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Yesterday I was delighted to join Jesper Schmidt of AmWritingFantasy.com for a chat about world-building. Thank you, Jesper for having me. I had a great time! It remains to be seen if any of you will be able to understand my scouse accent.
If you haven’t checked out AmWritingFantasy.com, it’s a treasure trove of resources for fantasy writers. They run a fantastic Facebook group too full of helpful and supportive fantasy writers. The video comes out on Monday 15th January, and today I thought I’d share my notes about what we discussed, namely a minimalistic approach to showing worlds, the best tips I’ve come across for revealing worlds, and a few tips about building a world.
The Minimalistic Approach
Not long ago I took part in a Reddit A.M.A. and somebody put this statement to me:
“Modern fantasy seeks smallness, in view, in scope, in characters. Readers want a quick twenty-page epic, preferably in a single house.”
That made me wonder. And panic too. Do readers want small worlds now? What about all this time and effort I’ve invested in creating this world?
Before I go any further, a clarification point. A minimalistic approach refers to the level at which you reveal your world. You still have to world-build, you’re just giving the reader a peep-hole view, showing them what is necessary for the purposes of the story. After all, story is king.
I looked into this approach some more and came to Patrick Rothfuss who has much to say on the matter. Here’s a passage from an article of his:
“But when you’re writing fantasy, especially secondary-world fantasy (By which I mean fantasy where the story takes place in a world other than our own) the reader doesn’t know anything about your world. They don’t know the cultures, religions, magic, or cities. The reader doesn’t know anything about the myths and legends of the world.
Now a lot of times, this is one of the major selling points of the book. A big payoff of secondary-world fantasy is the thrill of exploration. We get to see new countries, fantastic creatures, odd cultures, curious magics, etc etc.
And, honestly, this is one of the big perks of being a fantasy writer. We get to build castles in the sky, then show them off to people.
So here’s how it goes wrong.
- You create something for your fantasy world: a creature, a culture, a myth, whatever.
- You’re proud of your creation. You’re excited about it. You love it with a fierce love.
- You need to describe this thing to your reader, because if they don’t understand how it works, your story won’t make sense.
(3b. Remember, the story is the real reason people are there. Story is everything. Story is god.)
- So you start to explain how folks in the Shire celebrate their birthdays. (This is important because one of the first major events of the book is a birthday party.) You talk about how hobbits give presents away at their parties instead of receiving them. (This is important because it ties into why Bilbo is going to hand over the ring to Frodo.)
Then you start talking about how some of these presents get passed back and forth, party after party. And how those items are actually called mathoms, and how there’s actually a museum full of mathoms at Michel Delving, which is in the Westfarthing of the shire… You see what happens? It’s easy for an author to get so caught up in the details of the world they created, that they go off the rails and give us more than is really necessary for the story…”
This invariably leads to the notorious info-dump (if you’re unfamiliar with the info-dump it refers to long passages of information about the world, or the rules of magic, and so on). We’ve all been guilty of it. Even the pros like Tolkien, though in his defence he wrote in a different era. I’ll be the first to hold my hand up. The first draft of my first chapter was 12,000 words long and most of those words were dreary passages of info-dumping.
Perhaps this is where this minimalistic approach has come from, as a backlash against authors indulging too much in world-building, in info-dumping their readers’ poor brains to bits. I’ve been reading a lot of upcoming authors of late, helping them with reviews and edits, and it’s a persistent problem I encounter. One book I recently read had a prologue setting out the history of the world and story, then in chapter 1 the story began and I was somewhat engaged. Then came chapter 2 and a massive info-dump, and there it lost me.
Are readers getting fed up with it?
Maybe. I think it all depends on the type of story you’re trying to tell and the type of reader you’re looking to attract. In a high fantasy story, for example, some degree of world-building is inevitable as characters quest to save the world or whatever. In newer types of fantasy, such as contemporary or urban, the focus seems to be less on the world and more on characters and plot.
I don’t think it’s something we can just dismiss as a trend though. Rather it ought to be regarded as a warning that readers are getting fed up with being info-dumped, that more time, care, and ingenuity needs to be invested when it comes to showing your world. Simply telling readers about it isn’t going down well, and they’re seeking newer types of fantasy because of it.
So what do we writers do? As Rothfuss said:
“What makes this such a horrible problem is that “too much” is largely a matter of taste. Some readers really *do* want to read all the details of the ancient Shi-Ang dynasty, and how their government relied upon the use of telepathy crystals. Other readers just want you to hurry up and get to the part where the Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood initiates apprentice Ayllisia into the secrets of the Eternal Kiss.
It’s also a matter of style. Some writers are better at making exposition engaging than others. Some worlds are more alien than others, requiring more explanation.
My personal philosophy is to err on the side of caution. Given the choice, I’d prefer to give too little description and leave you wanting more, rather than give a lot and risk you being bored.”
Don’t you just hate it when there’s no straightforward answer? All you can do is keep in mind advice like Rothfuss’s, and a few helpful techniques, such as ‘the iceberg.’
The philosophy of the iceberg is to reveal a little of your world to the reader while holding back much more. Similar to an iceberg, we see only its tip, while the vast mass lingers beneath the surface. There’s a lot more to the iceberg, which you can read about here.
Another helpful approach to both building and showing your world comes from Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson draws up lists of physical settings, i.e. things that exist if humans did not exist. So for example geography, flora, fauna, weather, cosmology, geology, laws of physics; and cultural settings, which covers things influenced by humanity, or things that can be physically manipulated or changed, such as laws, politics, religion, government, language, structures, landmarks, philosophies, foods, music, fashion, folklore, weapons, technology, clothing, histories, rights, jobs, medicines … the list could go on.
Including all of these things would make your story a ten thousand page beast, capable of crushing skulls. What Sanderson does, and other authors like George R.R. Martin is to pick a handful of these things and explore them in detail, mentioning a few others in much lesser detail. A good tip is to seek conflicts between the different cultural settings you choose to explore. So, for example, a rise in technology could result in a higher rate of unemployment, which has knock-on effects on society, crime, and so on.
Jesper and I’s chat will go live on Youtube on Monday 15th January, a date I’m sure none of you want to miss. If it does happen to slip your mind (you swine), you can get the link sent straight to your inbox by subscribing to my mailing list.
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your views on this minimalistic approach in the comments below.