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World Building Limits

Discussion in 'World Building' started by MrNybble, Oct 17, 2019.

  1. MrNybble

    MrNybble Troubadour

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    When does world building completely overwhelm story building?

    Here is the story behind this question. A new writing group I join last month just had a returning member come back after a six-month hiatus. This person I will call Steve has a problem with writing. He has been writing for over fives years and hasn't finished a single story. Yet, he has enough material to build a complete fictional society, planet, ecosystem, history, unique technology, etc. No plot as it keeps changing with the addition of new world elements. Hundreds of characters with complete several page biographies. Detailed maps of areas for past, present, and possibly future plots will take place. Steve is too worried about not having enough detail for the reader to understand his world and characters without all of it created beforehand.

    I tried to talk with Steve saying I'm the opposite. Write the story with vague details and explain them later when needed to progress the plot. Writing an encyclopedia before writing the story isn't my style.
     
  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I understand preplanning. I understand wasting time on the side details. I don't understand doing much before finding some kind of premise to go by. How can you evaluate your worldbuilding without a premise? You build the world around the story needs. Otherwise how do you know if your world is any good? The story puts it in context.

    To me, anything will work as a starting point. I want a story about killer fruit flies. Then you need to figure out what comes with that. Are they killer because they evolved? Because they've been weaponized? Do they bite or do they spread a new disease? Maybe there's a strange sludgy substance washing up on the shores of the river, the flies land on it, then land on your fruit, contaminating your fruit with a deadly sludge. That's a horrifying opening chapter, a few people from the town finding that people are dying from the sludge and the flies that carry it. From here about half the plot just about writes itself.

    But with that premise, the world I might build is going to be very different than a world I might build without a that benchmark. I'm now building around river sludge, where it came from, how it affects the wildlife, how a scientist or a wizard or an evil stepmother might abuse it after bring home a jar of the stuff. The premise applies all these pressures to the story. And that's going to lead to more creativity than developing a million standalone pieces.
     
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2019
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  3. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    At the end of the day, the setting provides the stage on which the plot is acted out. That is it's function and the way the audience experiences it.
    In many great fantasy settings, the unique elements of the world set up conflicts that are easy to understand but would not happen in other settings. That's when settings feel really impressive. But those unique circumstances are usually very simple st their core and can be fully explained in a few sentences without much elaboration. The setting of Star Wars is a generic evil empire and shabby rebels situation set in space. The only unique addition to that is that there are some people with telepathic and telekinetic powers, and that missuse of these powers can turn them towards evil. Everything is just window dressing.

    To make a setting unique, it only takes two or three special concepts. All the distinctive textures and dynamics can be colored in as you go with the story.
     
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  4. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    I agree with much of what has been written. There is a such thing as too much world building. If those thing you add don’t get used in a story, what’s the point of creating it in the first place. Maybe he just like world building and not telling stories.
     
  5. Hexasi

    Hexasi Dreamer

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    You can never have too much worldbuilding, if the plot, character and setting are balanced. I believe it is proportional: if you have really detailed characters with a great amount of depth, you can have a setting which is really detailed and has a great amount of depth. I do also believe, however, that characters are more difficult in many ways to construct, and that is why they can feel swamped by setting. Get the characters detailed enough and your setting can only help them. Same with plot.
     
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  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >When does world building completely overwhelm story building?
    The OP provides a possible answer to his own question; namely,
    >Steve has a problem with writing. He has been writing for over fives years and hasn't finished a single story.

    I wouldn't put the mark at exactly five years. I wrote for much longer than that before I managed to finish a single story, but I've been writing and finishing at a good clip ever since: two short stories, two novelettes, and three novels so far. There can be other factors in play that makes a person not be able to get to done.

    It's curious to me that we hear much about excessive world building, but we never hear about, say, excessive character development or spending too much time on theme. Or drawing maps. Or whatever. Only world building gets singled out. And mostly in fantasy. I don't see the issue raised much in SF forums. I'm not sure what to make of this, I just offer it FWIW.
     
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  7. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

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    I would say it all depends on the focus of your story. Is it the growth of the characters or the task/conflict itself or the happenings across different regions. As long as one area doesn't overshadow your main purpose of the story then it's fine. Keep in mind what you think the focus is may change as the story begins to develop and unexpected ideas find their way in and take over the narrative.
     
