Every setting of every piece of fiction ever written is by definition a product of someone’s imagination—and to some extent, therefore phantasmagorical and, yes, fantastical, because it doesn’t exist in our reality the way it does on the page … Indeed, for the reason of subjective interpretation alone it is impossible to truly replicate reality.
I make this observation about worldbuilding to point out that even “realistic” fiction in not really all that realistic—any more than fictional dialogue of most sorts is like speech in real life. Instead, a realistic fiction favors one particular stance or position over another and then builds a construct to support the stance.
—Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction
The world you build for your story either supports or undermines your reader’s enjoyment and their suspension of disbelief. As Jeff VanderMeer so eloquently put it, whether we take a more realistic or fantastical stance, we must create the structure and fill in the details of the space where our stories exist: great characters and a compelling problem constitute only two of three parts of the story’s premise. Some writers love this part of storytelling; some do not. However you feel about it, you can do plenty during the revision phase to improve your stories and give your readers a rollicking good read.
Last week I shared different components of setting that your story might need to include: for example, geography, politics, and technology. This week, I want you to consider whether you’ve included enough or too many details and how you’ve delivered them.
Think about how you approach worldbuilding in your stories. Do you create the world first? Or do you make it up as you go, fleshing it out as needed? Your approach to writing might determine the things you look for as you edit your manuscript.
Two main problems arise in this area: One is underwriting. When you underwrite, important details haven’t made it on to the page. The problem with this is that the reader can get lost and fail to acclimate to your world. They might not be able to tell you the reason. Someone might say, “I just couldn’t get into it,” or “That story didn’t work for me.” Your goal is to pull the reader in completely, and an underwritten world where the reader has too many questions and can’t settle in won’t do that.
Editor and author Alida Winternheimer once described it to me as writing with a green screen. That is, things are happening, but the characters aren’t interacting with their world or noticing it. I have a clue about why I do this because I recently discovered that I have aphantasia. Most people can picture people, objects, or places in their mind’s eye. Some can zero in on minute details within their memories. When I try to picture the face of someone who’s not in front of me, I get a picture that is fuzzy and vague. I recognize them when I see them, but I can’t conjure visual details outside of their presence. So I know this is a challenge for me and that I’m more likely to underwrite the visual aspects of my story.
If you’ve underwritten in the area of worldbuilding, go through the questions I posed last week. Think about elements you can add, ways your characters can interact with objects, how your point of view characters react to and think and feel about their world. Which details might add dimension and meaning to your story?
Another problem that happens with worldbuilding that you can solve in the editing phase is the infodump, when too much data about the world or some aspect of it is dropped into the manuscript. Big blocks of backstory and paragraphs about how things work may be interesting and relevant, but providing too much all at once is like a firehose that pushes the reader out of the story, diminishes the tension, and can sometimes feel boring. It’s hard to hear this because chances are excited about the world you’ve built. It has occupied you for days, months, and maybe years. You want to share this labor of love with the reader.
I’m a history buff, so it makes sense that I would be interested in the backstory for The Lord of the Rings. But that doesn’t make all of what’s included in The Silmarillion relevant or necessary to the story. It works (for some readers) because it’s touted as a fictional history of Middle Earth. I didn’t expect it to be a seamless story experience. (Incidentally, though I underwrite the visual aspects of my story, I tend to overwrite—or infodump—explanations about why things happen, so it’s not an all-or-nothing thing.)
To avoid infodumps, think about the facts that the reader must know for each scene in the story and be creative in how you impart the information. Anything that is not relevant to what’s happening now (or the planting of a seed for later) should be cut or saved for later. After you’ve determined what needs to be included, weave the details into the story. Let your characters reveal backstory and exposition through dialogue or action. Take advantage of sidekicks or mentors; they can ask great questions or deliver pithy explanations. Beware of the tendency to over explain. Let your reader draw conclusions and feel smart for figuring things out.
Your Mission for the Week
Learning new aspects of the craft of writing is so beneficial, and I want to help you apply these lessons to your stories. So, I’ll include a special task to help you experiment with the topics you learn about on The Book Editor Show. This week, I want you to review your worldbuilding.
Read through your manuscript to assess how you’ve created the world where your story takes place. Check for instances of underwriting and infodumping. Consider whether your setting choices make sense and if you’ve been consistent throughout the story. Flag problem areas so that you can fix them later.
Take notes on what you find. Even if you’re not writing a series, keep track of the decisions you make, the aspects of the world you tend to focus on, and which facets you tend to miss. In part, this is to help you with your present story. But the real goal here is long-term. I want you to record your obsessions, the things you keep coming back to, and what you avoid or resist. Noticing and understanding these things will tell you a lot about yourself as a writer and help you improve your craft. Knowing that I underwrite visual parts of the story and that I am obsessed with making sense of why things happen is invaluable information to me as I edit my stories.
Please let us know how it goes. What did you take away from this exercise? How will you use this information to make your story better? Leave a comment and tell us what you’ve discovered.