September 28, 2020, 03:39:29 PM

Author Topic: How much world-building is too much?  (Read 866 times)

Offline ScarletBea

  • Welcome party and bringer of Cake. 2nd-in-Command of the Writing Contest
  • Administrator
  • Big Wee Hag
  • ***
  • Posts: 12487
  • Total likes: 7059
  • Gender: Female
  • Geeky Reading Introvert
    • LibraryThing profile
How much world-building is too much?
« 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?
At home in the Fantasy Faction forum!

I'm "She Who Reigns Over Us All In Crimson Cheer", according to Peat!

Offline Neveesandeh

Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #1 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.

Online Magnus Hedén

  • High Lord of commas and Grand Master of semicolons
  • Ambient Mage
  • ****
  • Posts: 440
  • Total likes: 352
  • Gender: Male
  • My name is Magnus. I make stuff up.
Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #2 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.)
« Last Edit: July 22, 2020, 09:58:28 AM by Magnus Hedén »

Offline ScarletBea

  • Welcome party and bringer of Cake. 2nd-in-Command of the Writing Contest
  • Administrator
  • Big Wee Hag
  • ***
  • Posts: 12487
  • Total likes: 7059
  • Gender: Female
  • Geeky Reading Introvert
    • LibraryThing profile
Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #3 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.
At home in the Fantasy Faction forum!

I'm "She Who Reigns Over Us All In Crimson Cheer", according to Peat!

Offline cupiscent

Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #4 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

Offline ScarletBea

  • Welcome party and bringer of Cake. 2nd-in-Command of the Writing Contest
  • Administrator
  • Big Wee Hag
  • ***
  • Posts: 12487
  • Total likes: 7059
  • Gender: Female
  • Geeky Reading Introvert
    • LibraryThing profile
Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #5 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...
At home in the Fantasy Faction forum!

I'm "She Who Reigns Over Us All In Crimson Cheer", according to Peat!

Online Magnus Hedén

  • High Lord of commas and Grand Master of semicolons
  • Ambient Mage
  • ****
  • Posts: 440
  • Total likes: 352
  • Gender: Male
  • My name is Magnus. I make stuff up.
Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #6 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.

Offline cupiscent

Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #7 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.

Offline bdcharles

Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #8 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".
Find me on twitter @jd_books

Offline Rostum

  • Strange Turnip Person and He Who Waits
  • Dragonrider
  • ***
  • Posts: 4036
  • Total likes: 2015
  • Gender: Male
Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #9 on: July 23, 2020, 12:29:01 PM »
On a scale of none to Gormenghast

Offline ScarletBea

  • Welcome party and bringer of Cake. 2nd-in-Command of the Writing Contest
  • Administrator
  • Big Wee Hag
  • ***
  • Posts: 12487
  • Total likes: 7059
  • Gender: Female
  • Geeky Reading Introvert
    • LibraryThing profile
Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #10 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...
At home in the Fantasy Faction forum!

I'm "She Who Reigns Over Us All In Crimson Cheer", according to Peat!

Offline Rostum

  • Strange Turnip Person and He Who Waits
  • Dragonrider
  • ***
  • Posts: 4036
  • Total likes: 2015
  • Gender: Male
Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #11 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.

Online Alex Hormann

  • Writing Contest Regular
  • Auror
  • ***
  • Posts: 1190
  • Total likes: 590
  • Gender: Male
  • Bookworm first, human second.
Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #12 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.
Blog: https://atboundarysedge.com

Twitter: @HormannAlex

Online Bender

Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #13 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.
"I shall hunt your firstborn children and laugh with glee as I tell them of your death in terrible detail, with many unpleasant adjectives!" - M-Bot

"Who needs science when you have a dragon?" - Neil DeGrasse Tyson in Sharknado 6

Offline Skip

Re: How much world-building is too much?
« Reply #14 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.
Visit Altearth