  8. elemtilas

    elemtilas Sage

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    This is a flashing neon sign. It tells me that Steve has a problem with writing. There's nothing wrong with the amount of worldbuilding Steve is doing; but if he can't even finish a short story in the space of five years then there's probably another, deeper issue. There could be issues with time management, lack of confidence or insecurity of some kind. It could be that he's just not ready to finish gestating that story yet!

    Indeed. This tells me that he is probably a perfectionist (and maybe obsessive a/o compulsive to boot) and simply may be stuck in that horrible place Tolkien himself was stuck in: revisionosis. Again, there's nothing wrong with the amount worldbuilding being done. This is an issue of a psychological nature, I think..
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2019
  9. elemtilas

    elemtilas Sage

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    I concur, though I'd place drawing maps in with worldbuilding. And not just here. I think, honestly, this is because the quality of a fantastical setting is often underrated. Many people assume that worldbuilding = windowdressing. It's the fancy doodads on the iced cake. Just throw some dragons and elves into a "medievalesque" country and get on with perfecting the characters and plot already! Worldbuilding is a component a writer can largely do without or at least do a minimal job of.

    I of course disagree wholeheartedly! If I wrote ancient European historical fiction the way so many people approach fantasy, my "research" would be little more than reading a couple Asterix comics. I'm of the opinion that deep worldbuilding contributes greatly to a better story and a much more enjoyable experience for the reader. Assuming one can already write a good story, a well constructed & believable setting --- especially when that setting is an entire world --- puts it over the top.

    When it comes to excessive character development, or considerations of theme and story arcs, that just seems to be considered par for the course. Old novels (19th century esp.) seem to be very character driven. That's just how good literature is done. Creating a whole different world with entirely different species and cultures and histories and world views --- I think this aspect of writing has simply been ignored as a key ingredient to good literature.

    My penny-hapenny on the topic!
     
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  10. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    Worldbuilding isn't taking away time from my writing. I keep returning to refining my worldbuilding because it's easy to do when I have no idea what to write. It provides at least some sense of having done something productive with the time instead of doing nothing.
     
  11. Aldarion

    Aldarion Troubadour

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    I think the reason is that many people do not understand importance of worldbuilding. Importance of character development, sure. But worldbuilding? You can write a story or a book without worldbuilding, unlike with character development, so I think people tend to conclude that it is less important. But writing a good book, or especially a good series, without worldbuilding, is rather difficult. At best, it will lack internal consistency. At worst, it will be a pile of steaming manure.

    Agreed. I have a problem myself that I tend to overdo things that are important to me: think, overthink, and overthink again. Without that, I cannot function. Now, worldbuilding helps me make sure that at least world I will get right when I start writing, and it can be used to build confidence: much easier to start writing when you know your story is on good foundations. But I am myself afraid that I will overdo it, as I want to get everything right before I start writing, lest I fall into revisionis.
     
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  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I also think it is easy to blame worldbuilding. Look at all the hours spent in research, drawing maps, and so on! If you spent that time writing, you'd have five novels!

    Well, no. Maybe I'd have five shallow novels or five non-fantasy novels.

    Not-writing is complicated. When a person goes a long time without writing (or without ever writing the first one), it's rarely because of a single factor. Life gets in the way. Lack of discipline (or at least a routine). Maybe the person isn't really a writer after all. Maybe the person got seriously ill, suffers from depression. There's a list of factors as long as a human.

    It can even be a phase. I played guitar and keyboard for about thirty years. Then I got into electronic music. In the age of mp3.com I cut seven CDs. Then I stopped to devote that time to writing. I played music and recorded music, but I'm not a musician because I was able to walk away from it. That's how I know I'm a writer. I've never been able to walk away from it, no matter how fitfully and poorly I wrote.

    Blaming worldbuilding alone is reductionist. I don't mind when others do it, but it bothers me when I see a writer blame it in their own work. If you're a writer, you research, edit, market, read, write, sketch, weep, rejoice. It's all work. It's the job.
     
