Fantasy Faction

Fantasy Faction => Fantasy Book & Author Discussion => Topic started by: ScarletBea on July 22, 2020, 09:25:01 AM

Title: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: ScarletBea on July 22, 2020, 09:25:01 AM
This has been going around my brain in the last few days.

I started reading a book that has got a lot of world-building. I mean A LOT. And by this I mean explanations of how things work in this universe.
Off the top of my head I think I've seen a good 20 pages of explanations, 4-5 pages here, 4-5 pages there. It's not done via actions, we're not discovering it with the characters, it's good old-fashioned dump (oh, still well written, conversational-style, not really a 'dump' per se, but it feels like it).

I like a good invented system as much as the next fantasy reader, hehe, but this one just feels too much - and I'm not sure when the boundary was crossed.

What do you think?
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: Neveesandeh on July 22, 2020, 09:41:12 AM
It looks to me that the problem with that book is too much infodumps, rather than too much world-building. I think an author should share world building only when it's relevant to the story, maybe with a few other little hints dropped hear and there.

As to whether an author can do too much world-building, its very easy to fall into the trap of focusing all your time and energy on crafting the world and too little into writing the story, and I suppose if you have done lots of world-building it's very tempting to share lots of it.

I spent years trying to make this alternate historical setting I came up with once make sense and detailing the timeline as much as I could. Then I scrapped all those notes and just decided to leave a lot of history vague. I'm not saying every author should do that, I would say each story is a unique case.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: Magnus Hedén on July 22, 2020, 09:54:10 AM
And by this I mean explanations of how things work in this universe. ... 4-5 pages here, 4-5 pages there.

That's what I call the tour-bus approach. :D The boundary is crossed, in my opinion, when world-building is introduced that isn't directly involved with understanding the story at hand. And you rarely, if ever, need 4-5 pages of exposition for that. Such lore dumps will get in the way of the story. When you stop the story to explain something, you're putting on hold the core elements that make people want to read on because the questions in their head are about the characters, not the world. So if you're talking about something in the world that doesn't affect the characters in an obvious way, the mind will wander and the information will likely be lost. We need to engage emotionally with the material if we are to remember it, and we primarily do that through the characters.

(As with everything in writing, there are exceptions to this, but I believe it requires a lot of skill to pull it off. In short I think you need to make the world itself, or parts of it, into a character, and that's a tall order even for someone with a lot of experience.)

SFF writers are always treading a fine line when it comes to balancing the need for people to understand the world with the need for the story to be the main driving force. You may write tons of worldbuilding material for your background work (I know I do), but the less you can put into the final text, the better. However strange the world is to the reader, it's everyday life for the characters. Stopping to explain concepts that are common to them will cause increasing the narrative distance, causing detachment.

Of course, sometimes it's necessary for the reader to know certain things about the world in order to understand the story, but this is where I think the old and well-worn adage "show, don't tell" is important. If a writer can show us how the world works as a part of the ongoing story, that's way better than an impersonal lore dump.

This is the advice I keep giving to writers: learn what story is, then attach everything else onto that.  I guarantee you it will make for a more engaging novel -- and there are plenty of clever techniques that allow you to build your world convincingly while adhering to that basic principle.

(Sorry if this came out too much as writing advice; it's just how I think.)
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: ScarletBea on July 22, 2020, 10:02:49 AM
No, thanks both, you're sheding new light in things I was feeling but couldn't really explain.

By the way the book is Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennet, and I'm enjoying it otherwise.

@xiagan, did you feel the same when you read it? I think you were the one who told me I'd like it.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: cupiscent on July 22, 2020, 01:10:52 PM
Just to be contrary, now I'm thinking about... stories that are about how the world works.

Specifically, I started out thinking about how Neal Stephenson can info-dump hugely and it'll be fascinating, but that's partly because his books are often deeply steeped in the fine detail of how shit works, how things fit together, digging right into that nitty gritty. So the explanation is the story - Magnus is right, it's effective because it's giving as much worldbuilding as the story requires, it's just that in this case that's A LOT.

On the other hand, lots of people don't like Stephenson, precisely for that reason. Perhaps there is no magical amount of worldbuilding that is perfect, because it's a subjective thing - some readers like deep-worldbuilding stories, some readers don't.

On a different note, the book I immediately thought of that made me go "ugh, too much worldbuilding" was Brent Weeks' The Black Prism (first of the Lightbringer series), which I DNFed at about 180 pages, and from memory (and checking with my GR review) I felt like that involved 120 pages of action that seemed to have no point other than demonstrating the magic system - i.e. worldbuilding. (Though possible this was related to my subjective views on worldbuilding in stories - I deeply do not care about stories that are buried in the mechanics of a magic system.) My point here being: you can info-dump through show as well as tell, and it's still boring. :D
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: ScarletBea on July 22, 2020, 01:47:31 PM
On a different note, the book I immediately thought of that made me go "ugh, too much worldbuilding" was Brent Weeks' The Black Prism (first of the Lightbringer series), which I DNFed at about 180 pages, and from memory (and checking with my GR review) I felt like that involved 120 pages of action that seemed to have no point other than demonstrating the magic system - i.e. worldbuilding.

