U is for Understanding the world

Ah, worldbuilding. Would this have been appropriate for the letter “W” instead? Yes, but I have something else for “W” that wouldn’t fit elsewhere, and it still suits the A to Z Blog Challenge here, so this is where it shall remain.

There are 3 types of writers when it comes to worldbuilding: those who plan every detail about each aspect of their universe, those who only develop the bare necessities, and then everyone else who falls somewhere in between. It’s the two extreme outsides that I want to talk about.

Knowing very little about your world leaves a lot of empty space in your story, because you need to be able to describe environments and systems to create a well—developed, realistic world. The socioeconomic status a person grows up in can dramatically affect the type of people they become. But if you don’t have your economic system straight, you’ll have gaps or weird overlaps, or a mess that doesn’t make sense. If there are no social classes at all, that, too, would have a big impact on your world.

Are there religions or spiritual people? What kinds of jobs are prevalent? Are there prejudices or other imbalances? What geographical location are they in? Have they ever seen snow? Have they ever seen anything besides the ocean? These things are critical to well-rounded worlds that feel real.

On the other hand, some authors spend incredible amounts of time creating every environment, political system, and so on in painstaking detail. They might have maps of every setting, flow charts and diagrams of social statuses and economic development for the past thousand years, and detailed descriptions of every religious ritual.

Is there anything inherently wrong with carefully planning your world so you can paint a clear picture for the reader? No, not exactly. But there are problems that can arise from either side of the coin.

More obvious to most, not knowing enough about your world means you could make mistakes by contradicting previous descriptions or dialogue. Or, there could be repercussions that should heavily impact the world, but you may not show any of the results.

For example, you create a world where there is no more disease (cancer, flu, all the things). If there are no more diseases, you no longer need certain types of medical staff, so you no longer need certain types of schooling. And then there’d be a lot of drug companies out of business, so those jobs are gone, along with distribution channels, etc. That’s a lot of people without jobs, so is there an unemployment problem?

Also, without these illnesses, people will live longer. That creates issues with people staying in houses and jobs for longer, meaning more of both are needed so the bigger population survives. Where are these jobs coming from? Where are the extra houses and other structures being built? How does this affect crime, laws, and enforcement? More people means more food supply is needed, so where are they getting this food? Is it grown somewhere? Genetically modified? Nutrient pills?

I could go on and on. That was just one example. Every decision impacts everything else. So if your world has no disease, but everyone is living a happy suburban life with no crime and plenty of food, yet no reasoning why, then the world falls apart and the readers doubt everything.

Technically, nothing. But some people spend so much time trying to plot out every last detail, that they spend months or years doing that instead of writing the story. They may even lose interest overall by then. And the biggest problem is that 99% of that detailed information will never see the light of day—at least, it shouldn’t.

Unfortunately, when people spend vast amounts of time developing their worlds, they want to share the work. This frequently leads to large info dumps, explaining the hundreds of years that led up to the current day and how their society got to the way it is. Sadly, this commonly happens at the very beginning of the book, with pages and pages of description instead of giving the reader the hook they need to pull them into the story.

Only the minimum information should be given to give the reader an understanding of the world, and these tidbits should be sprinkled throughout the story when the info becomes relevant. And while exposition is sometimes warranted, showing the reader the world is extremely effective. Don’t tell the reader that it’s always winter where the character is; show them trudging through an endless, snowy tundra, wishing there was a single day in their life where they weren’t cold.

Is it really critical to the plot that the reader knows the history of the political system? Do they need to hear about every religion that’s practiced? Or where all the different foods come from? Only give the reader what they need to get a visual of the current setting and an understanding of the current situation. Nothing more, nothing less.

So how do you find the level of worldbuilding that’s not too much or too little, but just right? Honestly, getting honest feedback from critique partners, beta readers, writing groups, or other trusted sources is the best way. But if you’re struggling to figure out what aspects you should even take into consideration, a great place to start is by looking up worldbuilding questionnaires.

There are some simple ones as well as extremely detailed ones. Pick something that’s somewhere in the middle and fill it out. Or, pick a longer one and only fill out what’s applicable to your world. As of the writing of this post, one that I like (because it covers just about every important aspect) can be found at: https://www.imagineforest.com/blog/world-building-questions/.  


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