Worldbuilding Is A Kind Of Masturbation

Sunset On A New Planet

I stand here planning for a new project, and this new project demands all manner of monstrous monstrousness (or, rather, creature-flavored creatureology), and in that, I want to wrap my head around the world in which the project’s tale will take place. In doing so, I envision the task before me…

…which manifests as a deep dark hole waiting at my feet. Occasionally I see shapes squirming down there in the tenebrous depths: glinty flinty eyes and writhing labial squid beasts and snot-slick hell-squirrels flying little rotflcopters and other assorted hallucinations of one’s infinite (and utterly diseased) mind. Horrific as it may sound, as a writer I am delighted by such morbid fantastical explorations and it is therefore quite tempting to leap boldly forth and pirouette in mid-air and plunge into that fictional chasm where the monsters lurk, where realms untold await, where the hell-squirrels worship their belching hell-squirrel god.

I could truly get lost in there.

I could wander its disturbed creative depths, a man lost in a maze of his own making.

Ah, but I am given pause. I have a story to tell, after all. I have a book to write from this. If I engage with my made-up world endlessly anon, then the book will never get done. And it is then that I am reminded (as I have said this in the past): worldbuilding is a kind of masturbation. It is not in and of itself a bad thing so much as it can be a fruitless endeavor given over only to the expression of onanistic narrative ejaculations — *fap fap fap* and blammo! Upon the page I eject my wad and leave behind in crumpled-up story tissues endless pages revealing the lineage of the unicorn-kings, the ancient language of the Flarnsmen of Jibeau, the secret geomantic architectural blueprints of the chattering hell-squirrels.

My thesis, then, is this:

Worldbuilding should be a slave to storytelling, not vice versa.

Okay, Squid Beast, What The Hell Does That Mean, Exactly?

It means, quite simply: in terms of doing any prep-work for your story, it behooves you to first conceive of the story you want to tell at all levels of complexity (from the barest level of boy meets girl to the more complex outline, treatment or synopsis) and then use the world to prop up your story. Worldbuilding can:

Fill in blanks, drive home theme, untangle plot knots, accentuate the characters, it can even bring about fresh and unexpected conflict. (It can probably do more, I just got lazy and stopped thinking about it.)

But my opinion  is that worldbuilding can only easily do these things for you if you let it serve the story (rather than putting a gun to the head of the story and forcing it to serve the setting).

Here There Be Hell-Squirrels: The Dangers Of World-Building

To be clear, I am not saying that worldbuilding is itself bad — how I could I possibly justify that as a guy who (much as I myself hate to do it) puts outlining and prep-work on a pedestal?

What I’m suggesting is that worldbuilding-before-story-conception threatens you, the intrepid penmonkey, with a number of perils which could ensnare your best efforts.

What perils, you ask?

First, as noted, it’s quite easy to get lost in worldbuilding and do so endlessly without ever accomplishing anything of substance. When I recently stared down the barrel of this upcoming project, I opened my notefile and started furiously taking notes and then — an hour later, I was left to wonder, what the hell am I doing? None of this matters in terms of the story I want to tell. It’s just piffle, waffle, kerfuffle, and other words ending in -ffle. Was it a fun distraction? Sure. It was lovely. As a pure creative exercise I guess it had some merit. But it did nothing to help me understand my story better. I was just playing with myself.

Second, a story offers you boundaries. You work on an outline or at least have an idea in your mind as to the story you want to tell, that story is like a fence or, better still, the dark lines of an image in a coloring book. You’ve created margins, and from that point, worldbuilding is about staying in the margins. If you lead with world creation, however, you’re in danger of going so far astray that you have no focus, no purpose, no theme or mood or character hooks or whatever. It’s like going to Home Depot and buying up the whole tool department just to hang a fucking painting. Rein yourself in, you frothy stallion, you.

Third, it’s easy to become obligated to the storyworld over your story. “Oh,” you say, “I worked so very hard on describing the psychic pseudo-cultural breeding habits of the unicorn-kings, and even though I don’t really have any place for them exactly, I don’t want to waste the 11,000 words I’ve expended on this subject. And so I shall include a chapter in my book about it. The reader will consider it bonus material!”