Now I'm laughing out loud and once more marvelling at the variety of the human race, because when I was thinking about this earlier, before writing the post, I compared the current book with Weeks' system and thought "that was a great system and not boring at all, as we were learning about it through actions and the characters' reactions ;D

And seeing what you wrote, I think you'd like this book, cupi: the 'extra' worldbuilding is all about scrivening, and how they do this thing that by writing on things, they make them act against the law of physics by making them think they're something else or are somewhere else.
As I said, it is interesting, it just seems endless explanations...
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: Magnus Hedén on July 22, 2020, 02:16:51 PM
My point here being: you can info-dump through show as well as tell, and it's still boring. :D

Absolutely. First and foremost it must connect with the story or it doesn't matter how cleverly it's inserted; it's still a lore dump. Second, it's usually, but not always, better to show as opposed to tell. And showing can also be done poorly, like in a conversation when SFF concepts that are clearly everyday for the participants are discussed and explained in detail. Ugh.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: cupiscent on July 23, 2020, 12:46:15 AM
And showing can also be done poorly, like in a conversation when SFF concepts that are clearly everyday for the participants are discussed and explained in detail. Ugh.

And I guess this is where the "serves the story" rule comes in. Because it might make total sense for the characters to sit down and discuss the nitty gritty of how the SFF concept works, if that nitty gritty is important for the story right now.

Some more thinking about worldbuilding... so I just finished The Martian, and obviously there are whole sections of that where precisely how, say, the air-filtration system works is desperately important. So that nitty-gritty is vital. But it still started making my eyes glaze and start skipping ahead to see how long this was going to last. And my husband is reading a John le Carre novel right now, and we had a conversation about that as deep worldbuilding - how it's not just about the nitty-gritty of spycraft, but about how being steeped in that changes your whole perspective on the world. Worldbuilding, in that case, is as much about immersing the reader in considering another point of view as any sort of special physics, but it still functions as a great case-study for worldbuilding.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: bdcharles on July 23, 2020, 10:56:25 AM
To me, the main thing is not how much world-building is done, but when and how it is done; if I am subject to static infodumps where lots of magnificent stuff is busy existing or has some great historical provenance, I will struggle after a page or two unless if is done very stylishly, where the narrator feeds into the tone. In general, I prefer world building done alongside events, so "Something narrative happened amid the history-built amazing things" rather than "There were some amazing things standing there. They had been built long ago. Something narrative happened".
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: Rostum on July 23, 2020, 12:29:01 PM
On a scale of none to Gormenghast
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: ScarletBea on July 23, 2020, 12:46:25 PM
On a scale of none to Gormenghast
;D
That's one of the "classics" that's been on my list, but I never could bring myself around to read it... I remember picking it up at the library, taking a peek and putting it back on the shelf...
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: Rostum on July 23, 2020, 02:17:14 PM
It was a fantastic read but it is hard work. The world building is vivid and delightful as is the characterization.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: Alex Hormann on July 23, 2020, 02:23:07 PM
I don't think there is such a thing as too much worldbuilding, even if it is all shown on the page. Maybe it's because I play a lot of RPGs, but I can happily read page after page of lore and explanations without getting bored.

I actually love info-dumps. if this is information I need to know, just tell me straight. I hate 'teaching moments' where one character explains things to another, because it feels like an unnecessary additional step. Language is there to communicate, so just tell me what I need to know.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: Bender on July 23, 2020, 04:39:34 PM
I have this problem with Senlin Ascends. I've forced myself to drop and pick this up multiple times and have managed to reach 30% and it's been all 29.9% world building and 0.1% beginning of a plot. We haven't even gotten into the plot yet. The writing is nice, the world rich...but then without actual plot progression, it's just not gripping me at all.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: Skip on July 24, 2020, 03:35:07 AM
I have this problem with Senlin Ascends. I've forced myself to drop and pick this up multiple times and have managed to reach 30% and it's been all 29.9% world building and 0.1% beginning of a plot. We haven't even gotten into the plot yet. The writing is nice, the world rich...but then without actual plot progression, it's just not gripping me at all.

And see, I thought there was plot development from the very start. And character growth. Just goesTaShowYa. As the old saw has it: it doesn't take all kinds to make a world, we just have all kinds.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: S. K. Inkslinger on July 24, 2020, 08:20:34 AM
I have this problem with Senlin Ascends. I've forced myself to drop and pick this up multiple times and have managed to reach 30% and it's been all 29.9% world building and 0.1% beginning of a plot. We haven't even gotten into the plot yet. The writing is nice, the world rich...but then without actual plot progression, it's just not gripping me at all.

Kinda my problem with Senlin Ascends as well. Although since the more I read about it the more I find that world ludicrous and unrealistic in the worst of ways, which kinda contributed to me dropping the book.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: David A. Werling on July 25, 2020, 03:45:08 PM
I have this problem with Senlin Ascends. I've forced myself to drop and pick this up multiple times and have managed to reach 30% and it's been all 29.9% world building and 0.1% beginning of a plot. We haven't even gotten into the plot yet. The writing is nice, the world rich...but then without actual plot progression, it's just not gripping me at all.

