I had a little adventure this weekend! I had the awesome opportunity to fly out to Fresno, CA for a great little convention called ZappCon. I’m still working through some of the awesome of the trip, but I’m feeling over my jet lag enough to address one of the happenings today.
On Sunday, I had a Q&A session with a small group of folks about world building in fiction. At first, I wasn’t really sure I was overly qualified to speak on such a topic (or anything, really, LOL), but there were some excellent questions raised that maybe others are curious about, in as far as my opinion on them exists.
The description of the panel was mostly to do with details in fiction, like how much is too much, when to give a little more, etc, but the discussion itself ranged more widely, which was a good thing, I think. I talked a little about some tips and tricks I use that other writers might find helpful, and I tried to be encouraging to the budding creatives that had come to hear what I had to say. So now, I’d like to pass some of that on to you.
To address the main question (how much is too much detail?), I gave a sort of non-answer answer. The question of how much detail a fictional world needs is very often defined by genre. For example: High Fantasy and hard Science Fiction readers are likely to expect a massive amount of world detail, thanks to expectations set by the likes of Tolkien, BUT, there’s another reason for needing a little more there. When you’re writing in a non-contemporary setting, you face the challenge of introducing the world as you would a character. In contemporary works, there’s no need to describe how humans came to be or various technology, because readers are already familiar with them. Cell phones, cars, air conditioning, heated water… these are all things readers know and take as given. So, say you’re talking about exploring an alien planet, that requires at least some level of explanation about the environment and the equipment needed for going there. Does the atmosphere contain oxygen? Is the gravity different? Can you eat the plants and drink the water? Is there a need for weapons? These are all basic questions that you, as the writer, should know the answer to, but whether or not you address them in the prose is another matter entirely. To help with figuring that out, I offer this…
Show the world through a character’s eyes. Presenting readers with a laundry list of descriptions will result in skimming on the reader’s part. Explaining things as a character takes note of them, interacts with them, reacts to them… those are ways to express to the audience how they should feel about the world they’re reading about and the things in it, rather than just throwing it all up there for interpretation. Readers become more engaged with emotion than with nebulous detail. A brief example of what I mean:
“Thick curtains enclosed the room in darkness.”
“The drawn curtains immediately set Jack on edge. Every deep shadow held the threat of something lurking within, ready to strike.”
So, what tells you more about the room? Saying the room is dark leaves the reader open to feel about it any way they want. Perhaps closed curtains give a sense of safety, or reprieve, or calm, or of hiding away. By showing the setting through a character’s eyes, the reader knows how to feel about where Jack is and what might be coming. Not only does it describe the world, but also sets the tone. Descriptions shouldn’t be boring lists of what and where and who, and too often writers neglect the other function they can have. That’s sort of why I can’t read Tolkien. I probably lost massive nerd cred in that admission, but that’s my truth. LOL
Using description in that way also mitigates having to decide what to do if you have a less-than-genius character narrating the scene. By giving setting through how a character feels about the world around them, you don’t have to tackle problems like “how can I give detail about these zombie nano-bugs if Chuck doesn’t know their scientific properties?”. If Chuck doesn’t know, maybe Chuck is curious enough to ask someone who does (if he has a reason for wanting to know). Or, if Chuck doesn’t know, but it also doesn’t affect him, you may have stumbled on an easy way to judge whether or not you need that particular detail within the confines of your story. Shoehorning in information that is incongruous to the character’s level of intelligence or interest is a good way of determining what you need to include. You know the phrase “kill your darlings”? Well, that doesn’t only apply to characters, but sometimes to those details especially dear to you. If you find yourself sobbing over having to cut out your lengthy explanation of how slime molds evolved to self-aware invaders of the galaxy, perhaps save it for a promotional blog post or reader extras in the back of your book. The point is, you have to make a reader care about these details, otherwise there’s no point to including them in the story.
I was asked a few questions regarding how I go about world building, but my answer comes with a YMMV warning. This is the method that works for me, but would drive another writer crazy.
I do a thing I call “organic plotting.” This basically entails me sitting down to start my first draft, writing until I get stuck, brainstorming, then making a list of remaining plot points (which are subject to change and often do). I do a lot of my world building during the initial burst of writing, but the details of the way the world works don’t get set in stone until I make my list. I make this list anywhere from 1,000 words in, all the way up until 50k words or later. In one of my current projects, I didn’t sit down and hammer out the world origins until I was beginning book 3 of the series, simply because it wasn’t something I needed. To be fair, when I started, it was a one-off book with no overarching series plot, but that evolved the further I went into that story. At the start of book 3, I sat down for a brainstorming session with my amazeballs editor, Jennifer Melzer, who helped me come up with the ancient origins of my high fantasy world. In writing through a character’s eyes, these details weren’t something I needed before then.
This method of organized flailing doesn’t work for a lot of people. I know many writers that construct entire volumes of story bible before they put word one into their first draft. I admire the heck out of those super organized people, but, be warned, there’s a pitfall to that method.
Planning is great, but if you spend 3 years developing plot, world structure, cultures, religions, and magic systems with no end in sight, it might be time to ask yourself what you’re waiting for. If you planned a trip to the grocery store for a year but never went, you’d probably starve. All of the meticulous notes and structuring amount to nothing at all if you don’t put your butt in the chair and start writing. You may be dwelling too much on details no one will ever need because you don’t have a story to go with it. If the story is suffering from an overload of information, set aside the notecards, maps, and spreadsheets. Don’t worry so much about needing to know every little thing before you begin.
“But what do I do if I don’t know X, Y, and Z as I’m writing?!?!”
Helpful tip time! A few years ago, I learned about two little letters that have saved my sanity on multiple occasions (hat tip to Lauren Harris). As someone who writes a lot on my phone and is terrible about taking notes and organizing things, I don’t always have access to my other pertinent manuscripts or have time to research something. In those cases, I substitute TK for the bits of data, then keep chugging along with the story.
Why TK? The letters T and K never appear together in the English language. That means every spellchecker in the world is going to give me squiggly red lines below that combo. So when it’s time to go back and fix a section, I’ve got a bright red beacon telling me exactly what I needed to fill in. The reaction of the audience at ZappCon when I gave this TK tip was a collective gasp of surprise. At least in that much, I know I helped a few folks… or maybe they were just appalled at my whimsical approach to this subject. ;)
A lot of people repeat that “just write, get it out on paper” adage, but it’s not as easy to say HOW you should do that. This is one way to keep from getting hung up on those little details. TK that sucker and plow on through. I know it’s tempting to stop mid-flow and get the info, but hitting the pause button may result in a lost train of thought and provides a window of distraction where other things creep in (like falling into black holes of Wikipedia research). It works. Trust me. TK is at least a little bit of why I’m able to put out so many books quickly. Sometimes, procrastination has its benefits.
Other questions from this panel included “how do you write so fast?” (spoiler: I don’t, I just plug away at it a little every day and on my phone every spare second), “do you intentionally include messages and morals in your writing?” (I talk a little bit about that here), as well as specific queries about projects the audience was working on. I’m always open to offering a hand up to people struggling on this mountainous climb of writing, as so many others have done for me, so I hope I was of some help to them. And I’m always open to fielding questions to folks via email or social media, so don’t be shy if you’re ever curious about something. I swear I only bite if you ask really, really nicely. ;)
So that’s about it, I think. Got some thoughts on this subject? As always, the comments are open.