Six impossible things

Obsessive overbuilding

The flip side of forgetting about the implications of all the things one puts into one’s worldbuilding is becoming obsessed with getting every detail just so.  It  is a great way not to produce a lot of finished writing.

Overbuilding an imaginary world is a problem that is closely related to over-researching. They have similar pitfalls both before and during the writing process: there’s the tendency to get so caught up in researching/inventing details that one keeps putting off the actual writing (in extreme cases, this results in the person abandoning writing altogether, and taking up worldbuilding/researching as a hobby); and then there’s the tendency to try to pack all of the research/invention into the story (also known as “but I can’t waste all that work!” and “I suffered for my art (doing all this research); now, Dear Reader, it’s your turn…”).

It is, of course, a truism that the writer knows more about the world, its history, and the background and backstory of the characters, than ever gets into the story. The thing that seldom comes up is the fact that when the writer knows it and how much the writer knows are things that vary from writer to writer and book to book. The most extreme examples at either end of the scale are those writers who sit down in front of a blank screen and make it all up as they go along, and those other writers like J.R.R. Tolkein, who spent somewhere between forty and sixty years developing the world of The Lord of the Rings.

In between are the rest of us, varying from one end of the scale to the other in terms of how much worldbuilding we need to do before, during, and after writing a story. Yes, after – it’s not unusual for a book to require more worldbuilding to resolve plot-and-consistency problems discovered during the rewrite, and it is exceedingly common to need more worldbuilding when one is writing more than one book using the same setting. I made up steam dragons, daybats, spectral bears, and swarming weasels for Thirteenth Child, but I didn’t nail down the entirety of the magical ecology of the Western plains and the Rocky Mountains. So there are a lot of new critters in Across the Great Barrier that I didn’t know existed until I needed to mention them, even though I’d already written an entire novel in that world. I still don’t really know anything about the magical ecology of South Columbia, Aphrika, Avrupa, etc. I know it’s there, and that it’s different from the ecology of the part of North Columbia I’m dealing with in the books,  but I don’t need to know the details unless and until they come up in the story.

On the other hand, I know way more about cinderdwellers and steam dragons and assorted other things than has made it into either of the books I’ve written so far (and it doesn’t look like getting into the new one, either). Some if it is written down; some isn’t. This pattern holds for everything, from the politics and history of my world(s), to cultures and customs, to things about the family: some of it is written out, some of it is still just in my head. I also do not require myself to stick strictly to every worldbuilding decision I’ve made – as my friend Lois says, “A writer should always reserve the right to have a better idea.” There are always a few things that are non-negotiable, but most things, I’m not stuck with until I’ve used them in the story, and sometimes, not even then.

I work this way because it suits the way my imagination handles things. I require a basic framework for my background, but it can’t be too detailed. Without the basic framework, I go into choice paralysis – I could have any kind of setting, background, history, without limit, and my brain seizes up at the prospect. If the framework is too detailed, though – if I’ve made the mistake of trying to work out an entire imaginary encyclopedia of background – then I start feeling constrained and tied down. Too much detail, for me, makes it feel as if I were writing real-life mimetic fiction, without enough freedom to make up the stuff I want.

That closed-in feeling – the sense that you have to check every other noun against your encyclopedia to make sure you’re being consistent with all that background that isn’t even in the story – is the surest indication I know that the writer has produced more background in more detail than they really need in order to get on with the story. And that itchy point will be at a different level of background information for every writer. Some folks need a three-inch ring binder full of notes on everything from weather to favorite foods to different cultures; others get twitchy if they have more than a few key facts tied down before they start writing.

The trouble is that the itch doesn’t show up while you’re doing the advance worldbuilding; it only shows up once you start to write, and by then it’s almost too late. There are a few other signs of overbuilding a world; one of them is creating Tolkein-esque mountains of material that you find boring to read through. The whole point of writing down aspects of your worldbuilding, for a writer, is so you can write the book without forgetting key points or ending up with major inconsistencies. “Enough worldbuilding” equals “however much YOU need to have in order for the book to be coherent, believable, and consistent.” Whether your background notes are in the form of a glossary, an encyclopedia, a tiddlywiki, a single page of bullet points, or whatever – if they aren’t useful and accessible to you, while you are writing, there’s not much point in having them.