Fourth, and this is related to the last point: uncontrolled worldbuilding threatens to intrude upon your tale in the form of the much-and-correctly-reviled… infodump. “Here! I will now force-feed you the fruits of my world-building labors!” *splurch*

And Now A Deviation Into Kidney-Punching Fantasy Novels

I used to like fantasy novels as a kid, but less so these days. It’s not that I don’t still enjoy them — theoretically, I do — but rather that I never know when a good fantasy series is going to suddenly become mesmerized by its own worldbuilding. Too many novels devolve this way and go goo-goo ga-ga over their own sense of setting and culture. It drives me a bit buggy. A popular series of fantasy novels which rhymes with The Meal Of Wine or perhaps The Glockenspiel Of Crime started off at a rip-roaring pace. But then each book got slower and slower, trapped deeper and deeper in its own mire of story-world minutiae. By Book Number Seventy-Four-And-A-Half, the entire 1,242 page epic took place over seven minutes and spent approximately 14,000 words on the subject of fabric.

Then again, these books sold approximately one jizzillion copies, so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me.

Writer Paul S. Kemp (whose website is here and who writes awesome Star Wars books using his mighty thews) said something interesting on Twitter yesterday, though: “Incidentally, one of the reasons I love Sword & Sorcery is the de-emphasis on worldbuilding and focus on characters.” I say this without having devoted a great deal of effort to disprove it, but I agree with him. I think part of it is procedural: pulp writers didn’t have a lot of time to dick around with worldbuilding. They just had to get their hands dirty and jump right in. Even still, it’s an interesting lesson.

This Is Less True (And Perhaps Not True At All) If You’re Writing Games

By the way, and maybe I should’ve said this earlier, I don’t consider this lesson all that hearty if you’re working on game narrative rather than something more linear. I’ve noted in the past that traditional storytelling is about communicating the story of the author, whereas game-based storytelling is about communicating–or, rather, facilitating–the story of the game player.

In that case, worldbuilding is king. I come from the roleplaying industry, and there it’s very much about getting muddy in the trenches and talking up the crazy culture of vampire horticulture or about the designer drugs of mystic hobo hermaphrodites. There you have a license to sort of create wantonly, but in traditional storytelling you are more reined in.

How does this figure into transmedia? Uhhhh. Answer unclear, ask again later? No, really, I don’t know. I think to some degree transmedia efforts sometimes feel hollow or shallow (or perhaps even shollow!) because they spend so much time on the worlds they build and so little time on the stories that drive the experience. Then again, if the transmedia components are largely game-based, well…

*throws down smoke bomb, avoids topic, lets you people talk about it*

I Like Italics

Seriously, just look around. Italics everywhere.

YMMV, IMHO, Bippity-Boppity-Boo

I’m not saying you cannot worldbuild.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t worldbuild.

I am merely saying that the worlds you build should be in service to the stories you want to tell. You may choose to do otherwise, and you may in fact choose to do otherwise quite successfully. But, as always, terribleminds is very much about the writing life I happen to lead, and this is one of those things I believe about myself in terms of Getting The Job Done With Minimum Fuss And Narrative Masturbation.

Feel free to slip-and-slide down in the comments. Am I crazy? Am I full of shit? Am I onto something despite my crazy full-of-shittedness? Sound off, my little hell-squirrels.

38 responses to “Worldbuilding Is A Kind Of Masturbation”

  1. You probably are crazy, but your statement is not.

    I went to a meeting of a writing group that meets in person. Very unusual for me to leave internet hermitude for any length of time, but there you go. The words that slipped out of my mouth, totally unrehearsed and ad libbed, were “Writing a novel is masturbating in front of an audience.”

    I’ve decided that the one who laughed has the confidence to be a writer. The rest are just wankers. They should wear black, beret included, smoke Gitanes, and whinge about editors who want to correct their writing who “just don’t GET it.”

  2. I find that (unlike yesterday) I must agree with you in this case. I have had a few friends who style themselves writers. Pretty much universally they never managed to get writing done to any end other than to tell me how cool the magic system was or how (I wish I was making this up) they had named every town river and mountain, the lineage and politics of three distinct kingdoms back by several thousand years, the religion and god alone knows what else.
    What I find to be my best writing comes about from the world following the story. I wanted to write a scifi about a man mining on an asteroid. Working back from that I had to figure out what tech existed to make this possible. I only spent a few words explaining any given technology, referencing it as casually as we would the internet.

