World Building, One Brick at a Time

space city

I’ve been taken to task by readers for not providing enough information about the world I’ve built in my novel. It’s a point well taken and one I struggle with when I force myself to sit down at the keyboard and starting spinning a tale.

Personally, I don’t like a whole lot of “info-dumping” in a novel. Give me the basics, tease me along the way, and I’ll figure it out (or not). It’s a fine line between too much and not enough, but, as for me, I’d prefer the “not enough” to the “too much.” I’ve put down a number of novels because I couldn’t put up with page upon page of narrative (or pointless dialogue) on why the world the characters live in works the way that it works. I got it, move along.

When my youngest son was a teenager he read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and loved it, so I gave him my copy of The Lord of the Rings. He brought it back to me a couple of weeks later and said he gave up. He couldn’t get past page upon page describing how, what and how often a Hobbit eats. And that was Tolkien!

I remembered that when I finally stopped dreaming about writing and actually started writing. I’m far from being an expert in anything, especially writing, but I wanted to give my take on the process of World Building and ask for ideas/arguments/pointless rants on the subject.

As for me, when I imagine the world I’m trying to build, I put the story first and the World Building second. It’s about the story, not the world I’ve imagined it taking place in.

The story comes first.

I remember as a teenager sitting in a dark theatre watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those first 10 minutes changed everything about what I expected an action movie to look and feel like. The story grabbed you by the throat and drug you along and you’d better move your feet if you wanted to keep up. I loved it. Still do.

I look for the same thing in a novel. Tell me your story. I’ll jump into the deep end of the pool on whatever you’ve written and you keep me from drowning by throwing me a life preserver of information so I can tread water. Don’t send me a battleship of information overload, because when you do, I’ve lost your story.

I was once part of a novel critique group with other aspiring authors who read the first chapter of my novel and told me if I didn’t give details on the technology I explained on page three by the end of the chapter, then I had lost them. I let them be lost. It wasn’t about the technology, it was about the story.

For me the goal is to provide enough information to keep readers from being confused about the world I’m presenting them. By the end of the book, they should understand how this world works. If they don’t, I’ve failed. If I have more than a couple of paragraphs explaining a particular detail of the world I’ve built, I also consider myself to have failed. But that’s just me.

What do you think? At what point in World Building do you need to part from the story and build your world?

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2 thoughts on “World Building, One Brick at a Time

  1. I’m the same way. When I write, I tend to give focus and preference to action rather than exposition or world-building. While setting and context are always in my mind, and I try to offer enough so the reader knows what is going on, sometimes I fail to give enough. Part of the problem is that things are so clear in my head, it is hard to know what the reader is getting on a first read. Case in point, I just had a story returned from a publisher for this very reason. The reader comments were essentially “not enough world-building and character background.” The story was part of a series of not directly related works featuring the same lead. So I clearly lost track of how much of the world was in the specific story here. Luckily, this was not a full rejection. They are letting me revise and resubmit. So I’m going to flesh it out and make it good.

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