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Thread: How much world building is enough, as opposed to overkill?

  1. #1
    Pie aren't squared, pie are round! Introversion's Avatar
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    How much world building is enough, as opposed to overkill?

    Mind, I'm only asking to spark a conversation. I don't expect An Official Answer.

    I recently watched an "extra" from the 3rd season video release of "Game of Thrones", about the creation of the Valryian language. They hired linguist David Peterson to invent a coherent language for the show, based on fragments of it from the novels. The segment was an interview with him, and some discussion of the process he used, as well as the results.

    I'm paraphrasing from memory now, so don't expect it to be fully accurate.

    He took the "known" history of the Valryian empire, and invented many dialects of the original, "High" Valryian, which he likened to Latin; a scholarly "official" language not generally spoken throughout the empire. "High" Valryian has no articles like "the" or an", and uses poetic noun forms. He created "Low" Valryian to be a kind of simpler syntax, a bastardization of the "High" form that conquered peoples would be speaking.

    And etc etc.

    There is a scene in the show, 3rd season, where two people each speak what I'd assumed was "just Valryian" when I watched it. However, David Peterson explained that one of them was actually speaking "High" Valyrian, and the other, "Low".

    When he walked through the differences, line by line, in what they were saying, it became obvious that they were speaking slightly different languages. Their words for various nouns were subtly different, though they could each understand the other.

    But did I catch this watching the show? No, in fact, I assumed that the actors were speaking somewhat random sounds, because the subtitles with the same words in English, DIDN'T sound the same when spoken by each actor.

    And this makes me wonder, how much effort is sensible, when world-building? For me, the viewer of this show, his efforts were somewhat wasted. While I love the way any (there are many) of his dialects of "Valryian" sound when spoken -- the actors do a fine job with it -- clearly he could've stopped at the one language and called it a day.

    So, how much world-building do you like to do?

    At one end of the spectrum, is "none" -- our stories are really just 21st century Americans (or, whatever country & culture yours is) "in space" / "with dragons".

    At the other end of the spectrum are efforts like Tolkien's, or David Peterson's on the Valryian language, with huge swaths of invented history and much fine detail.

    Are we world-building to satisfy the average reader? Ourselves? Specialists (say, other linguists) who can appreciate the polish that goes beyond the obvious?

  2. #2
    Back in the black, & staying there! Marian Perera's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Introversion View Post
    At one end of the spectrum, is "none" -- our stories are really just 21st century Americans (or, whatever country & culture yours is) "in space" / "with dragons".
    Heck, once I saw this without even the dragons. As in, people had names like Rowath or Jadd, and that was the only difference between them and, say, the Saxons. Everything else stayed the same. I didn't find it interesting. I suspect the author resorted to fantasy so he/she wouldn't need to do research into actual history, but it's not like fantasy = made-up names. There's worldbuilding to be done, even if it's not to Tolkienesque depths.
    Last edited by Marian Perera; 02-27-2014 at 06:54 PM.


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    Making Einstein cry since 1994 Maggie Maxwell's Avatar
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    I really think "enough" is just as much as you need as the writer to make the best book you can. No two readers are going to agree that you have the right amount versus too much or too little. Where one person will think you've gone overboard by inventing two lines of another language or a strange meal, another will wish you'd added a bit more about the economic effect of the bean surplus in Warbleford on the castle-town of Kinklemeier. Worldbuild to satisfy yourself, 'cause there's no way you're going to satisfy everyone else.
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    Coffee Coffee Work Coffee AW Moderator amergina's Avatar
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    For me, I worldbuild enough so that the questions I have are answered.

    Most of the worldbuilding I do never makes it into the novel. It's seasoning, not meat. I can see the entire spice rack, but the reader doesn't need to.
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    I aim to misbehave Myrealana's Avatar
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    None is not enough, even if it's a contemporary real-world setting.

    However, I don't care if the alien language is completely made up or planned down to the last linguistic detail. I never got into Tolkein's appendices at all. If it's not in the story, I didn't read it. (Actually, I skipped a lot of the actual story, too. I quickly learned anything told in verse was going to be summarized after, so I just skipped to the end.)