    So yes world building is masturbation for novels, but when it comes to game that masturbation leads to continents of splooge being formed for the players to explore.

  3. I’ve always said that the only world building you should do is that which affects your characters. If your character doesn’t know and care about the lineage of the unicorn-kings, leave it out. If the character’s parents lord the story of his unicorn-king great-great grandfather over him to make him feel bad for being such a useless bum, then maybe it has a place. “You know, your unicorn-king great-great grandfather was stomping out a dwarf crime syndicate when he was your age and you can’t even take out the trash.”

    I just hate it when I read a fantasy novel and I’m thinking, “I don’t know this much about my own world, why on earth do I have to know this much about yours to understand your story?”

  4. I like to start with the story, extrapolate from there, give myself a bit of time to play around and digress, and then come back to the story. The digression always unearths things that will enrich my story but that I hadn’t thought of just from extrapolating. So, yes I agree with you, but with the caveat of make sure you have fun with it because that’s when you get the good stuff. If you get all rigid about it and must stick to the story then you can really miss things that add layers/depth/verisimilitude/whatever.

    Also, I’ve heard never to save a thing for later. Like, if I’m working on a book and I hear a phrase that sparks an idea, I don’t go, oh let me tuck that away for the next book, I’ll usually be able to work it into the book I’m actually writing. I’m still not sure if I agree with this idea, though.

  5. I think there’s a case for knowing a setting (for a novel) well enough to know what you don’t know about it, for example maybe you don’t need to know the names of every ancestor of the current unicorn king, but making a note to yourself that the current unicorn king has a long and impressive lineage wouldn’t go amiss, and then later on when you find that you need the unicorn king to give a speech about his great great grandfather make up whatever seems appropriate and then make a note of that too (so you don’t contradict yourself later… or at least if you do it’s on purpose… like unreliable narrator on purpose). If you’re creating a fantasy world you don’t need to name every town, but having a vague idea that there’s another land mass over there peopled by exploding celery people might be useful.

    I’m not sure I’m explaining this well, but to me it’s about abstraction, about knowing how the world fits together at a fundamental level, about knowing roughly what rules of thumb apply to the details without worrying too much what the details actually are, so if I’m drawing a map for fantasy world the area that the characters actually live in will be fairly detailed, the rest of their country less so, probably the capital city will be named, maybe a couple of other significant towns, the countries surrounding will probably have names, and capital cities beyond that maybe continent names and everything else gets marked ‘here be dragons’ which is ye olde mapmaker speak for ‘no sodding clue’. What I will quite likely have in addition that though is some notes that read something like ‘the people from countrynextdooria tend to name their towns after the pets of famous generals’ so if my characters happen to travel there at some point and stay in a small village while they heal up after being mugged on the road (or whatever) I have some kind of idea of what to name it so that it doesn’t seem horribly out of place later on when they’ve wandered around some and found a bunch of other places.

    • @Aiwevanya:

      I think all that can be useful, but (and this is for me, not necessarily for you), if those details are described and defined before the story is, then you have no idea what’s useful and what isn’t, and you don’t know what to detail and what not to detail.

      If I start with world-building, I have no margins. I don’t know what matters, you know?

      But if I start with story, and I know that, say, it’s a tragic Romeo & Juliet style of story set in some fantasy-land, then I know that the world-building must support this story. It must create a culture where my story can thrive. It must offer conflict that is meaningful to our protagonists. If I did it the other way — try to plug my R&J story into a pre-existing world, I am potentially running into a “Square Peg Circle Hole” problem.

      The other thing is, worldbuilding without story can fall back on easy conventions, whereas (for me) if you have the story in mind first, the worldbuilding that comes out of that is more specific, more meaningful, and ideally different from what has come before. Suddenly you’re creating a culture that keeps these two star-crossed lovers apart and that has in-built consequence for that–a culture of warring families or tribes or clans.

      So, I think the world-building is valuable, but for me it must come leashed to the story I want to tell — I don’t want the story to come leashed to the world I’ve built.

      YMMV, obviously.

      — c.

