How much world building?

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EndOfRico

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I want to put my story in a science fiction setting - more specifically, on a major space station between beyond the orbit of Mars specializing in trade and heavy industry.

I cannot decide, however, how much world building I need to include here - and how I should include it in the story. I will definitely need to address some aspects quite explicitly – including how it is even possible to *have* a space station with hundreds of thousands or even millions of inhabitants.

However, I also want to make my characters minor players in the overall world. And as they will be engaged in more mundane conflicts (kill people and take their stuff), they don't need to go into long monologues about who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2374 and why.

On the one hand, I greatly admire a work like Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, which is almost 99 percent world building (as the book title even suggests) and very little plot. It even has a formal timeline in the appendix. On the other hand, another of my favorite books (William Gibson’s Neuromancer) mostly presents the world through the (often very narrowly focused) perspective of the characters.

The most minimalist approach here would be to only include world building to the extent that it drives the specific plot (omit needless worlds), but then I fear I might end up with a story divorced from the sci-fi setting I want to put it in. Conversely, the maximalist approach would allow me to flesh out all the assumptions I have made about the story world, but then the plot and the characters might end up being sidelined.

Does anyone have some advice here? And recommendations for good works with either “maximalist” or “minimalist” world building in science fiction?
 

JJNotAbrams

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I would say, only go for worldbuilding for thingd that you think would be relevant for the plot later. Say if you introduce a worldbuilding element in Chapter 1, how does that connect to anything in the later Chapters?

Also maybe sprinkle little bits of trivia. History, important figures, social system, things like that.

I've been having the same problems trying to create a post-apocalyptic world. Trying to figutr out what is important to the plot and what is not.
 

lizmonster

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The most minimalist approach here would be to only include world building to the extent that it drives the specific plot (omit needless worlds), but then I fear I might end up with a story divorced from the sci-fi setting I want to put it in. Conversely, the maximalist approach would allow me to flesh out all the assumptions I have made about the story world, but then the plot and the characters might end up being sidelined.

I vote minimalist, but I get hooked by character first when I read.

My larger question is this: why does your story need to be told in this setting? What is it about the setting that informs your plot, your theme, your moral? Once you understand that, you'll have a sense of the absolute least amount of worldbuilding you can do. Everything on top of that is atmosphere, and how much you add will inform the overall shape of the narrative.
 

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I'd suggest reading the Altered Carbon/Woken Furies/Broken Angels books by Richard Morgan. Mostly Altered Carbon, for some really good minimalist world building. One thing I got stuck on when I read the books as a kid was some of the really subtle world building, and normalizing the sci-fi.

I'm no more likely to walk into a building and remark on how wonderful it is that we discovered concrete and steel construction, than your protagonist is to walk into their house and say: Man, spray steel walls are the best thing since quantum bread. It's the little things that you DO think about.

In Altered Carbon, the MC gets a canned coffee from a vending machine, and says something to the tune of 'I pulled the ignition tab, and waited a second for the coffee to heat up' It's SO normal, but it tells us that we're in a sci-fi immediately.

"I wanted some eggs, but the protein cartridge on my printer was nearly empty. I'd have to send a drone for more when I got some credits."

There are loads of ways to include the setting in your work, arguably it's something you should do regularly, and each time is an opportunity to include something setting specific.
 
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I will definitely need to address some aspects quite explicitly – including how it is even possible to *have* a space station with hundreds of thousands or even millions of inhabitants.
I disagree that you need to do the latter. When you’re walking or driving through some modern large city, unless it’s your very first time, you take everything in it for granted. Do you think about how its sewer treatment systems must work? How mass transit evolved there? How regulations make it possible for cell phones made by different companies to coexist there?

Unless you have newcomers to your station — and letting your readers see your station through their eyes can be a good way to signal what’s surprising or expected — your characters living there will probably take it for granted too. Your readers don’t need the physics of it, unless you’re aiming for “hard” SF and want to.
 
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I want to put my story in a science fiction setting - more specifically, on a major space station between beyond the orbit of Mars specializing in trade and heavy industry.

I cannot decide, however, how much world building I need to include here - and how I should include it in the story. I will definitely need to address some aspects quite explicitly – including how it is even possible to *have* a space station with hundreds of thousands or even millions of inhabitants.

However, I also want to make my characters minor players in the overall world. And as they will be engaged in more mundane conflicts (kill people and take their stuff), they don't need to go into long monologues about who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2374 and why.