    I can see bringing in a linguist to make TV or movie seem more believable, but in a book you can just say "He spoke in a tongue she had never heard before," or "The Goblin language was surprisingly fluid, without the harsh overtones of Dwarven or Orcish." If you are not, yourself a linguist, that's probably better than trying to pretend you are.

    I don't need a detailed map with tectonic plates and global climatology, but if you're going to set your society in a desert, I expect a certain amount of reality as to desert conditions and the way those conditions shape the society.

    But I see a lot of people going wrong in the direction of too much world-building. They do so much work before they start writing, they never actually get into the story. I prefer to get enough to start with, but let the needs of the story shape the world to some extent.
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    I see worldbuilding as research into things that don't exist.

    Say your novel is set entirely in the real world: you have vast sources for research, going into much more detail than is required for your story. So a sensible approach is to research those elements that do come up in your story; sometimes you might do a huge amount of research and only show one fact from that in the story, but knowing the rest of it enables you to place that one fact correctly. Having a broad general knowledge of other things helps ground your book in the real world, but a detailed discussion of something irrelevant to the plot - such as nineteenth century English postage stamps in a NY-set thriller - would try the patience of most readers.

    When you write about imaginary things - whether partly based on reality or in entirely imagined worlds - you don't have such stores of research available to you, so worldbuilding takes that place. Therefore:

    So a sensible approach is to research worldbuild around those elements that do come up in your story; sometimes you might do a huge amount of research worldbuilding and only show one fact from that in the story, but knowing the rest of it enables you to place that one fact correctly. Having a broad general knowledge of other things helps ground your book in the real fictional world, but a detailed discussion of something irrelevant to the plot - such as nineteenth century English postage stamps in a NY-set thriller linguistic variations between Low and High Valyrian - would try the patience of most readers.
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  7. #7
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Introversion View Post
    Mind, I'm only asking to spark a conversation. I don't expect An Official Answer.

    I recently watched an "extra" from the 3rd season video release of "Game of Thrones", about the creation of the Valryian language. They hired linguist David Peterson to invent a coherent language for the show, based on fragments of it from the novels. The segment was an interview with him, and some discussion of the process he used, as well as the results.

    I'm paraphrasing from memory now, so don't expect it to be fully accurate.



    So, how much world-building do you like to do?
    Well, this language creation you mention was so they'd have something for people to speak for television. Obviously, Martin didn't have a ready made language from his novels. So he was able to write a successful and elaborate fantasy series without building a language from scratch himself.

    I made up some words in an "old empire" languages for my world, and for languages for a couple of neighboring countries, but I use them for a few "ancient" place and religious terms/names. No one ever "speaks" in them. I mention accents, and in a couple of places state that two characters are speaking in a different language, but I don't attempt to recreate it.

    The world building bits I tried to work out in the background are little pieces of history, theology and mythology, and of course the locations and rough histories of other countries and the alliances/conflicts that have existed between them and the place most of the current story is set. Even though we don't go to these other places in this book, I want some "windows" there to show the reader that there are other places and cultures in the world. And I want some context for the things people say when they swear or make other kinds of random comments.

    The more general stuff I think about are climate and economy. This would influence things like what they build their houses out of, what they wear, what kinds of food and resources they have at what time of year, and what's available locally versus what has to be purchased/imported (and thus is more expensive). But these aren't things I spend time explaining. The characters mostly take it for granted that they get a lot of fish and mutton to eat, though the guy who's from further south misses citrus and is thoroughly sick of fish.
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    I think the answer is easy to describe. It's carrying it out that isn't so easy.

    Does it draw the reader into the story, and serve the story? That's "enough" worldbuilding.

    Does it distract and detract from the story? That's too much.

  9. #9
    Pie aren't squared, pie are round! Introversion's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roxxsmom View Post
    Well, this language creation you mention was so they'd have something for people to speak for television. Obviously, Martin didn't have a ready made language from his novels. So he was able to write a successful and elaborate fantasy series without building a language from scratch himself.
    Oh, clearly the translation to television couldn't just gloss over the fact that there was a different language. It's just the extra "polish" put into the creation of variants of that spoken language, while admirable in a technical sense, struck me as a needless flourish.

