Six impossible things

Icebergs and soap bubbles

Worldbuilding is one of those basic skills that’s important for all writers, but vital for those of us who write in totally imaginary science fictional or fantasy worlds. There are two basic approaches, the soap bubble and the iceberg.

For the iceberg worldbuilders, there’s a whole lot of information underlying the stuff that actually gets into the story. What the reader sees is the 10% of the iceberg that sticks out of the water, but the writer has come up with a ton of supplementary supporting detail – politics, maps, languages, music, clothing design, law, culture and customs, and on and on. All this gives the imaginary world a tremendous solidity and consistency, because the writer has all this stuff to draw on…and the writers who do this usually spend an enormous amount of time researching and doing their best to make sure that everything ties together.

One such writer I know took advantage of living near a university to get input on his design. He started with the astronomy department, where he found an interested grad student who helped out with designing the star system, other planets and moons, and the composition of the planet’s crust. Then he went to the geology department, where he figured out the tectonic plates and mineral deposits; geography for mountains, lakes and rivers; agriculture for crops, and so on. As I recall, he ran aground in the climatology department – they were happy to point out basic climate zones, but when he asked about weather, they said “We don’t know enough; just make it up.”

Soap-bubble worldbuilders take a different approach. They’re all about illusion – they invent broad swath of interesting detail that’s shiny, hangs together, and implies a lot of history and culture and so on, but which has no more substance behind it than the air that fills a soap bubble. Everything is consistent and plausible on the surface, but surface is all that’s really there.

The advantage of the soap-bubble method is that there’s lots of room to make up useful background whenever the story happens to need it. The disadvantage is that the writer has to fit any new information in around whatever has already been established, or risk the reader losing their suspension of disbelief.

Note that soap-bubble worldbuilders are not necessarily just making things up as they go along. All the ones I know invent quite a lot of their settings before they ever start writing; they just aren’t going into nearly as much depth as the iceberg worldbuilders. What they all seem to have in common is a strong sense of what their setting is like. They will make up a really cool detail and then sigh and say “Yes, it’s cool, but it doesn’t belong in this world” even if there is nothing specific in their worldbuilding-to-date that would make that detail not-work. Sometimes, writers who absolutely cannot do any pre-planning in regard to plot or characters can quite happily do extensive worldbuilding in advance of sitting down to write.

When soap-bubble worldbuilders write long, multi-book series, either their worldbuilding starts to break down, or they become inadvertent iceberg worldbuilders as they accumulate more and more background that doesn’t actually need to be put in the next book. It’s very difficult to keep track of all the random details one has to make up for even one novel, even if one already has a lot of underwater background; it gets harder and harder as a series progresses. It’s easy to overload the soap bubble – to give just one or two bits of information that don’t quite fit with what’s already been said, so that the whole structure collapses. It’s the equivalent of blowing a little too much air into the bubble and popping it.

Iceberg worldbuilders have an easier time going on for multiple books without the worldbuilding collapsing, though if there was an unnoticed flaw in the initial underlying structure, it’s likely to be stressed under the weight of carrying more and more novels, until it either melts down or fractures. It is extremely difficult, in my experience, to come up with a fix for a worldbuilding mistake that will work retroactively, though it can sometimes be done.

The good news is that anyone who has a five or seven or ten-book series almost certainly has enough rabid fans to keep things going for quite a while longer, even if the worldbuilding is starting to show signs of problems. The bad news is that a writer whose worldbuilding is starting to break down is likely to be really bothered by it, to the point of having difficulty continuing (unless the writer really doesn’t care about consistency and believability at that level, in which case the breakdown probably occurs sooner rather than later because the writer didn’t put any effort into worldbuilding in the first place).

Whatever method one prefers, it’s well worth putting time into worldbuilding. Holes in the setting/world often translate into holes in the plot, and if the background is recognizable (i.e., real or based closely on somewhere/somewhen real), holes in the worldbuilding frequently mean that anyone familiar with that time/place will reject the story as implausible or unrealistic even if the story is a complete fantasy. Maintaining the reader’s belief in the story is important to every kind of fiction; consistent and believable backgrounds are a key ingredient in doing that.

15 Comments
  1. Love the metaphor!

    I suspect there’s a spectrum even here. I follow the iceberg persuasion for “politics, maps, languages, music, clothing design, law, culture and customs,” which I create mostly in advance.

    And a modified iceberg protocol when my story introduces a new culture, which happens because I’ve deliberately left some “here be dragons” regions at the edges of my map. Then I pause and build enough of that culture for the story I’m telling.

    Or, one could call that a modified soap bubble protocol, I suppose, since it occurs mid-story, and isn’t as extensive as the foundation world building done before I started the story.

    My history, however, is decidedly a soap bubble. And I think I know why. History is basically a story of what happened through time. As a storyteller, I use only the sketchiest of outlines and discover the heart of the story as I write it. Some is necessary for me, but extensive planning kills the story dead.

    It would be the same for the history of my world.

    So what I have is a very sketchy idea of what happened over the 2000 years preceding the time period in which I’m telling my stories (they’re all in the same world so far). And I fill in on the fly as I go.

    One thing that really intrigues me is how I find stories from different time periods arriving. Troll-magic, The Troll’s Belt, and Perilous Chance all take place in the same time period. Rainbow’s Lodestone, Star-drake, and a to-be-written trilogy transpire roughly 100 years before them. A story currently in revisions takes place 2000 years before Troll-magic, while my WIP is roughly 500 years before the WIP.