On the one hand, I greatly admire a work like Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, which is almost 99 percent world building (as the book title even suggests) and very little plot. It even has a formal timeline in the appendix. On the other hand, another of my favorite books (William Gibson’s Neuromancer) mostly presents the world through the (often very narrowly focused) perspective of the characters.

The most minimalist approach here would be to only include world building to the extent that it drives the specific plot (omit needless worlds), but then I fear I might end up with a story divorced from the sci-fi setting I want to put it in. Conversely, the maximalist approach would allow me to flesh out all the assumptions I have made about the story world, but then the plot and the characters might end up being sidelined.

Does anyone have some advice here? And recommendations for good works with either “maximalist” or “minimalist” world building in science fiction?

I don't think maximalist or minimalist.

I think about what is important is in the book, filtered through the MC's eyes.

What will the reader assume?
What is the tone?
What is important?
How does the character see it?

You say space station, I assume something like the ISS unless you mention the gravity plating. If I've assumed the ISS for five chapters, then the gravity cuts out from a terrorist attack, that might be jarring.

A handful of astronauts on the ISS might be described as serene. Maybe your space station is an important commercial hub on a far flung galactic civilization or a distant military outpost. One would have a chaotic tone, the other regimented, ordered.

If chapter six is going to have gravity cut out, I'd better know that the astronauts are used to near normal gravity early on. Then I can "experience" the disruption of the sudden zero-g.

The last is about knowing what is going on in your character's head. A scientist on the ISS might be excited he finally got to go up into space. One who is about to leave might be ready to feel the ground or might love weightlessness so much he dreads the day.

A merchant on that chaotic commercial hub might see space as just a way to make a living.

The military outpost might be from a grunt or the CO. Or it might be the terrorist who killed and stole the identity of one of the new transfers and has to hide that until chapter five where he plants the explosives that detonate and cause the gravity plates to fail in chapter six.

For me, enough world building that the reader knows where they are, what is going on and how the character feels about things. If I put too much in or leave out so much the reader is confused? That is where critiques and beta readers come in.
 

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In my experience some small percentage of readers will fixate on some underrepresented/under-built feature of your world that you didn't even consider, point it out, and you will smack your head that you had that blind spot. For example, how gravity works on your station, or how your characters deal with solar radiation, or why their bones aren't brittle after so many years, or whatever it is. (You probably have these easy features covered.)

Other features that you research and build to spec will be misconstrued by readers.

Other readers won't care about the worldbuilding, but will be bothered by something about your characters. That's a little tougher in my experience, but worth tackling as well. Or your prose. Or something else entirely.

But most readers will be happy to have a book like the one you write.

My opinion is to build the heck out of your world but only put the needed amount for clarity into the text. Build it so that what you use has verisimilitude and all that, but don't weigh the reader down.

I don't read much spacey sci-fi, preferring planet-bound social sci-fi, but I think Michael Mammay's Planetside might be a title that you could take a look at. Definitely reading successful works is the way to go on this question. So that's great that you're asking for titles. Goodreads has a feature where you can find books of a certain type--say, Mars Space SciFi or Scifi Space Stations or something like, and that might be worth looking into.
 

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I agree strongly with Woollybear here. You can have a fully realized world, but only bring up relevant tidbits of information. There's some degree of wonder and mystery when you don't fully explain things to the reader, or paint wild crazy things as mundane to the characters. Every question answered closes the world a bit, step by step.
 
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I want to put my story in a science fiction setting - more specifically, on a major space station between beyond the orbit of Mars specializing in trade and heavy industry.

I cannot decide, however, how much world building I need to include here - and how I should include it in the story. I will definitely need to address some aspects quite explicitly – including how it is even possible to *have* a space station with hundreds of thousands or even millions of inhabitants.
IMO: You, the author, needs to know all of the worldbuilding and every tiny detail. The reader does not.

As a SF/space opera reader, I've never expected the story to explain how it is possible that a space station exists, or how the people who have been living on Planet X for a thousand years managed to get there and colonise the planet in the first place. That in itself can be a cool story, but it's a different story to Characters A and B are having exciting adventures on Planet X or Space Station Z.
 
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TheKingsWit

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One important thing to remember about worldbuilding is that you don't need to do it all before you start to write. With that in mind, here is the main criteria I use to determine how much is 'enough' before I start.