  6. I think, to add onto your point about games writing and fiction, and somehow merge the two without making a mess, that tie-in fiction is a great way to test the strength of a story. If I can read, say, a Black Library novel set in the 40k universe without knowing anything whatsoever about the Emperor, Space Marines, the Inquisition or even Orks, then it’s a great novel. If I can’t? I’m not so sure. Even as a fan of fluff-heavy fiction, sometimes it’s just so over-the-top it makes me feel like I’m dragging myself through a history textbook rather than enjoying a great novel.

    • CY:

      I’m on board with that, yeah. Stories are first about characters, second about worlds.

      I feel like the rhymes-with-Glockenspiel-of-Crime series was more in love with the world than it was the characters.

      The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is more in love with its characters than the world. All parts of that world lend to the story — and a lot of little details just don’t matter or even make it into the script. Most of the worldbuilding there is fairly minor (despite it being set in a dystopian future) and only comes into play when its important to the story. We don’t know what District 2 does until we need to know about District 2. And when we do, it fits right into the story and plot — it doesn’t feel like an afterthought or pre-designed element.

      — c.

  7. Chuck:

    I think one of the key advantages of a dystopian setting is that you’ve no idea what parts of the world have survived, been erased, or mutated to survive, and it allows for so much more freedom on the part of a writer in terms of a “cross that bridge when I come to it” attitude to the world-building aspect of writing.

  8. I think a big big problem with a lot of subpar genre fiction is that the world takes precedence over the story. “Check out these cool dragons!” or “Our vampires are SO different, read our book to see!” is the sort of thing that comes across in the marketing blurb instead of anything about the story. The girl’s in love with a vampire – but who is this bloodsucker, what’s he really like and what are his motivations? Oh, he doesn’t have any except wanting to plow the pretty girl? Snore.

    That’s just one example.

  9. As your point seems to be, ‘Excessive worldbuilding is lame and self-involved,’ I have to probably agree. I’m sure I don’t want to read about world details that don’t move the plot along. This would take me out of the story. That said, as a reader of fantasy and sci-fi, I DO want these detail to exist somewhere in the depths of the author’s mind. One of the things I LOVE about these types of stories (when they are well done) is the completeness of the world that exists. (Also, I completely suck at making shit up. True story.)

  10. Ah, worldbuilding. Wonderful fun. Really not all that useful for novelists, but a hell of the way to pass the time. Where would we gamers be without it? I’ve fallen into Square Peg Circle Hole once or twice though, trying to fit a story to a beloved locational concept. I think I’ve learned that lesson now. Keep the worldbuilding for sessions of SLA Industries and Runequest.

    On the other hand, starting with a detailed setting and having to fit a story into it can be fun, and a great challenge. I did some WW novels, and it was a very interesting exercise working out how to move a raft of specific characters from State A to State C whilst also revealing facts K and Y, and making the whole thing into a rollocking yarn at the same time. But even with the best will in the world, the story will always suffer at least a little.

    As an aside for The Wheel of Time, rumour is that poor old RJ lost his nerve, and the reason he got increasingly flannelly from the 5th book onwards is that he was aware he kept writing all sorts of massive plot cheques, and he was increasingly scared of having to cash them. I have daydreams of doing a Wheel of Time Redux — going through the entire series, hacking out all the tedious crap, and turning it into a five or six book tubthumper. Alas for copyrights and lawyers!

  11. Had this happen to me recently. Decided I was going to do something with a sci-fi universe, identified the elements I wanted, and started building the universe before nailing down a story idea. End result? I like the world, but not sure what to do with it otherwise, so for now that notebook goes into the stack of worlds I’ll be using for a “multiple world lines” game I’m running.

    As for the story? Well, I pegged down the story and have scratched out the basics of what I want for a world. Next up is outlining, and then more world scratching out once I’ve figured out where the story is going.

    Finally, supposedly Wheel of Time is going a lot faster now…and is definitely releasing faster. Things are happening and what not. May have to check it out again when it is over.