Doing a lot of worldbuilding in advance is not a requirement for writing a fantasy/SF novel. It’s one possible way of getting to the desired end, which is to have a believable portrayal of a world in one’s novel. Whichever way you work – doing it in advance, or making it up as you go – if the result isn’t coherent and consistent and believable without interrupting the story, you have a problem. Ultimately, the solution is yours to figure out, because your solution is going to have to work for your particular brain and writing process. It is, however, a good bet that if you have such a problem, the solution is unlikely to be “do more of whatever you were doing that got you into the problem.”

If what you are doing isn’t working, try something else.

  1. I used to not bother with any kind of research or world-building, being the making-it-up-as-I-go-along type. Then I realized that I was never getting more than halfway through a project without getting stuck, or without having to go back and change half of what I’d already written. Either that, or I was creating a world completely void of details.

    So now, naturally, I fall into the over-researching category. I am a bit of a history/anthropology buff anyway, and I find it far too easy to get so caught up in studying different cultures and then creating my world, that by the time I get around to writing the story, it’s lost much of its magic for me.

    It’s all about balance, really – which is the hardest thing to find, both in writing and in life!

  2. I usually do a chunk of worldbuilding before, to get me my framework, and more during and after. But I am currently paused roughly 70K words into an attack story, because I really couldn’t get any further without some global-scale worldbuilding — and I hadn’t done any before hand, like I usually do. I hadn’t meant to start on this story yet — it’s listed in my queue with a “estimated start of writing” date in 2013. :oops!:

  3. Thanks for this post. I like how you point out that world building is a balancing act -because it really is. I love the discovery of details that I make up as I go along (like what sorts of pictures are on the money) but I’m easily distracted by back-story and myths, which tend to stop my story dead while I rush to work them out. I’ll have to remember to go easy there, for the sake of actually finishing my projects. 🙂

  4. LIke everything else I end up doing most of my worldbuilding in the revisions. I start with a couple principles about how the world works, an atmosphere i want to project, and six completely disconnected locations, write two hundred pages, and then realize that i need to get rid of half the principles, that the atmosphere is really boring, and that the three different maps I’ve drawn are all wrong and completely useless because geography doesn’t work that way here anyways.
    I’m really not sure if this is the best way to go about this, but at least it saves me from the DnD inspired pain in the neck of labeling and diagraming every house in every thorpe in existence, and then hating every single piece of world that i’ve developed.

  5. Alas, I am so guilty of over-researching. Even looking up words in the dictionary had pitfalls for me growing up: I’d spend more time reading the other words than actually finding the one I was looking for. What I’ve learned is that sometimes you want know what to reserch until you write, and that all the preresearch you did may not actually match what the characters want to do. Sometimes, too, you should just fake it for the moment and look things up later during revision.

  6. I discovered the perfect balance of world building and improvisation through your “Before the Beginning” post. You mentioned that for writers who worked from the inside out, the starting idea is like a seed. Well, I kinda ran with that and ended up making a massive illustrated… well, tree. I drew my basic premise into a seed and gave it roots (the basic chapter structures), and a trunk (the plot overview), and branches and leaves covered in notes about characters and events.

    I found that this way helped me discover exactly where my holes were and forced me to invent rules on the go … which has always been my biggest problem. I have never questioned my worlds and how they work, so my stories have never been complete. Especially in this case, where the world means EVERYTHING to the story, I have FINALLY discovered a way to get it done 🙂

    • Louise – The other problem is that the balance point keeps changing! The best thing I’ve found is to concentrate on the goal – writing a believable story – and on learning what the balance point feels like (instead of on where it is). If I know what it feels like, I can identify it when I run into it in a different spot next time.

      Michelle Bottorff – The good part about getting 70,000 words and then having to stop to do worldbuilding is that you presumably have some considerable internal pressure to keep going, which will help with the not-overbuilding thing. The bad part is that stopping can make it hard to get started again, even if you HAVE to stop. Either way, there’s a lot to be said for being two years ahead of schedule!