I put this aside for that very reason.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: ScarletBea on July 25, 2020, 04:16:41 PM
I have this problem with Senlin Ascends. I've forced myself to drop and pick this up multiple times and have managed to reach 30% and it's been all 29.9% world building and 0.1% beginning of a plot. We haven't even gotten into the plot yet. The writing is nice, the world rich...but then without actual plot progression, it's just not gripping me at all.

I put this aside for that very reason.
I read this one to the end, but I'm not interested in reading the rest of the series.
It's almost as if each level of the tower was a new book, with a ton of world-building and explanations, and not so much plot...
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: Caith on July 27, 2020, 10:48:34 AM
As soon as a character in a book says something like, "As you well know...", I know well that its time to shut the book and never open it again :)

I prefer books that make next to no attempt to overtly explain how the world they're set in works. Or even better, just drop in  a few intriguing bits to get you guessing. The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen is a good example of this, that I read recently. The glimpses of the world it gives leaves you wondering what is going on and it makes you want to keep reading to find out.   

World-building, to me,  is like scenery and props in a play. Good to have around but I wouldn't  go and watch the play just to see them.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: ScarletBea on July 27, 2020, 11:05:41 AM
As soon as a character in a book says something like, "As you well know...", I know well that its time to shut the book and never open it again :)
I've actually been noticing this a lot in TV series - and I'm watching one episode per week, so I can just imagine how grating it must be for people watching lots of episodes in a row (side note: I hate the word "bingeing" for this)
Give your watchers some credit and assume they remember the basics...
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: David A. Werling on July 27, 2020, 02:18:06 PM
World-building, to me,  is like scenery and props in a play. Good to have around but I wouldn't  go and watch the play just to see them.

For me, the world building came first due to it being born from a paper-and-pencil role playing game, so I have a lot of scenery to draw from, including maps, exhaustive notes, preexisting characters, a pantheon, and even rival philosophical systems (i.e. "archanism" vs. "fideism") that touch on the origins of magic. I have over a hundred pages of notes on the philosophical school of "archanism" alone. I have over sixty pages of notes on the "Seven Greater Gods" and "The Eight Gods of Darkness", and excerpts from holy books and historical tomes. This doesn't even begin to the scratch the surface on what I have regarding the various magical beasts, and their origins, the history of the various realms and monarchies, cities, and races.

It's great to have this stuff to consult, but I use it mostly just to ensure continuity in the story. For me it is easy to remain consistent because I already have a fully flushed out "scenery", and those notes are a godsend. It's easy to forget place names and schools of thought. Descriptions of cities and lands are for the most part already written, so that turns out to be a huge time saver when I need to inject those things into the story (with a lot of re-write!).

That being said, between the first novel and what I have so far for the second, it amounts to a grand total of (and this is estimate) only 7000 words pulled from the notes. I'm surprised at how little I actually pulled from those notes.

I think it always best to allow the reader to imagine, rather than me being pedantic. I try to provide detailed explanations only when it is absolutely necessary to the story. For example, most people in my world of Prav don't trust the "Knights of the Circle of St. Cuthbert" because of a long history of deception and secrets spanning the course of three hundred years. The readers don't need the forty pages of details I have in my notes; the reader just needs to know that most folks think these knights are "hedge witches with swords."
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: bdcharles on July 30, 2020, 09:25:30 PM
On a scale of none to Gormenghast
;D
That's one of the "classics" that's been on my list, but I never could bring myself around to read it... I remember picking it up at the library, taking a peek and putting it back on the shelf...

I'd agree with Rostum. It's slow and ponderous, but there's something about it. The slowness contributes to the incredible crushing weight of tradition that infests the castle like damp rot. There is a sense of never being able to explore the whole place, which is about the size of a small dukedom. It is huge and ancient and will persist.

Oh, and the names are to die (again, slowly) for: Groan; Prunesquallor; Flay; Steerpike; Sepulchrave. In that, it has been very influential for me.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: eclipse on July 31, 2020, 11:31:58 AM
I have this problem with Senlin Ascends. I've forced myself to drop and pick this up multiple times and have managed to reach 30% and it's been all 29.9% world building and 0.1% beginning of a plot. We haven't even gotten into the plot yet. The writing is nice, the world rich...but then without actual plot progression, it's just not gripping me at all.

I put this aside for that very reason.
I read this one to the end, but I'm not interested in reading the rest of the series.
It's almost as if each level of the tower was a new book, with a ton of world-building and explanations, and not so much plot...

Guess it just me and @Skip reading this series . The  first half of book one was a struggle but from then on out I really enjoyed it.
Title: Re: How much world-building is too much?
Post by: Neveesandeh on July 31, 2020, 10:06:02 PM
I really liked the Books of Babel and I had to skim read Titus Groan to finish it. To this day I refuse to touch the next one. I guess we all have our own tastes.