  12. I see what you’re saying, although if I was feeling argumentative I might challenge you to find a pre-made fantasy setting that doesn’t have a built in conflict that could be used for Romeo and Juliet. Seems like 90% of high fantasy has elves versus dwarves and 90% of urban fantasy has vampires versus werewolves (just once I would like to see a setting with the vampires and werewolves on the same side and raining fire on the unholy inquisition or something… which I guess means I should probably write it), but taking it at more general level yes a story needs a setting that supports it, but it’s also true that setting can suggest story, quite a lot of sci-fi seems to work that way, writer reads interesting article about a new type of planet astronomers have discovered, starts wondering what it would be like to live on a planet like that and the story grows from there (I say seems to, because how do I know if that’s actually what happened or whether it just looks that way from the end product) those stories can be just as interesting if they’re well done (the example that springs to mind is Pitch Black).
    On the flip side a setting that is entirely bent around a story can seem really weird too, it’s all too easy to end up with planet of the hats. A story set in the real world can pretty much ignore anything not immediately relevant because the reader knows that the rest of the world is probably still there, Shakespeare’s audience knew that the entire planet wasn’t made up of two warring families and a Prince trying to stop the conflict so he never had to mention it, with a fantasy setting the writer has to build up a certain amount of faith from the reader that there’s other stuff out there and they’ll mention it if it’s important… the trouble comes when the writer forgets that they did that and throws a bunch of stuff that isn’t relevant in for the sake of it.

    I think, for me at least, the key is finding balance, letting plot and setting (and characters) bounce ideas of each other until story happens.

    Also… is Romeo and Juliet really a story of star-crossed lovers set against a background of warring factions or is it a story of the futility of conflict that uses an ill-fated love affair as a framing device? personally I would argue for the later.

    • @Aiwevanya:

      Sounds like you’re feeling argumentative, then. 🙂

      I’d argue your example are actually examples of storytelling before worldbuilding. Seeing a planet and conceiving of one’s life there is — and perhaps I’m splitting hairs — an expression first of storytelling. I’m saying, “Here’s what it’s like to live here, here are the conflicts intrinsic,” and from there, a story blooms. I am not, however, filling up a notebook with flower names and descriptions of various oceanic caverns or using my time to describe some weird anthropological sex dance performed by some meaningless Tribe of the Martian Steppes.

      And Pitch Black is a curious example: Pitch Black has minimal world-building, and what’s there explicitly supports the story — Riddick is a killer and predator against the predators of the planet, the night cycle is designed to inform and invoke the horror, etc.etc. We aren’t overwhelmed by details there. We don’t learn about the breeding patterns of the creatures or their history — all of that takes a very strong back-seat to the story at hand.

      And finally, the mention of real life is a telling one and, to me, supports the storytelling-before-worldbuilding theory. Shakespeare didn’t have to describe the cultural relevance of Byzantine papal lineage because it had nothing to do with his story. If I write a mystery set in New York City, I’m not going to read everything ever written about the city. I’m not going to devote a chapter to NYC in the 1930s, and I’m not going to devote time in or out of the book to the history of the NYC Subway because none of those details are relevant. Such explorations, while perhaps interesting, aren’t useful in terms of serving the story. Whether the world exists or doesn’t, worldbuilding can be an exercise in futility if you don’t enter into it with direction and purpose.

      — c.

    • Oh, and for the record, I don’t think you’re wrong — as noted, I have no doubt that worldbuilding-first, storytelling-second has done well for authors in the past. But I also know that it represents, in an uncontrolled environment, a wayward path full of distraction and excuse. And the last thing writers need is one more self-imposed speedbump impeding the end of a finished product.

      — c.

  13. I do have to say that WoT got better, and I am oddly thankful that it did so before Robert Jordan died. I do think it’s important that Knife of Dreams, the book where things really started picking up again, was in fact written by him.

    Even in the hardcore WoT fandom, the 8th, 9th, and 10th books are widely acknowledged to be far weaker than first few and last few books, and that the downhill slide toward that point starts around the fifth book.

    As to the main point of your article, I agree overall. Build enough of the world to suit your purposes… If you’re writing a novel, focus more on the characters. If you’re creating a setting for a game, you have to go with a much broader focus on the world itself… For one thing, the players are going to be the ones focusing on the characters, and they need enough background to do that properly. For another, having more of the world fully realized than you intend the players to see can be useful if said players decide to go haring off to do their own thing instead of taking up the epic quest set before them by the GM, i.e., you.