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  13. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Everyone sees this differently and although I agree with planning I do think spending tons of time on setting is unnecessary. If I had to spend five years planning it would be on my characters and plot. Having a rich and consistent setting is vital and it does help up believe in the world created by the author but I've never met anybody, who reads Fantasy or otherwise, that reads a book solely on setting alone. That's not to say people don't. But they need something living to engage with. They need events.

    There is such a thing as avoidance planning. To just work on the plan to escape the actually writing. Some people just enjoying planning out a story and creating things, but not the actual writing. Is five years excessive maybe. In his case I think yes, because he's not a writer at the moment, he's just a planner.
     
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >spending tons of time on setting is unnecessary
    This cuts to the heart of it, I think. How much is a "ton" of time? What is necessary and what is unnecessary? As DarkfantasyDarkfantasy says, everyone sees this differently, and that's another reason why it bothers me to see people criticized on this basis. Because, to that writer, perhaps it is necessary. And perhaps it's not a ton of time, it's only half a ton.

    And if a person never gets to writing that first story, there again I wouldn't blame "excessive" worldbuilding. They like thinking about worlds and researching and making notes. That's fine. It's fun! And who knows, maybe in ten or thirty years, when their life circumstances change, and they themselves change, they'll finally write that first novel.
     
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  15. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    I see a major problem in the term being so misleading. A lot of people think of worldbuilding as constructing geography, history, and magic systems, and when you look at any advice that is around about worldbuilding, most of it is map making. But all of this really is just a secondary aspect of the key task of establishing the setting, which is critical to all fiction. Even if you write contemporary crime stories, you have to establish the setting, though most people would not think of that as worldbuilding.

    What a writer of any story must do in the early stages of the creation process is to establish the rules by which characters can interact. This can practical rules for technology and magic that is available within the setting of the story, but even more importantly it's about the social structures in which everyone is existing, with all the values, traditions, permissions, and previleges. A white collar crime story set in Berlin will have completely different social structures than a Los Angeles gang story or a Tokyo yakuza story, even though they are all contemporary crime stories set on 21st century Earth.

    Geography and history are completely optional. Something like A Song of Ice and Fire which is about dynastic rivalries and conquest of territory needs it, but most fantasy stories don't. Both the Witcher books and the first Star Wars movies don't really have either geography or history. What information we have about their settings are the things that determine what everyone wants and what everyone is capable to do. The stuff that matters to the plot.

    I'm really not happy with the term worldbuilding because it creates misleading assumptions, which most people now seem to understand as its meaning. Perhaps it would be more useful to talk about "establishing setting" when that is what is talked about. Just with a snappier term.
     
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  16. elemtilas

    elemtilas Sage

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    I think if we replace "setting" with "character" or "plot" or "editing" or "research" we cut right down to the fallacy. You're right that (most likely) no one reads fantasy solely on setting. Myself included. However, if any of your components suck --- setting included --- I'm gonna put your book down pretty quick.

    The assumption you seem to be making is that setting is unimportant. However, in a fantasy, and especially one where principle characters are not ordinary humans, it is the setting that informs the characters and molds the plot. So you either end up with a fully realised world and people that actually belong in it or you end up with totally Earth people who are ultimately out of place in the story.

    Just think of worldbuilding as the fantasist's analog to the historical fiction writer's research. The difference is, one has to go to a library and read ancient histories (primary sources as well as later works); while the other has make up all the primary sources.
     
  17. elemtilas

    elemtilas Sage

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    As with many terms in this particular area of art, there are not really any universally established definitions. I would argue that "establishing setting" is a subset of worldbuilding. Worldbuilding per se is a rather broad activity that, at least traditionally, has meant the creation of an alternate world or universe of some kind. Examples being Middle Earth, the Star Wars Universe, the Wizarding World, etc. These are the foundations upon which the setting (The Shire, the Deathstar and Hogwarts) proper is constructed.

    Some writers get to "establish setting" without actually having to "invent a world". Westerns are usually set in Texas or Arizona. Sherlock Holmes & Poirot stories are set in late 19th or early 20th century Europe. You don't have to reinvent the universe or reengineer the planet Earth to write that kind of story. To write most fantasy, we do actually have to do some amount of worldbuilding. Either to plan for the setting or else to explain the setting.
     
