March 31, 2009
This past weekend I gave my worldbuilding lecture at the Western Reserve Writer’s Conference. Most of what I covered is in the essay I have posted here. But I have updated it for the 21st Century (I removed the reference to pagers) and I added some additional introductory material. I thought I’d repost the new material here:
The term “world-building” is thrown about quite often, most often in regards to SF or Fantasy. Less often is it mentioned what is actually meant by the term. After all, all fiction takes place in some sort of world constructed by the author. Even in fictions that take place in the real world as the author happens to know it. A literary novel about a English professor has a “world” constructed only by placing words on the page. That “world” bears no more essential connection to reality than a alternate history where the zombie apocalypse happens during the Battle of Hastings.
When we talk about world-building we are talking about how that world is presented on the page, and what the reader takes away from the setting of the story. Its success is based on three things; the clarity of how the setting is presented, the conciseness with which it is done, and the underlying consistency of the world. This applies to all fiction, not just SF and fantasy, but skill at this task becomes more and more necessary as the story’s world diverges from what the reader is familiar with. So it is a key skill in SF, Fantasy, Historical fiction, as well as anything set in an exotic setting.
Clarity means that the reader is provided with the information needed to clearly imagine the action taking place in each scene. This comes from using language precisely to evoke the imagery you wish to evoke, and being straightforward as possible when presenting information about your world.
Clarity’s evil twin. You must convey enough information, but you mustn’t convey too much. Regard any detail not tied directly into your story with suspicion, for too many of these details may just as well sow confusion and frustration in the reader rather than evoking any image at all. Pick out the choice important details, and tie them concretely to a character or some action. No reader will remember a list of facts conveyed in a vacuum, no matter how important they are.
The bane of all world-building, but a fault here can bring the entire edifice down. Readers will forgive many things, even direct contradiction of the facts as they are in the world they live in, but if the story starts contradicting itself, it is lost. There is no surer way to destroy a willing suspension of disbelief than to change the rules halfway through the story.