  14. I think the biggest problem with worldbuilding is that it’s where so many writers stall out. They devote so much time and effort to creative but ultimately meaningless verbage that they look back on 25,000 words about the ancient history of Thularia and marvel at all the cool ideas they came up with, yet they’re no closer to telling us about why we should care about Bob, son of Jog, mason of modern Thularia, who has six days to prove his brother is innocent of the murder of the local potentate before his entire family is thrown to the dragon pits. Maybe somewhere in that 25,000 words the writer came up with the idea of dragon pits as a method of execution, but that’s a very roundabout way to back yourself into a murder mystery. I say this as someone who used to be a serial creative self-abuser until I realized it was better to sit around and come up with interesting characters to engage people with, and bend the world to those characters and their conflicts.

    I’m glad you mentioned writing in relation to gaming, since that’s where a big part of this setting as story comes from. If someone else is bringing the characters, then they expect you to bring the setting, and actively present bits of lore and dangling questions for them to explore and adventure through. A good game narrator is actively discouraged, in fact, from providing too much in the way of strong, proactive non-player characters since they’ll overshadow the player characters themselves. Many of my writer friends and I come from such a background, and it takes some unlearning to shift from being the game narrator to telling the entire story, to dial back the setting and inject characters of your own, since otherwise you’ll just create game settings, not novels.

  15. Another genre I’ve seen this happen in is historical [fill in the blank] fiction.

    I was doing story critiques at a writer’s conference years ago and this one guy is doing a book set in a small, Southern town late during the Civil War. Everything has been taken for the war effort and the town is really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

    The author went on for TEN pages talking about the substitutions they made, like coffee made from ground okra beans, etc. in an effort to keep things normal.

    By the time the action picked up again I had forgotten what the hell had happened before I began reading about all of the storage requirements of hardtack.

    The author had done SO MUCH research on the time and place that he didn’t know what to put in and what to leave out. And when I suggested that a lot of the details he was tossing in kind of, you know, slowed things down?

    Man looked like I’d just kicked his puppy. He’d spend so much time on research he wanted to make sure none of it was wasted.

    On the flipside, some authors do this remarkably well. Diana Gabaldon, for example. But then she puts those things into the context of the story and feeds them to the reader through the character’s actions and situations. The story come to a screeching halt.

    • @Stephen:

      That’s kind of interesting, and goes along with what I was saying in one of the other comments about how, in a modern-day real-world novel it would be strange if I started off on the history of one of NYC’s boroughs when it was utterly irrelevant to the story. I guess the lesson here is, history and setting — whether on this planet or another, whether now or a thousand years ago — should be slave-chained to the story, not the other way around.

      Or something like that.

      — c.

  16. You miss the mark on the Wheel of Time–Jordan’s failing wasn’t excessive world-building, but character (and POV) proliferation. It’s hard to get anywhere when you’re following dozens of characters.

    It should also be remembered that fantasy doesn’t exist without world-building. If people didn’t want to delve into another world they would just read mainstream fiction. There is plenty of merit to be had from everything else, but the epic tale told in a fully formed world both broad and deep is the epitome of the genre.

    • @Justin:

      Believe it or not, the issue for me wasn’t that he had a lot of characters. (Though that became difficult with long absences between books.) I just got bored reading about Domani fabrics. It’s information so non-critical to the story — it doesn’t even provide a richness to the world. Same as, if I were writing most books, a couple interjected paragraphs on Polyester would seem odd.

      And I’m seriously not pooh-poohing worldbuilding — while I understand that the blog title is a bit, erm, incendiary and gives itself over to absolutism (was trying to be funny more than pointed), I don’t think worldbuilding is a bad move. I think it’s critical. I just think that, in doing so, you need to keep your eye on the ball, so to speak.

      — c.

  17. Ahhhh worldbuilding. What a fickle mistress!

    As a writer of fantasy, I am one of those people who could spend days–nay, weeks–building a planet with fully developed religions, systems of government, and designing the Special Hat of Importance the Unicorn King shall wear (because the horn would get in the way of a normal hat). It’s like letting a diabetic loose in a candy store. 😀

    The people over the years who have told me they were writers too. “I have the book all worked out in my head.” was what the non-fantasy and science fiction writers would tell me. Or for those aspiring authors who wrote in my genre, they would say, “I’m still developing the Planet of Charming Bunnies they reach in the seventeenth book in the series. I should be ready to start writing soon.”

