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How Much World-Building Is Too Much?

This Tumblr post asks an interesting question that I’ve always wondered about — how much world-building is too much?

World-building is a big part of fantasy, the idea of an alternate Earth is fascinating. The problem is that, if Earth did evolve differently, that world would be so alien it would be incomprehensible. There is a line where the world goes beyond one’s grasp.

Now some people like that sort of thing. But how do you market something like that? I read a blurb recently from a self-published fantasy novel, one of a billion, that was full of jargon.

“The world is under control of the Zorbos, an only a Peepo can save it. But the ancient bond with Gabagools is failing, summoning the Whatchamacallits from the past. They are the enemy of mankind and only Spaba Dolicto, a smoomy-doo, can save them all. Driven by grief, will Spaba make the decision to save the Fafas or sacrifice the Doo-doos?”

This isn’t that blurb, but it’s what it looked like–a lot of Important Terms that have no meaning outside the context of the book. Words that prevent me from understanding what the book is about, what kind of story it is.

There is a fine line that writers tread when writing fantasy. How much is different? What things are different? Because, realistically, ASSUMING that humans are still on this planet, if a world evolved with different land masses and different weather patterns, it’d be like a Star Wars planet. They wouldn’t even speak English, but you can’t tell a story in a language no one can read. They tried that with The Dark Crystal–had all the Skeksis speak their own language with no subtitles. It didn’t work.

So there have to be some cultural commonalities. And there can’t be too many deviations or you’ll turn the audience off. And you definitely can’t have those different things show up in your blurb. Like if your fantasy world has Smeerps which are essentially angels, do you call them Smeerps in the blurb or something the reader can understand? But if you do then you’re not exactly telling the truth in advertising. Like, Lord of the Rings has equivalents of angels and God the creator and demons, but they’re called Valar and Eru Ilúvatar and so on and they don’t have the same powers or relationships to each other.

And do you have to come up with a different culture/history for every element of your world? They’ve got money, but does it have to be different if it does not impact the plot? Can’t you just use gold coins without coming up with something fantastical? Do you need sovereigns with the king’s face on it? Well, who’s the king? What kind of metal do they use? How do they mint the coins? How do they prevent counterfeits? What does any of this have to do with the story?

It’s probably not so much the world-building as how it’s delivered. Overwhelming the reader is bad. If you’re flooding the reader with information instead of plot or character, you’re doing it wrong. Worldbuilding should not be confused with exposition. Exposition is when you tell the reader things that aren’t about the character or the character’s actions. I know we all say “show, don’t tell” but sometimes that’s just not practical or possible.

I don’t think readers are paying as much attention as you think. I’m a highly detailed writer and I constantly miss things in movies. I totally predicted that (The Acolyte spoiler) Qimir was the Sith teacher, but my wife had to explain the twist in The Prestige to me. So this may be a question that’s overthinking the writing process. I might be asking the wrong question.

Instead of asking how much world-building is too much, one should ask how much telling can you get away with?

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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