      Chicory – Your other alternative is to come up with a story which requires your myths and legends as a vital part of the story itself, so that you can use a bunch of them in the story. This is a lot harder than it sounds, though.

      Cara – Sounds a lot like the way I approach plotting! 🙂

      Michelle Wood – I pepper my rough draft with square brackets [], because that way I don’t have to slow down to make a note of whatever I’ve discovered I need to look up. I don’t use square brackets for anything else, so it’s easy to do a search on “[” and find the things I wanted to look up later.

      Kaitlin – Congratulations, and welcome to the wonderful world of worldbuilding… 😉

      Gray – My maps get fuzzier and fuzzier the further out they go from wherever my characters are running around. Worlds are big places, and I don’t need to know the layout of the streets of Bejing or Sydney if my characters are never going to travel there…and if I don’t need to know it, I really don’t need to make it up in advance. Some of it is fun to do anyway, but it helps to recognize when I’m straying over into “hobby worldbuilding” (as opposed to the kind I really need to do to get the story right), and when I need to leave “holes” in the worldbuilding so that I still have choices to make while I’m writing.

  7. Guilty as charged. The other trouble with obsessive overbuilding, at least for me, is that sometimes it leaves no room for that crowning element which would make the whole edifice complete.

    I’m also reminded of Tolkien’s remarks about the borders of maps or pictures of Faerie being like the frames of a painting, not the edge of a photograph. For the world to live while I’m making it, the borders ought to remain ragged, and many of the ‘Here be Dragons’ signs need to signify more than Smaug’s billing address. This took me rather longer to figure out than it needed to!

  8. I like the idea of putting in brackets the parts you need to look up. I will probably try it for some of the small parts of my story, in the future!

    (It is probably a good thing that I had not read this post before I finished my last chapter, because otherwise I would be very tempted to put almost all of it in brackets. Just because I do not know what order the courses in a royal banquet are does not mean that I can just make it all up! 🙂 )

  9. This is not a problem I see myself ever having. All through all my levels of school, the comments were: well-written but could have used more research.

    I hate research. It bores me, intensely. I’d rather make it up as I go along.

    Plus I’ve always found that the more world-building I do the less interested in the story I get.

    In my current WIP I’m forcing myself to not go back and rewrite but to adapt to the creative surprises in the world that come up in a scene and figure out the implications for the MC and for the plot.

    I suppose you could call it the “just in time” world-building method. 😉

    • Alex – No, you aren’t likely to fall victim to this kind of overbuilding, though you may want to take a step back from the story every now and then to look at the details you’ve got and how they fit together and what the implications are. Just-in-time worldbuilding needs a good memory (or a really good system of taking notes) and a solid feel for the world in order to maintain consistency and keep track of the implications, but people who do it really like the freedom of making it up as they go.

  10. Oh no, you’re going to forewarn me about this, too??? Rats. I’m starting to think everyone is going to tell me I’m going too far.

    I have many concrete goals that I want to achieve before I write my first book in the series I am writing, so I like to believe that I’m not overdoing. This is probably not true (I’ve been at it for about 7-8 months now and filled several notebooks), but I enjoy the fantasy.

    One of the biggest reasons I haven’t started writing the book, though, is that I need a computer I have consistent access to. For that, I need a a job, and since I was laid off I haven’t been able to get another. I’ve flirted with the idea of just using pen and paper BUT I have this very bad habit of keeping things horribly brief if I write on paper, not putting in enough detail and making things sound vague (I have this funny habit of believing that somehow the reader can just read my mind telepathically). I do better with a computer.

    So, since no consistent computer access (use a shared computer sometimes, maybe once a month, and a smart phone for rest of internet research), I decided I was going to do extensive worldbuilding on paper using list format until I could get one. I’ve been doing pretty well so far, and am now outlining the myths and legends of my world. I’ve already outlined the first 7 books in the series, chapter by chapter, and know which legends will come into play in the story.

    I have fallen in love with worldbuilding. I know I’m doing too much but I just can’t help it. Do they have an anonymous, 7-step program I can sign up with for help? WBA (World-Builders Anonymous), maybe?

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,