Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How Much World-building is Enough?

As with just about everything else related to writing, I think the answer depends on 1) what you need to feel confident in telling the story, and 2) what kind of story you're trying to tell.

The one non-negotiable requirement for fantasy is that you have to know all the details of the elements in your story that go beyond reality, and always follow the rules you establish for those elements (e.g., a magic system).

Beyond that, the level of detail in your history and landscape really does depend on the story. Narnia has a mythic (some might say doctrinal) context and so we neither know nor care about the succession of kings or their border squabbles. Lord of the Rings is about specific events in specific places and so the history is crucial. And in the Xanth novels, the history and landscape are little more than stage dressing.

In addition to the material your reader sees in the story, there's the question of what you need to tell your story confidently. Where writers of realistic stories can rely on common knowledge, the author of a fantasy has to work out what knowledge would be common among his characters. In one of my projects, I felt compelled to take my time-line back 5 billion years. I don't say that to boast, but only to illustrate what I felt I needed to do to be able to tell the story with confidence.

What good or bad experiences with world-building have you had?

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /

1 comment:

Scott said...

Good world building fascinates me. But so many writers think they have to put every little detail into their story, and that sometimes makes me crazy.

Anybody who has been in crit groups with fantasy writers has, at one time or another, run into somebody who has to show off their world building skills (which, by the way, are sometimes phenomenal) by throwing every detail they came up with into their manuscript until you can't find the story anymore, and they don't want to trim the details because they put so much work into them.

World building should provide the incidental information that makes the world real and gives it a natural feel, but it should not become the purpose of the book at the expense of characters and their stories.