles, blurbs, map sketches, and all that good stuff.
The following are but a sample of different exposition/worldbuilding styles.
The Blocks of Text:
A favorite of earlier Brandon Sanderson novels (Elantris, Mistborn, etc), this style of worlbuilding is meaty, provides excellent secondary details to the story, and really gives the reader a clear idea of the world, its politics, its cultures, etc, etc. This is extremely common in epic fantasy, traditional three book trilogies, and a certain segment of the the fandom eats this up like chocolate cakes. It’s an incredibly common style of transmitting your setting to readers. It also can be extremely cumbersome and a pace killer in unskilled hands. I think every writer at some point dips into this. I know I did when I wrote my first 250 paged Act 1 story I never finished.
You’ve put in hours upon hours of research, writing, revising, and creating a cohesive setting. You can have an amazing setting but the question you have to ask yourself is this: is this pertinent? What I mean is will this information advance the plot? Reveal something about a character? Or provide some setup down the line? Every bit of information you put on the page needs to serve either a) the narrative b) the characters or c) some kind of payoff down the line. Sanderson is very good at this. Throwaway walls of text that made my eyes bleed in one book end up setting up the next world/conflict in another. What appeared to be self-indulgence ended up a treat in a later book. However, worldbuilding often showcases/tells secondary information that doesn’t always relate to the current story. Nothing on the page should be for indulgence. It doesn’t matter how cool the goddess’s tear flower has a ton of history.
Why do I give a damn you spent three paragraphs describing its color, its texture, its smell, its origin, and its historical significance? If it relates to the scene at hand, great. If it serves a plot point down the line, great. But if you put it on the page to show off your world only, you are entering eye glazing mode. Sometimes, a powerful paragraph with the right details does all the lifting for you. Word count is important, especially for first time authors. Do you really need an extra 15,000 words of wordbuilding description and exposition in a 185,000 word novel? It’s a gamble but it’s something to consider.
Dog eyes, red fur, cut tail, sad face. Sometimes authors will sketch their setting, giving little description and exposition. When done well, it can leave the reader to fill in the blanks. This often works in urban fantasy where you don’t need to describe real world settings. Most people have a vague idea of what New York City looks like. The Republic in Lies of Locke Lamora is inspired by Renaissance Italian cities like Venice. Small details and off hand sentences often reveal a vivid world without interfering with the story. There is a power in this.
Unfortunately, it can also leave your novel a barren painting. More common in thrillers and action oriented dramas, the minimalist style relies on key details and punchy, selective exposition. This kind of worldbuilding often focuses on the story at hand. Dialogue often conveys the world, off hand references, and other small techniques make the world all the more real. This is powerful but this can be the opposite of the Blocks of Text. Sometimes you need a two paragraph meaty exposition about the city’s politics to give context to the story’s struggle and stakes.
The two examples above are broad but encompass a spectrum when it comes to worldbuilding. Some books rely heavier on one, while others rely on a mixture. There is no perfect balance. Some readers want all that info. Some just want the story and the skeleton to support your universe.
Experiment and find out what works best for you.