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  18. Aldarion

    Aldarion Troubadour

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    I don't see why you are so unhappy about the term? After all, "world" can be used to mean "the environment we live in". So we speak of "A World of Ice and Fire", which includes languages, customs, culture, human interactions, basically everything. When you talk about "a world someone lives in", or "a world story is set in", it includes not just geography and history, but also cultures, mentality / psychology, etc. Even outside fiction, "modern world" is a rather broad term.

    And even implication of mapmaking is not necessarily problematic. Geography has massive impact on history, and while I will admit that I have a bit of OCD about all things historical and sociological, I am currently busy making a series of historical political maps which basically showcase how borders of civilizations had changed. And the very process of mapmaking has helped me solve several worldbuilding issues that I have struggled with for months. So if you are writing historical / mythological fantasy (e.g. LotR, ASoIaF, Videssos), map is a must. Not just as informative addition to readers, but also as a worldbuilding, plotbuilding and writing assistance to the writer himself. If memory serves me, J.R.R. Tolkien even said that the first thing he made was a map, and plot and everything else was based on a map that he made (and Christopher later updated and finished). Now, it is not a must-do, but it really helps with keeping track of things - especially if you intend for setting to contain more than one story. More importantly, it helps immersion, it helps create a sense of history and life, of existence, that fantasy especially needs to be fulfilling.

    Read Lord of the Rings again. Take a look at how many places there are which are irrelevant for the plot - Tharbad, ruins above the road built by Arnorians, and so on. None of these have impact on the plot (of Lord of the Rings, at least), but they create a sense of history, a sense of a world that has been lived in, which really helps immersion.

    I strongly suggest that you read this, it will help you understand what I am talking about:
    Archaeology and the Sense of History in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth
     
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  19. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Sage

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    World-building is a genre of fiction in its own right: geofiction. It sounds to me that instead of berating Steve for being caught up in his world-building at the expense of his writing he should be encouraged to turn his world-building efforts into a book or a video game.

    Perhaps Steve could look at fiction where travelling through an imaginary world is the basis of his story. Many classic stories like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels and Pilgrim's Progress were nothing more than stories about people travelling to fantastical locations. So point him in that direction.
     
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  20. CelestialGrace

    CelestialGrace Minstrel

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    20 odd years ago I got lost in world-building for a book that was possibly going to be the start of a series. I enjoyed the research. I enjoyed trying to create the world using Terragen. I poured over astronomy and wold-building websites, wrote copious amounts of notes, and as I worked on the world-building the story changed a lot. I had a basic story line. I had basic characters. I had a prologue written. I ran some of the ideas by others in writing groups and found some problems raised that I had no idea how to work through, so I went back to world buidling.

    I was also fighting extreme writer's block brought on by abuse and mental health ... so throwing myself into world-building was one way to at least work on the story when the words wouldn't flow. I'm also a perfectionist and was worrying over the smallest of details, also knowing that others will always look for the flaws in a created world. Especially when it comes to things like how 2 suns would affect the world.

    In the end I decided to archive everything until such time that I could concentrate on more of the story. I'd like to say that I found a balance between world-building and story for this book (series) but as of yet I'm still hitting obstacles. And so it keeps getting shelved. And it's obvious that the problem isn't so much the world-building, as that I don't have much substance for the story still.

    And now I find myself in a somwhat similar position. I've been working on a comic series (on and off) for 6 years since I had the first initial short story published. The problem is, apart from life, that I'm building a complex world involving a multi-pantheon of dieties, time travel, and a story that will hopefully run on for many issues. Oh and I have tied 2 other series into this too. I'm trying to avoid inconsistencies across the whole arc. I'm dealing with Earth and Other Realms. I'm working on my own ideas of death and afterlife. And I'm also creating an original language. This series however is one of my big passion projects. All the spare material will be used on the website and in spin-off books/comics. In this case I would rather make sure I've got a firm foundation to work with, and then the stories and characters that I already have written, will be easier to give substance to.

    It's possible to write stories without worrying too much about the world-building, but some stories need that detailed foundation even if not all of the material will be used directly in the story.
     
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