    I think my own sense of "enough" is probably similar to yours, which is fortunate since I'm not a linguist nor can play one on, er, the written page.

    Just curious how much effort others put into it. I know the answer varies by person, of course. I'm trying to be consistent & true to the spirit of the world-building that I do have, and not obsess over it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Introversion View Post
    Mind, I'm only asking to spark a conversation. I don't expect An Official Answer.

    I recently watched an "extra" from the 3rd season video release of "Game of Thrones", about the creation of the Valryian language. They hired linguist David Peterson to invent a coherent language for the show, based on fragments of it from the novels. The segment was an interview with him, and some discussion of the process he used, as well as the results.

    I'm paraphrasing from memory now, so don't expect it to be fully accurate.

    He took the "known" history of the Valryian empire, and invented many dialects of the original, "High" Valryian, which he likened to Latin; a scholarly "official" language not generally spoken throughout the empire. "High" Valryian has no articles like "the" or an", and uses poetic noun forms. He created "Low" Valryian to be a kind of simpler syntax, a bastardization of the "High" form that conquered peoples would be speaking.

    And etc etc.

    There is a scene in the show, 3rd season, where two people each speak what I'd assumed was "just Valryian" when I watched it. However, David Peterson explained that one of them was actually speaking "High" Valyrian, and the other, "Low".

    When he walked through the differences, line by line, in what they were saying, it became obvious that they were speaking slightly different languages. Their words for various nouns were subtly different, though they could each understand the other.

    But did I catch this watching the show? No, in fact, I assumed that the actors were speaking somewhat random sounds, because the subtitles with the same words in English, DIDN'T sound the same when spoken by each actor.

    And this makes me wonder, how much effort is sensible, when world-building? For me, the viewer of this show, his efforts were somewhat wasted. While I love the way any (there are many) of his dialects of "Valryian" sound when spoken -- the actors do a fine job with it -- clearly he could've stopped at the one language and called it a day.

    So, how much world-building do you like to do?

    At one end of the spectrum, is "none" -- our stories are really just 21st century Americans (or, whatever country & culture yours is) "in space" / "with dragons".

    At the other end of the spectrum are efforts like Tolkien's, or David Peterson's on the Valryian language, with huge swaths of invented history and much fine detail.

    Are we world-building to satisfy the average reader? Ourselves? Specialists (say, other linguists) who can appreciate the polish that goes beyond the obvious?
    The average linguistics hobbyist will only go as far as they feel is necessary, and most create languages because they enjoy it for it's own sake; that is to say, what makes it into any story are just the bare bones of something greater that they keep for themselves and the conlanging community. David Peterson is an expert linguist - not the writer of the television series - and he did the job he was paid to do (it wasn't all on top of writing the episodes people would watch or books people would read). He'd create as many as requested and put the effort into them requested because he was paid to do it, and it's easier for him than others due to his higher level of expertise and understanding. From a purely artistic point of view, it may be that some of his work was wasted (or just didn't make the final cut), but from the point of view of his bank account...

    I have two separate projects. One requires a lot of worldbuilding, in fact it's only right to say that it started as a conlanging/worldbuilding experiment, and it still is at the moment. It's an exploration of how a specific type of culture might operate, with a highly specific religion and abilities of individuals the primary focus. It's also an attempt to throw off the shackles of traditional 'Medieval' fantasy, as most is based on a Europe post-Western Roman Empire and highly Catholicised - but what would it be like if certain cultures and religions never existed? I don't want to slap the old labels on to the culture and be done with it, I love history too much. Due to how this project started, the language is important, although for any story names will be the primary fruit of my labour, and they will be transliterated into English; consistency is key for that, and you don't need to create lots to get to that stage (a basic phonology, syllable structure with constraints, and you're good to go). Even a map is important, but then I enjoy cartography for it's own sake.

    My other project requires much less worldbuilding; it may be intended to be set in our world, but although it wasn't going to be set in our world originally, even then the sense of place and time needed to be mysterious - a world without Humans. Apart from reading up on what would happen to what we left behind, and having a sense of the local geography, that was really it for the worldbuilding.