    I never guessed I would travel back in time like this when I started the whole process. What happens is that I write a story, and then a detail mentioned in it fascinates me. I become intensely curious about it and want to know more. What really happened? Why is it remembered differently by a later culture? Who was the prime actor and why did he or she chose what he or she chose? The next thing I know…an entire story is begging to be written. And I’m having so much fun as I explore!

  2. I probably do more of the soap bubbles, but even though I write fantasy, I definitely know what doesn’t belong in my world. I wrote a scene where a corset would have been a great prop, but knew it wouldn’t exist in that setting, so I had to delete that idea.

  3. Put me down as a confirmed soap-bubbler. (Gosh, that sounds so… bubbly.) And yes, there is a bit of an iceberg building, as I spend more and more time in this universe and random stuff, er, bubbles up to the top of my brain.

    The trick to getting away with it is notes. Lots and lots of notes, and all organized in the same place for easy reference. Still working on that “same place” part.

    @J.M. – I do the same thing with small details burgeoning into stories of their own. I’m always startled when a just-for-fun reference sticks its head up and brings a story-scenario with it, although by now it’s happened enough that I oughtn’t to be.

  4. @LizV – I love it when that happens! I think I’m surprised because it isn’t under my conscious control. But it is delightful.

    In a story I wrote over a year ago, Rainbow’s Lodestone, I made this mention: “…before that island kingdom sank beneath the waves, four artifacts preserved by the renegade Palijon Clisto who fled the disaster…”

    And this spring I found myself writing Palijon’s story! Although not from his point of view. Being a writer is more fun than seems fair!

    Good point on the notes, though. I often refer to my foundation notes, but no matter how many I take while writing a story, I inevitably must search through an actual story file to find some necessary detail for WIP. ::shakes head::

  5. It sounds like the contacts in that climatology department were just lazy. Given a set of land masses with elevations and an axial tilt to a world with a known distance from its sun, determining overall weather patterns is not a difficult proposition. Knowing weather day-to-day would be difficult (as attested to by the poor record of forecasters on Earth), but climate zones and general trends for a given season — no problem.

  6. I seem to be midway on the spectrum myself with my going lightly into a level more of detail than is directly used.

    When I was in Toastmasters International, I would plan my speeches, but I did not write them down (except in one case where that was a requirement). I would have threads that I wanted to deal with. When it came time to give the speech, I decided on the fly how to combine them. This can be useful if you want to refer to a member of the audience whom you are not sure if he will be there or if you want to respond to how the audience is.

    I got _Talking to Dragons_ on Friday. It did not last a day. I had it read yesterday. A good read.

  7. Iceberg. But with the exception of languages, I do this stuff in my head. In stories. The stuff that survives a couple years of percolating and continues working makes it into written work.

  8. Soap bubble.

    I recommend reading a lot of primary source and other history to get a feel in your bones for how societies fit together, so you have an instinct to guide the selection.

    I also note that the iceberg method tends to result in worlds that are less — wacky. Sticking a flourishing oak tree in the middle of the desert is something that can inspire a flight of fancy, but icebergs do not lends themselves to such spontaneous notions.

  9. Mary, I disagree with you about spontaneity. What has to happen is that the notion has to be justified. Does it fit? If so, it is added to the iceberg. If it does not fit, maybe it can be iceberged elsewhere.

    The oak tree is surrounded by the Convenient Hills that shade it for much of the day, and it gets its water from the Convenient Oasis or Convenient Underground River near the surface. The seed fell off a wagon.

    Or maybe magic happened. Or science.

  10. Soap bubble oak tree: it’s mythical and legendary and planted in the desert.

    Iceberg oak tree: 100 years ago, [insert significant historical protag here] carried a “magical” seed (which was really an acorn preserved in agricultural nanobots) to the middle of the desert and planted it deep below the sands. He prayed over it for 20 days until it showed a sprout, then declared the place blessed, sacred, and hallowed and forbad the building of any city or edifice over it. (Though what really happened is the nanobots took one look at that desert soil and, after gettting over their shock, went to work making the place hospitable for their precious little acorn charge and dug down until they found some water for that baby.) The nearby city waters and “guards” the oak but does not build their city around it, lest they desecrate hallowed ground.

    Okay, icerberg under surface. Throw snow (details) on top on the fly.

  11. Now for a reader to crash into the iceberg.

  12. Gene, you assume the very thing I often note is missing: justification is secondary, because actually thinking of it and throwing it in is primary. Once you posit the oak, the iceberg writer can work, but you do have to posit it.

    Also, the iceberg writer has far more temptation to throw it to avoid clutter. You can see the process in Tolkien’s writings, and despite the greater order and unity of the works, which has its own aesthetic merits, it doesn’t always work out happily, even for him.

  13. Sorry, Mary, you’re wrong. I’m a total icerberger at a level most people think I’m scary with. And positing spontaneous ideas is incredibly easy. We just then go through a lot more trouble and less handwaving then soap bubblers to make it work.

  14. Idea generation/brainstorming and worlbuilding methods are just flat out two different things.

  15. Is there such a thing as a “geode” world-builder? Starts like a soap-bubble, then accelerates the series-like accretion process via brainstorming with friends/family, to figure out the implications of the surface (and try to patch any holes discovered thusly) — possibly before a final draft makes it to anyone.

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