The world I'm writing makes me feel inspired.

This concept, for me, is twofold. I treat the setting like a character, one that's going to show up in every single scene. I don't want to spend all my time writing about a boring character, so I need enough information about the setting that it feels non-generic and has hooks and quirks the actual characters can play off of.

The second is that the worldbuilding supports and enhances the plot and the characters' backstories. If you want to write a revolution, that's going to be a whole lot easier if you have a ruling body to revolt against and the right social conditions in enough detail to give you direction. If you're writing a wizard it's going to make a big difference if magic users are adored, hunted, or just normal people.

How much the second factor plays into it depends on the story you want to tell. In a novel like The Martian, the setting is the direct cause of the entire plot and incredibly relevant every step of the way. In Throne of Glass, the setting is much closer to window dressing; there are kingdoms and assassins and magic, that's about all the detail you need to know.

After I've got those questions down, I'll probably focus on a few things that really interest me. You don't actually need to know everything about your world, just give the illusion that you do. Showcasing a few elements of worldbuilding in-depth (And by that, I mean showing the far-reaching consequences of things, how they interact with each other and affect the characters, not dumping blocks of info in) can do just that.

If you just really like worldbuilding, keep going, by all means (though don't let it stop you from getting to the actual writing) but the rest you can figure out as you write and it becomes relevant, and after your first draft you can continue to go back and add, cut and change as need be.
 
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If you just really like worldbuilding, keep going, by all means (though don't let it stop you from getting to the actual writing) but the rest you can figure out as you write and it becomes relevant, and after your first draft you can continue to go back and add, cut and change as need be.

Worldbuilding (like most writing) is iterative for me. I have a basic idea of the world, but I learn more about it as a write in it. Sometimes, my characters end up somewhere that reveals a whole new aspect of the world to me, and then I sit back and think through that background.

A lot of people get so caught up in the worldbuilding phase, they never move on to actually writing the story. The real world is too huge, varied, and complex for a single person to detail in one go (or one lifetime). Explore it as you go. If you pub part of that exploration, then it's set as canon and you use that as the foundation for later exploration in future works in that universe.
 

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I want to put my story in a science fiction setting - more specifically, on a major space station between beyond the orbit of Mars specializing in trade and heavy industry.

I cannot decide, however, how much world building I need to include here - and how I should include it in the story. I will definitely need to address some aspects quite explicitly – including how it is even possible to *have* a space station with hundreds of thousands or even millions of inhabitants.
One piece of advice I always remember when it comes to world building is from a video by children's/YA author Jackson Pearce. She talks about Back To The Future, and how the flux capacitor turns the car into a time machine. Does the audience know how exactly the flux capacitor makes time travel possible? Nope. We just know that it does, and that's enough information to drive the plot forward. In the same way, your readers probably don't need to know how there's a space station with millions of inhabitants - there just is.

I would stick with explaining elements of the world that your characters directly interact with
 

Nether

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I would say, only go for worldbuilding for thingd that you think would be relevant for the plot later. Say if you introduce a worldbuilding element in Chapter 1, how does that connect to anything in the later Chapters?

Also maybe sprinkle little bits of trivia. History, important figures, social system, things like that.

This. It's really easy to get lost in the weeds when it comes to worldbuilding. As long as the worldbuilding shown makes sense and is compelling, and the work has various nods to other things that hint at a larger world, it's usually fine.

Honestly, 90% of the time, a novel will probably only be remembered for one or two worldbuilding elements, so it's usually going to be more important to knock those out of the park than make sure that everything is there. Even if something isn't depicted, people are going to assume it's there.

I've been having the same problems trying to create a post-apocalyptic world. Trying to figutr out what is important to the plot and what is not.

I tend to figure out stuff like that as a go along, and then add in what I need. There are a few big things I need to plan, but the rest just falls into place as needed.
 

JJNotAbrams

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Honestly, 90% of the time, a novel will probably only be remembered for one or two worldbuilding elements, so it's usually going to be more important to knock those out of the park than make sure that everything is there. Even if something isn't depicted, people are going to assume it's there.
Unless your name is Brandon Sanderson or J.R.R. Tolkien, I would usually recommend worldbuilding as a second priority or even third. For me, the first priority has to be the plot. Everything you write, does it fit into the overall plot? If so, when? If you introduce a little worldbuilding on page 20 or something, will it come back? Those are the questions I usually ask myself when I try to write.
 

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