    A story requires as much worldbuilding as it requires, and some will not end up down on the page for anyone to read. You can't always use everything because some of what you create is needed for what you will use. It's an organic process - you might write a couple of religious stories that you don't end up using, but they were a good sounding board for how to summarise the beliefs of some of the people in your story, and gave you ideas about what elements of their religion you could demonstrate. Or what Onesecondglance said.
    Last edited by Kaidonni; 02-27-2014 at 09:16 PM.

  11. #11
    Geturšu gert žaš? Geršu žaš. NRoach's Avatar
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    I think of novels as little keyholes into a world. By reading it, one puts one's eye up to the keyhole and peeks through; seeing all the peoples and places of the novel.

    A novel without world building is little more than an image stuck to the other side of the keyhole. Yes, it works just fine for telling a story, but it's liable to feel flat.
    A novel with world building is a room. Although you might only see a tiny part of it through the keyhole, you can see the depth of it, you can shift about and steal peeps at an otherwise hidden corner.

    Of course no reader is ever going to fully catch all of your world building, but they don't need to. World building isn't there to be picked up on, it's there to make the facade of your story three dimensional.

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    hopping around Hoplite's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Introversion View Post
    So, how much world-building do you like to do?

    At one end of the spectrum, is "none" -- our stories are really just 21st century Americans (or, whatever country & culture yours is) "in space" / "with dragons".

    At the other end of the spectrum are efforts like Tolkien's, or David Peterson's on the Valryian language, with huge swaths of invented history and much fine detail.

    Are we world-building to satisfy the average reader? Ourselves? Specialists (say, other linguists) who can appreciate the polish that goes beyond the obvious?
    I'm currently going through this as I'm world-building what an undead-fantasy-empire might actually look like. I enjoy the process of thinking how such an economic and governing structure would work, but I don't think most of it will get passed onto the reader: it'd just be too much non-story material. As the writer I feel that I need to know this information, but I'll only pass on as much as necessary to the reader to carry the story (or to answer blatant questions that may arise).

    Quote Originally Posted by Kaidonni View Post
    It's also an attempt to throw off the shackles of traditional 'Medieval' fantasy, as most is based on a Europe post-Western Roman Empire and highly Catholicised - but what would it be like if certain cultures and religions never existed? I don't want to slap the old labels on to the culture and be done with it, I love history too much.
    I'm bouncing back and forth between going for the traditional European Medieval model or using Ancient Greece as the basis for the fantasy world. Medieval Europe would need less explaining, but Ancient Greece would just be different and I feel add something fresh to the story....also would require more world-building.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hoplite View Post
    I'm bouncing back and forth between going for the traditional European Medieval model or using Ancient Greece as the basis for the fantasy world. Medieval Europe would need less explaining, but Ancient Greece would just be different and I feel add something fresh to the story....also would require more world-building.
    The way that I see it, 'Medieval' Europe owes far too much to the way the Western Roman Empire collapsed and Catholicism; especially attempts to recreate this empire by Charlemagne, which is what led to the beginnings of the 'Kingdom' of France as well as the Holy Roman Empire in particular after his death. Day to day life was informed by religion, as well as conflicts and the actions monarchs took. If a fantasy world lacks a large organised religion like Christianity bearing down on the population across vast swathes of land, instead favouring a series of polytheistic and monotheistic religions that do not hold monopoly, things certainly would be very different. A better way to think of any time period is in the types of government; feudalism is what defined Europe's Medieval period, but even then not everyone operated under feudalism. Not all worlds will have the same religious situation as our world, but the types of governance will be similar to ones in our world.
    Last edited by Kaidonni; 02-27-2014 at 10:10 PM.

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    Searching for dragons Blinkk's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Introversion View Post
    But did I catch this watching the show? No, in fact, I assumed that the actors were speaking somewhat random sounds, because the subtitles with the same words in English, DIDN'T sound the same when spoken by each actor.
    For what it's worth - you may have missed the language things, but when I was watching, I was floored by how impressive the language was. I just kept wondering who invented it because it was beautiful. It sounds like a real language, and I had no idea until now it was invented by a linguist. Now I can see why they hired him to work on the language.

