Right and Wrongs of Worldbuilding

[Warning: This post is slightly more linguistically graphic than most of mine, as it is inspired by the mad ramblings of perpetually-NSFW-Emmy-nominated-hellsquirrel-breeder-and-penmonkey Chuck Wendig (go read his blog, I command thee).]

Over at his blog, Chuck Wendig sounded off yesterday about how worldbuilding is essentially masturbation, that world-building must be a slave to story and not the other way ’round.

Now, I am a major proponent of good worldbuilding in all its masturbatory glory, so I approached the article with a bit of hesitation. Was my dear old Chuck about to unload all over my holy grail? (Take that as a euphemism for whatever you want.)

In fact, while I wish to add some of my own addendums to his self-pleasuring verbiage, I think he makes a great many very good points about world-building, which I shall rehash here for your redundancy:

  • the story must come first; the needs of the story should never take backseat to the needs of the world–if your story must be made a worse story because “the world demands it so,” you’re doing it wrong
  • the story writing must come first; absolutely do all the prep work that you need to do, but if you’re detailing the civil war of 600 years ago in the country that gets mentioned once in a passing conversation instead of writing the damn book, you’re doing it wrong
  • fear the infodump; if it is not relevant to your story, I do not want to read 4000 words about the mating habits of hellsquirrels (within the story, anyway. Actually, I want Chuck to write a 4000 word article about the mating habits of hellsquirrels, now. I just don’t want it interrupting an otherwise good story.) Even if it is relevant to your story, I don’t want it all at once–give me the pertinent details a little bit at a time.

As Chuck writes:

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.

That all being said, I think there’s an important point to be made that some worldbuilding is important. Perhaps even some worldbuilding beyond what is absolutely necessary to the story you’re telling.

If the only information I ever get in a story about the world is directly related to the story itself, then the world doesn’t feel real to me. It feels like the world was disigned for this one story and that is all, like the world revolves around that story. Most of the time, that’s not how worlds work.

I’ve always been a fan of seeding in little pieces of information, hints about a world within a story that don’t interrupt the story itself, but which say, “Oh, psst, hey, I just want you to know, yeah, there’s other shit going on in this world. It’s a living, breathing thing, and I’m not telling you everything. This world could be as real as your world. The mythical “IRL” world. You don’t know everything going on there, do you? But you know there’s something out there.

It gives the world a depth. That’s one of the things I didn’t like about The Hunger Games — we only learned things about the world that were strictly necessary for the story, so it felt like it didn’t really exist beyond what we saw.

It somewhat relates to another article I came upon recently by Scott Walker, about the story gutters, those places where more story is told in the not telling than in the telling. You hint at information and then leave it blank — the audience’s mind automatically fills in the gutter with what’s missing. They see that there’s whole other stories out there, things you’re not saying, and that brings the story you are telling to life.

I’m not saying spend a page or two describing stuff happening elsewhere. For the love of the gods, don’t do that. But hint at it. Seed little morsels of world goodness here or there, just to show the reader that you’ve thought about it.

And then, when you write the sequel, and that tidbit of information suddenly becomes important, the reader will think, “Damn, that writer sure knew his stuff. He knew exactly what he was doing back when he wrote the first book!”

And we nod and smile and fap away.

Mythology, Writing , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I bet that even with The Hunger Games, you couldn’t stop yourself from at least guessing how the missing pieces worked…am I right? : )

  2. I did, to some extent, for sure. But I don’t think world engaged me enough to make me really *care* how the missing pieces worked; I think Collins’ job crafting those gutters could have been much better, is all.

    But that would be the ideal–to be pulled in by the story *and* the world so much that you *want* to know more about the world outside of the story. The key of course, is ‘outside of the story’. That’s when you go to appendices, websites, or, say, transmedia extensions :)

  3. Absolutely!

    And, of course, it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m an advocate for extending explicit invitations for audiences to explore the gutter (or parts of it, at least).

    By the way, did you catch this post from @poburke:


    Delicious reading about construction frameworks that cover the difference between play aspects and story aspects in transmedia projects.

  4. Pingback: Recommended Transmedia Reading 3/16/11 | Transmythology

  5. Pingback: Lectures Transmédia recommandées 16-03-11 | Blogomadaire

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