Sunday, November 21, 2010

Focus Your Worldbuilding Efforts

You're creating a world. You want to write a story in it, and you want it to feel real. How best do you go about that?

Well, you have to have all the underlying basic principles down. Climate, ecology, economy, etc, etc, etc. It all has to fit together and make sense. But a lot of that stuff isn't precisely relevant to your plot. The temptation might be to explain things - and that leads you into trouble. You want people to believe in you, yes. But don't tell them things and ask them to believe. If you show those things effectively, then they'll believe in spite of themselves.

I'm sure you've all heard this "show don't tell" advice before. I have a whole post on its different meanings, but I'm not trying to access all those meanings today. I just want to say that if you can bring your worldbuilding efforts into sharp focus, you can achieve that "show don't tell" feeling, and a little bit of worldbuilding can go a long way.

A good place to start explaining this is with a short story. Say your story is short, so you don't have room to try to explain the world - and yet, you want to make sure that the world feels large. One really good way of doing this is picking a single object to start with. This object has to be one that has high relevance to the character - but not necessarily to the plot. I recommend everyday objects. Not something like a fork which has become nearly generic, but something that is slightly off what in the real world we would consider normal. Maybe it's a ceremonial object, or an object of significance to the main character. Maybe it's this Roman "Swiss army knife" that Astrid Bear pointed out to me on Facebook this morning (thank you!).

The reason why I enjoyed the Roman knife-tool was that it was so detailed. So much to be learned from its discovery about the habits of the person who carried it. The fork and spoon. The blade. The spike which may have been used to remove the meat from snails. The toothpick; the spatula.

If you can pick one highly relevant, salient object, its nature can imply many things about the world around it. In my story, "Let the Word Take Me," (Analog July/Aug 2008) I gave my alien girl two objects like that - a ceremonial knife, and "sun armor." Here's a quote:

On top [in the artifact case] was a ceremonial knife in a scabbard of intricately worked grazer-leather, with a leaf-shaped blade and a hilt wound with stone beads. Underneath was a mass of white feathers. Lifting the top layer, he found himself unfolding a hooded coat of perforated leather densely clad with yorro plumage. ... David suspected it was an heirloom; the unblemished feathers were layered without gaps, but the leather inside showed that patches had been resewn, and two of the worn tie-thongs had been replaced.

I spent this many words describing the two objects because of what they said about the technology level and culture of the people who had made them. Find the right object, and its significance will radiate outward, accomplishing far more than general descriptions on a larger scale.

The fact of the matter is, while this technique is very convenient in short stories where you have fewer words to work with, it is equally effective for longer works. The objects don't have to be ceremonial or have special importance. They can be small things that the characters consider quite mundane. A lot of large-scale principles become evident in the tiny details of the everyday. Focus your worldbuilding efforts and you can get a lot of power out of a very few words.

It's something to think about.


  1. Love this post. I've been wordbuilding on a major scale and thought it would take me ages. I started with the most important everyday item and how people used it - and everything fell into place from there. I then looked at everything else in the story that posed a world question - and found there wasn't very much. By starting from the inside and working out, I had only the details I needed. But if I'd started from the outside and worked in I could have got very bogged down.

  2. Nice to see you, dirtywhitecandy! I'm really glad you liked the post. It's amazing to me how elements of culture fit with one another, and how you can work outward from a single object to create a whole integrated system. It certainly does help with streamlining the process.

  3. I have to say I like the effect of altering common objects for use in a speculative world -- it really does pack a worldbuilding punch. The Gariniki's ceremonial knife and protective clothing are not only distinct and quietly telling, but they demonstrate that invented cultures can seem unusual to us without being incomprehensible. It fits well with the sense that humans theoretically can understand these geckos but darn it, they just can't figure out how.

    And that Roman army knife is so cool. It sounds so much more useful than the modern knife-heavy version!

  4. Certainly something to think about. The most challenging aspect of world-building for me seems to be show the differences without directly pointing them out. The object method mentioned above could come in quite handy, thank you.

  5. You're welcome! I'm so glad the post was helpful to you.

  6. I think this is part of the reason I worldbuild as I go. It's easy to get bogged down in the wide variety of information available on a topic and harder to focus once you've got all that at the tip of your tongue. This process is similar to writing a synopsis before you write the book compared to writing it afterwards. It's hard to pick out the key elements when everything is intimate knowledge.

    And thanks for the Roman knife link :).