    So I guess it boils down to your audience. Some of the readers will pick up on every detail of your world. Others will just get the basics and move forward with the characters.
    Last edited by Blinkk; 02-27-2014 at 10:12 PM.

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    Pie aren't squared, pie are round! Introversion's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blinkk View Post
    For what it's worth - you may have missed the language things, but when I was watching, I was floored by how impressive the language was. I just kept wondering who invented it because it was beautiful. It sounds like a real language, and I had no idea until now it was invented by a linguist. Now I can see why they hired him to work on the language.
    I agree; it sounds wonderful. But, both of us enjoyed it on-screen, without any idea that in that scene, they were speaking two variants of the same language.

    Impressive amount of world-building, that. Overkill, as far as most of the audience is concerned. Even having seen the Making-Of segment, I'm amazed that they bothered to take it to that level of polish.

    But then, I recognize that others may be delighted by what I'm only bemused by.

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    practical experience, FTW Arcadia Divine's Avatar
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    Worldbuild all you want but be choosey on what you actually put in your book. Just because you have an answer for everything doesn't mean the reader will give a rats about it. As far as the too much argument is concerned, how much is too much depends on you and your research on the target audience.

    Something I believe in that I have fought other writers on is have a reason why you add something to your world. Don't add elves in your high fantasy world because they're cool or everyone else adds them. Put them in there for a reason. This reason can be as huge or as tiny as you want but there should be an underlying reason. They can't just pop out of an air bubble to become the most powerful race the planet ever knew. I know that part just sounded ridiculous, but I hear equally dumbfounding reasons all the time. That belief can apply to anything by the way.
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    practical experience, FTW snafu1056's Avatar
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    I think you should approach it like a movie set designer. Show what needs to be shown to serve the story. Why build a whole house when you just need to show a room? Fill in details as you need them. Otherwise save all that creativity for the story and the characters.

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    I agree that you should world build what is important and necessary to show in the scene.

    Now, in the Game of Thrones example, there's two versions of Valyrian in the show because there are two versions of Valyrian in the books, and it's actually a minorly important detail to the plot (IMO). Martin didn't create the entire language (and dialects) in the book, which is why HBO hired a linguist. But the linguist followed Martin's historical notes on the language, which is that many of the Free Cities speak languages that are derived from High Valyrian because they used to be part of the Valyrian Empire. (They're the Free Cities now precisely because they are no longer ruled by Valyria.) And there's also native languages to the area that Dany can't understand.

    It's similar to the Roman Empire and how Latin became the main language for many parts of Europe for a time, to the point that our modern Romance languages are descended from Latin, and other languages like English still have strong influences from Latin. Dany's speaking the equivalent of pure Latin to people who have bastardized Latin (and also thought that they'd escaped their Latin-speaking conquerors for over a century). Now she's a symbol of everything they were happy to escape (Valyrians and their dragons).

    In the show, we don't know this. We just know that the slave trader was insulting Dany because he thought that she couldn't understand him, and he was embarrassed when he realized that she knew exactly what he was saying (even without the translator). But in the book, it's more obvious that he's also thinking, "Uh-oh, she's one of THEM." (Although one part of Dany's problem is that she overestimates how much her Valyrian bloodline will impress other people.)

    Anyway, if you don't think it's important for your own story to go into linguistic or historical backgrounds for your characters, then of course you wouldn't develop two versions of the same language. So every story's needs are different. In a book about a fashion designer, in another example, it might be necessary to explain that high heels have become popular even though they're highly impractical, and even discuss different heights of heels. Then we know that when the fashion designer makes a name for himself by designing stylish flats, he's going against the popular trend of the time. But another story might not care to mention the characters' footwear at all.

  19. #19
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Introversion View Post

    Just curious how much effort others put into it. I know the answer varies by person, of course. I'm trying to be consistent & true to the spirit of the world-building that I do have, and not obsess over it.
    I suspect some of it comes down to a writer's interests and expertise. Tolkien was a philologist, so he enjoyed making up languages and putting them in a historic context. A person with more background in sociology might spend more time on the intricacies of class structure within a society, and someone with background in political science might be more into the intrigues and backstabbing at court. Someone with military history or military background might spend more time describing the way the military functions, or writing stories where the day to day life of soldiers on a campaign figure prominently.