    Worldbuilding is not writing the novel. And I too have read poorly written fantasy novels that suffered from massive info dumps. Someone, upon recommending a certain very popular fantasy series I will call the Fart of Flame and Frozen Water (look! Alliteration!), actually told me there were long boring stretches of worldbuilding, but “those are necessary parts of the story—you have to be bored sometimes to get the rest of the important events.”


    I almost had a stroke right there, and it was all I could do not to scream, “NONONO YOU ARE NEVER SUPPOSED TO BE BORED WHILE READING A BOOK!”
    It’s not like eating your vegetables, people!

    So I am totally with you on reigning in the worldbuilding.

    My only caveat is to stress that worldbuilding is a necessary part of the story (not that you say it wasn’t, Chuck). I have come to believe, you may disagree, that worldbuilding is as much a part of the pre-writing process as building characters and developing plot. At least for me. I can’t just make up a bunch of characters out of a void, without consideration to the plot. This would cause the same Square-Peg-Round-Hole Problem. Neither can I seem to completely work out the plot in intricate detail without also working on the characters a little bit. Character and Plot are so closely wound together, it’s fruitless to try to completely build one independent of the other.

    I personally think that worldbuilding is just as tangled up in Character and Plot, even for non-fantasy writers. You have a setting in your novel, right? What period you choose to write in will inform how your characters act, and what sort of plot events are possible. Worldbuilding—an extension of setting—should come into play during preplanning a novel only when you come to a stopping point. If you have to know how the One Ring is going to be destroyed to further the plot, you need to know a few bare bones of how your magic system works. That’s when you jot some notes down on possible ways of destroying Evil Enchanted Bling, and move the hell on.

    I definitely agree that writers shouldn’t bog themselves down with worldbuilding every last detail, and the setting should serve the story, but I also think it’s a vital part of the writing process just the same. /ramble

    P.S. I like the idea that we’re hell-squirrels.

  18. My latest novel idea, which I’ve been fleshing out lately, is a heavy sci-fi piece. It’s my first time doing world building and I can already see how easily it would take over the story. However, it’s also immensely helped me detail the plot threads other than the main one. There’s a lot of shit going on around the protagonist and the more I know about it, the more secure I feel in the story.

    Anyway, this post is just what I needed to hear. I’ll keep checking for unnecessary, masturbatory bullshit as I continue planning.

  19. I’m in full research mode for the first time ever (never read more than two books in research for any of my other 12 books – although I DID sail on a tall ship – and invent and test a fart potion) but I promised myself I’d take at least a month off between the research phase and actually planning the story. Because by then all the facts will be gone, and what remains will be the fun parts, which will then get mangled and put into my novel. Yay! Non-educational fun for my readers!

    Louise Curtis

  20. Two points:
    As someone earlier commented, the reader doesn’t need to know more about the imaginary world than the real one. He’s not playing fantasy Jeopardy! He’s reading a story!

    The writer may need to know the exact lineage of the unicorn kings to write the story, but the reader almost certainly does not to enjoy the story. And if the reader does, the writer didn’t do a very good job telling it. There’s a reason Tolkein put all that shit in appendixes.

  21. Awesome, Chuck. Thank you for the slap in the face and the kick in the pants… the last week or so I’ve been distracted by world building for Book 4 to the point that I haven’t written a word on Book 2. Easy to get distracted by the new and shiny corners of my brain…

  22. I largely agree with everything said, Chuck. Worldbuilding is fantastic and necessary and oh-so-much-self-pleasuring-fun, but there is the danger of it taking over a story. There are subtler ways to make a world seem alive than infodumps. On the other hand, I think having a living, breathing world beyond the scope of the story itself is important too.

    My complete thoughts are too much for a humble comment, though, and so I have expelled my load on my blog, at

    …in which I also wish to petition you for a 4000-word article on the mating habits of hellsquirrels. And call you an Emmy-nominated-hellsquirrel-breeder.

  23. I’m not a writer. Nor am I a game designer. (Or anything creative professionally.) But I love worldbuilding. I just love fiddling with all the minutae of culture, technology, etc. However, I’ve found that without a story (or at least an inkling of a story or narrative theme), the world building just has no real direction.

Leave a Reply to Some Space to Think: Three Tricks for Setting Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: