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I'm not a fan of Tolkien's work, but it's relevant to my question, so take it as a reference point.

I love linguistics, culture, and worldbuilding, but sometimes have difficulty focusing on specific characters and events to build an engaging plot. Nobody wants to read a straight-up sociolinguistic history textbook from a fictional world, no matter how interesting that world might be.

How can I convey my world, while keeping the focus narrow enough to be compelling?

Should I just write for plot and figure out how it fits into the world as I go? I guess there can always be addenda and side materials, but I don't want them to feel retconned in; the Star Wars extended universe and prequels are good examples of worldbuilding gone horrifically out of control. I know it's often best to write sparsely and let the reader's imagination do its thing, but I guess I have trouble letting go.

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@Standback's answer is great, so I won't say more on that. I would suggest you consider reading Orson Scott Card's "How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy", which is the single best book I've read that covers this topic (along with a bunch of others). What should be of particular interest to you is the section on world building, and also the sections on "keeping exposition in its place", and "leading your reader into the strangeness, step by step". They cover a lot of what Standback mentions, and more. Definitely recommend it. –  Craig Sefton Jun 16 '11 at 8:53
    
Seconded! Great book; that's where he talks about "mileau stories". He also discusses how you can coax story ideas out of setting concepts. Good stuff. –  Standback Jun 16 '11 at 9:41
    
"Nobody wants to read a straight-up sociolinguistic history textbook from a fictional world" ask White Wolf RPG customers who have a library of World of Darkness titles about that one... seriously maybe you want to start out writing RPGs different discipline entirely but there's a big underground scene atm. –  One Monkey Jun 16 '11 at 10:07
    
@Standback - Yeah, that's right, part of his MICE quotient (milieu, idea, character, or event story). I think he gave Gulliver's Travels as an example of a milieu story. In those types of stories, the world is far more vital because it takes centre stage. Anyway ... good book, well worth it :) –  Craig Sefton Jun 16 '11 at 10:12

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

You're looking for balance, so the answer is double edged:

  • Stay compelling by avoiding drifting off on tangents; don't explain about your world where it isn't relevant to the story at hand and to the readers' interest.
  • Convey your world by choosing a structure and a plot where the elements you want to convey feature heavily. If your setting elements are crucial to the plot, then the setting itself will be compelling.

It sounds as though you're pretty clear on the necessity of not boring the reader with mere detail. I've often heard this referred to as "infodumping"; I find the term very appropriate: what you want to avoid is not information or exposition - it's presenting information or exposition in an uninteresting, non-compelling manner; it's when the reader feels like the information is being dumped upon him. So this part of the answer is simple: do not present information without a clear idea of why the scene is immediately interesting to the reader (or how you can make it so).

The second part of the answer is more subtle, and it works in the opposite direction. We don't want to provide any unnecessary information; that doesn't mean we need to discard all the non-crucial information - instead, we can make it crucial.

What you do here is identify the setting elements that you most want to convey. Then you construct the story around those elements - so that those places, characters, customs, linguistic oddities, etc. are the building blocks of your plot; the interaction between them is the central focus of the story. Don't be satisfied with simply involving these elements - setting the story in Location X will not be very effective if the story could just as easily have been set in Locations Y or Z with no real difference to the story. A character grieving over his wife might be perfectly interchangeable an engineering student who hates his advisor, if the story is about a protagonist running away from a mutant zombie. Instead, you're looking for situations and interactions that rely on the unique characteristics of your setting elements. If you can manage that, then the solution to your question falls into place - the readers will want to understand your setting, and the elements you've chosen, because they're what the story is all about.

To summarize:

  • Choose the elements you want to showcase;
  • Construct the plot (or subplot, or flavor - anything sufficiently compelling) around these elements;
  • If any of your major elements could easily be swapped for something else, then you haven't involved it deeply or uniquely enough.

You've still got a lot of work cut out for you - in order to pull off a plot relying on your unique setting details, you'll need to manage compelling exposition so the audience will understand what's going on - and not need to sit through a lecture before the action starts. But that's a lot easier to do once the details are intertwined with the plot, rather than being entirely incidental to it.