    To some extent, the characters and stories we build are based on our interests, so we may take more pains with those aspects of our world building. I've gone back and researched some other things I felt were needed to breathe life into my world and to make the conflicts between my characters more understandable, but I suspect everyone's going to a bit different here.

    And a worldbuilding detail that falls flat for one person might not matter to another, or even hit someone's cool factor. I was in a discussion recently on another site about the plausibility of a world having steam power but no gunpowder. I'd say, from a strict standpoint, this seems unlikely. But if the story were cool enough, I might not care. But of course, swords and crossbows hit my cool factor anyway, and are sort of a default fantasy trope for me, so I might be more forgiving for an illogical lack of firearms in a story than someone who finds a lack of explosions disappointing.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 02-28-2014 at 02:31 AM.
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    I'll always lurk in a discussion about worldbuilding. I'm the wrong person to ask about it, since I suspect I did it inefficiently. I world-built as a hobby long before I seriously began writing for publication. So I have a large amount of sketches, scribbles, and one-page notes to flesh out when I want to add local color. My debut novel came from two paragraphs written almost 16 years before publication, and I almost don't recognize those early versions of the main characters.

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    Quote Originally Posted by robjvargas View Post
    I think the answer is easy to describe. It's carrying it out that isn't so easy.

    Does it draw the reader into the story, and serve the story? That's "enough" worldbuilding.

    Does it distract and detract from the story? That's too much.
    Very simple explanation; love it.

    When watching a movie or reading a book, the quality is determined by how well it draws me in. In turn, when I write, I want to write something that will draw my audience in and transport them somewhere else.
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    How much world building you do beforehand depends on your writing process. Some writers must have everything built first. Others can get in a few basic ideas about the world and fill in the details as they go.

    The first approach gives you a full world but can delay the actual writing or result in too many info dumps. The second approach can mean that you write yourself into inconsistencies that you'll have to figure out how to revise later.

    As for what you actually include in the story, you give the reader what they need and give just enough detail that there's an illusion of an entire world.

  23. #23
    practical experience, FTW
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    The main setting of my novel is a country that is ruled over by seven clans of dark wizards. I give some physical descriptions of the land, the buildings, clothing, etc. but I mostly describe how their laws and society function. I explain the class structure, how their government works, how the lower classes are treated, how the families interact with each other, how the economy works, how serfs in a village are treated differently from common laborers in a city, and so on.

    I write it that way because how things actually work is key to the reader understanding a lot of the actions in the story. I also feel it gives them a much stronger sense of the world than, say, going on for three pages describing a castle in detail. Does the reader absolutely have to know that while the serfs of a village aren't permitted to leave it without permission, they are allowed to decide which crops to grow and how much land to plant? Probably not, but it gives you a little better sense of how the world works.

    It's all a matter of judgment of course, but a good guideline is to give the reader enough to get the world's flavor and an understanding of how it works.

  24. #24
    figuring it all out Aerogurl's Avatar
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    I'm currently working on my first fantasy piece, so I consider myself to be a novice at world building. But basically, I've come up with a general history and kind of add on to it as I go, if I feel more explanation is needed to make things believable to the reader.

    With that said, I think a good book does enough world building to immerse the reader, but not so much that it overwhelms you with information to the point where you forget you were reading a novel and not a history book.

  25. #25
    Power to the pen! Taylor Harbin's Avatar
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    Languages are too hard for most of us. Pick three aspects of your world that you want to emphasis, ones that are critical to the plot and characters.

    Star Wars had the Force, so we get a lot of details about how it works throughout the trilogy. We DON'T see the same amount of detail being used to describe the Empire's political dealings (the exception being the officers' meeting in A New Hope; that sprinkled just the right amount).

    Build as much as you can. It'll help with writing the narrative if you know how everything works. However, 80% of what you build doesn't have to be featured in the book. It will help the readers achieve a greater suspension of disbelief if they see a world map but don't travel to every place during the story. If you show too much, you take a risk of ruining the mystery.
    Last edited by Taylor Harbin; 02-28-2014 at 09:53 AM.
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