The Written World

Given this week’s prompt and the potential for creating a new place, I thought a post on worldbuilding might be useful.

Worldbuilding is exactly what it sounds like: creating the space in which your story and characters operate. This includes many details, such as setting, cultural, political, and behavioral norms, and the rules that govern said space. For example, if the story takes place somewhere on Earth, readers will come into the story with some prior understanding of what can and cannot happen. However, what they will not know are details specific to your story and its world. Is your protagonist stuck in a cupboard under the stairs, or locked outside night after night by a forgetful, absent parent? Must the characters walk, or can they fly? And if this is an entirely new planet, it will come with an entirely new set of rules—which readers need to know. 

Waiting too long to reveal important details about the world can confuse and lose readers. However, on the flip side, dumping too much information is just as harmful. So how do you know if you’re getting it just right? You taste-test. Ask beta readers unfamiliar with your world to gauge what is working, and what isn’t. If your audience feels neither smothered nor clueless, you’re on the right track!

There are many things to keep in mind when worldbuilding, but here are two specific worldbuilding mistakes I often see in manuscripts that you should avoid:

  • A surplus of new terminology. No doubt your new world comes with many new concepts and ideas, and unique names for each. But this can be overdone. Only include terms imperative for the understanding of the story, and try to space them out. Remember those textbooks in school that introduced a different technical term every other sentence? Remember wanting to feed said textbooks, page by page, into your garbage disposal? Too many terms distracts readers and makes it difficult for them to digest the new words.
  • Dry, world-introducing dialogue. Dialogue is often a vehicle to reveal worldbuilding. But such dialogue can be stilted, all sense of the character speaking stripped out, and feel more like a lecture than experiencing and learning the new world alongside the character. Which means your reader might spend more time daydreaming about shredding your pages than actively reading them. This isn’t to say don’t use dialogue to reveal worldbuilding; definitely do! It is an excellent way to break up the monotony of worldbuilding paragraphs. But make sure that the dialogue reads organically, more like a conversation. Don’t forget the characters that are delivering the dialogue, and their own nuanced and personal approach to the topics they’re informing on. Try explaining your world verbally to a friend. What questions do they ask? What were they most confused about? What were they most excited about? Then model your written worldbuilding off of this conversation.

If you are creating a new place for this week’s prompt, don’t forget this is a short story. That means there is limited space to devote to worldbuilding. Don’t try to tackle the complexity of such worlds like those in Game of Thrones or Dune. One excellent collection of short stories to read for inspiration and know-how about more condensed worldbuilding is Shelley Jackson’s The Melancholy of Anatomy.

Main worldbuilding takeaway: precision, concision, and clarity are key!


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