A great example of a writer who does this well is George R.R. Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire series; he's certainly constructed a complex and involved world, but he:

  • Shows it off little by little
  • Creates a wide cast of characters, each exploring different parts of the world
  • Always (well, almost always) makes the exposition immediately relevant and compelling to the plot at hand (for example, in "Hedge Knight," he describes a huge political situation and family conflict - by making the protagonist's goals dependent on watching the larger picture, and interacting with different aspects of it)

Similarly, often mystery stories are great for exposing setting - because they give the reader incentive to be interested in minute details about the setting. These details can be crucial to solving the mystery, so the reader's happy to go into investigative mode!

A last related point - Orson Scott Card refers to "the mileau story" - a story whose entire structure is a journey through the setting; things may happen along the way, but the journey itself, and the sights seen along the way, are the focus. This certainly is a structure that might be well-suited to conveying a setting, though I often feel this structure makes it hard to plot compellingly - a journey through a bunch of disjointed and practically non-interacting locations is hard to get across as a coherent, compelling whole. As examples, I'd point to Neil Gaiman's Stardust and Neverwhere; to Gulliver's Travels and Around the World in 80 Days; to The Phantom Tollboth, and probably even to Lord of the Rings itself.

Hope this is helpful :)

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Ah, I get it. I was headed down this path without seeing it quite so clearly. Thank you. –  Jon Purdy Jun 16 '11 at 8:39

Some of the problems with world building is that none of the characters in the story care about it. It's the only world they know, so they don't look at the zebras with antlers pulling sleds any more than we comment on every car that drives by. If we do comment on a car, it's because the car is different in our world view. An alien coming here might shrug at our interest in a cool, hot rod, but from his POV it's just another noisy, polluting mode of transportation.

What you need to emphasise in your story is what the characters see as unusual. It makes it rather difficult to let the readers know what the characters just accept and not notice. What would you think of a story that starts off with the main character getting out of bed, putting his slippers, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, rinsing his mouth...etc. It's all true, but who cares? Only touch on the items that really make a difference in the story...to the characters, not the readers.

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Just another quick point to add to the already excellent answers.

I've been known to develop really in-depth worlds as well, and it can be hard to step away and only use the parts you need for a particular plot/story. However. The thing that always helps me come to terms with it a bit more, and a way around having done all that research and planning without using it directly, is to go ahead and make multiple stories within the same world.

Think about it, if you've created the world already and there are huge cultures, towns, cities, languages and philosophies built up around it into a rich tapestry wouldn't it be fun to reveal it slowly from different angles in different places. Discovery is a huge part of fiction and enjoyment, share a bit of that excitement with your readers.

Without going overboard in any one story; I agree with the others, its better to delete, edit and chop 'extra' information.

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Very good point. Look at Discworld, or all of Stephen King. It does seem much better to tell many well-worked stories in the same world than a monolithic one that covers everything. –  Jon Purdy Jul 8 '11 at 15:24
    
I didn't think of Discworld when I wrote this, but I should have. Love what Pratchett's done and I've yet to read a single book of his I disliked. –  Heather Craik Jul 8 '11 at 20:20

The same problem applies to writers who wear their research on their sleeve. Did you ever read a novel and realize that half of it could have been pared away, that half the book was unnecessary scenes were the writer just wanted the reader to know all this cool stuff thei found out? (Cough Neal Stephenson cough)

World-building is similar to research in one way: It's hard throw away backstory you worked hard on, whether you dug it up or invented it.

It's easy to say that, when writing, you need to keep in mind that every word you write has to be in the service of the story. It's also easy to say that you should ask yourself if the characters would really do these things you describe.

A lot of it comes down to experience, but a lot of it is learning how to edit your work later on. Put the work aside for a few days and then re-read it, deleting anything at all that says "Look at me, I did research!" "No, look at me, I invented a whole world! It's so detailed!"

Delete viciously. Does a paragraph or a word not help advance the story? Delete it. Are there a hundred pages that are clever and fun but don't advance the plot? Get rid of them. Maybe they can be another book later on, but they don't belong in this one.

Eventually, you may develop a little voice that lets you get it right on the first draft. Until that point: write, edit, repeat until you abandon the work. Next story!

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