GUEST POST: Hollow Worlds – World Building when you’re not an Architect

By Chauncey Rogers

Thanks for hosting today, Sophie! It’s lovely to participate in your blog’s great content. 🙂

Today we’re talking about another very important aspect of storytelling: world building, or the process of creating an understandable and easily visualized setting for your story—a place your reader can escape to whenever they pick up your book.

Now let’s say something pretty obvious: world building always matters. This should be a given. Readers expect something interesting when they crack open your book, and your setting plays into that.

However, less obvious to some writers is this: in world building, more isn’t always better. Better is always better.

I’m just overflowing with profundity today, am I not?

But here’s what I mean—when telling a story, one must always bear in mind the needs of the story, then the reader, then the writer. I touched on this already during this blog tour when discussing describing characters, but it’s an important thing to understand.

You will hear people say things like, “Write for yourself.” True, in a way, but also not.

You’ll also hear it said that “the reader is everything,” and that’s who you’re writing to. Again, true, but also not.

Writing for yourself is fine, unless you want to share your work and have others enjoy it. Writing for the reader is fine, too, excepting that there are many different readers with many different tastes, and even when working within the bounds of a well-defined genre, you will still encounter variances in what your readers want and appreciate.

But both you and your reader will appreciate a story that has been well told. Therefore, write for the story, and always do what is best for the story, including when it comes to world building.

What does that look like? As I said above, it depends. More isn’t always going to be better. There are different kinds of stories, and most don’t require incredibly complex world building. If you’re writing epic fantasy, spend more time on your world building. If you’re writing something shorter or lighter, don’t worry about it as much. Sure, you can write up pages and pages of notes on geography, etiquette, religion, philosophy, sports, history, etc. for the fantasy world you made. You can spend years on it—a lifetime, even. And it can all end up as a pile of scrap paper standing between you and your story.

I’m not going to say “go for the minimum,” because that sounds incredibly lazy and like a shortcut. But if I said, “Make it sufficient, and not much more,” would that maybe not sound so bad?

Because it’s what I honestly recommend doing.

Not only does overdoing your world building take up unnecessary time, but then you may also be tempted to incorporate it more and more into your story. Some of this is okay. Too much of it, though, and your novel starts to feel like a thick volume about a fantasy land, with a story awkwardly included. You have too much explaining—some of which may come across awkwardly.

And yes, your readers may want to know some things about the world you’ve made. So teach them some things! But honestly, I have very little idea about how electricity works, how it powers my microwave, or why it can make a bag of popcorn into something delicious. I just know that it does it, and that works for me. I know the sound the microwave makes when it runs, I know the sound of the popping popcorn, the way my mouth waters, the anticipation I feel, the taste and crunch of the popcorn, the way my hands get greasy, etc.

Those senses and sensations build a world for your reader. If the religion of the bad guy matters, include it. If it needs to be explained, fine. But worlds are built for readers the same way that we encounter ours here in real life—through the senses. So focus on those. And if you’re world doesn’t have a super smoothly polished history and notebooks filled with trivia attached to it, that’s totally fine. You can tell a story on a hollow world, so long as there’s enough on the surface that neither your characters nor your readers fall through it.

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What do you think? Do you appreciate stories that are filled with detail and backstory? Or do you prefer stories that focus on the narrative at hand, and don’t wander too much? There’s certainly room in this bookish world for both types of readers and writers, so don’t be shy of choosing a side in the comments!

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9 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Hollow Worlds – World Building when you’re not an Architect

  1. MichaelK says:

    Nice post! Being a worldbuilder myself I really appreciate the perspectives of other people and any advice they share.
    I have a real problem choosing sides though since I love both a detailed world (fantasy fan here) and a solid, to the point, narrative (yes I am one of those plot over character guys).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rosie Adams says:

    This is something I always have to think about when writing. How much is too much? If I’m being totally honest, I start skimming when I come across lengthy descriptions. I can’t help it. Get back to the story people!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dani @ Perspective of a Writer says:

    An incredible guest post! I love what this author is saying about world building… My writing partner is always telling me its like an iceberg… we craft a ton but then only show the very tip that is outside of the water. Too much of that iceberg and your reader is overwhelmed too… with boredom! ❤ (that's really what she says, lol!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sophie Li says:

      I love the iceberg metaphor! It’s so true! It can get dull when we are overloaded with lots of information about the world. The key is to reveal just enough to make the world seem realistic and interesting. It’s a thin line!

      Like

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