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Notes on Worldbuilding and Infodumps

Posted by Rache , Jan 16 2013 · 716 views

It is hardly a secret that worldbuilding is my favorite part of writing. I don't care much for plots until I've got, at the very least, a detailed map of the relevant planet's ocean currents. I won't design a single character until I know where the tallest mountain is and whether it casts a significant rain shadow. I could go on, if I had no other responsibilities, for years, figuring out how a fictional world ticks. Once the planet is done, the ecosystems come in. Here I could get lost forever, and with good reason. I'm quite likely to, with no thought for what lies ahead, devote a significant chunk of my time to figuring out the last five million or so years of the planet's natural history. Once that's done, I can figure out cultures, and then characters and plot.
So I love world-building, and put clinically insane amounts of work into it. That is, from my perspective, great.
But, I do not harbor the illusion that the average reader actually cares about where all the deserts are. They don't. They're there for the plot and the characters, and pages spent lovingly describing the world will be met with a sudden loss of interest on their part. This is not their problem to fix, as it would be pretty daft of me to expect people to not read stories for the stories.
What this really means, then, is that only the bits of the world that are relevant need to show up. The rest is all still there, of course, much as the currents of the North Atlantic are still there in a Sherlock Holmes novel, but it never needs to be mentioned. This runs quite counter to the inclinations of some writers I've run into, who appear to believe that any detail is good detail, and thus pack whatever they write with infodumps on whatever they think might be involved in some way, even - or maybe especially - if it has no relevance to the plot.
If the way your starship's engine works never enters into the plot (or, if you're making an RPG, the gameplay of the RPG), the readers don't need to hear about it. You can have it all figured out in case someone asks, sure, but don't stress out about it if you don't understand all of the tiny nuances, and don't regurgitate every detail in a vain (of the self-image variety, not so much the futility sort) attempt to show the hours of work you put into what the reader is holding in their hands. Quite apart from making you look whiny, showing your work for the sake of showing your work is a recursive, stupid activity that tends to ruin your work.

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Jan 18 2013 02:46 AM
I love worldbuilding! Most of my short stories are just cool ideas for a singular concept applied to unique worlds that I make up, and I spend endless hours fantasizing about the intricacies of how those worlds would work and figuring out solutions to problems that may arise from their often paradoxical natures. I wish there were a genre of literature dedicated to "describing fantasy worlds", which readers would pick up without the expectation of a story or even any charactersto focus on-- I would relish the opportunity to write a few books to go on that shelf ^_^

I wholeheartedly agree with your critique of theoretical over-bearing writers. Though my studies of literature, and from what I picked up from various writing courses, I have found that wordiness is almost never good, and bogging the reader down with unnecessary details get tedious and monotonous very fast, and ultimately ends up contributing little to the story. Just like you said, it's great to have the ins-and-outs of an entire world in your head, but the best way to develop it is through details given during the course of the story, and only when they're called for and relevant. Personally, being a fellow positively full of words, I do not mind in the slightest when an author decides to go into ridiculous depth to describe a world or scene; I am very patient and love such things. However, I am aware that I am one of very few such people, and that the majority of people I've encountered much prefer short, sesinct, plot-driven narratives, and that despite my forgiveness of overdone description the story itself may suffer due to it as a written work.

I used to be one of those when I was younger, a writer who wanted to show off the effort put into a written work or even an artwork, but with time I learned the value of quality over quantity, and how to effectively write stories with fewer words and with deeper meaning and emphasis. Personally, though, if I were to publish a fantastic tale with a great big thought-out world, I would keep all that content out of my story but would not be able to resist putting in a nice little history and reference of the world as a couple dozen pages in the back, tucked behind the epilogue :P
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Mmh. Myself, I would be rather inclined to publish the reference book regarding the fictional world afterwards, in a separate book, so that I can make a bit more money, ensure that anyone who gets it is rather likely to read it, and to give myself more space to work in.

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Jan 19 2013 12:51 AM

It would even be interesting to create a whole grand world and flesh it out like that, and then let other people go ahead and write awesome stories to take place in that setting and take advantage of the resource you provided ^_^

Would certainly make for interesting reads which you can appreciate so much more knowing they're taking place in a world that is yours, and would let writers get creative and populate that large world with characters from many different authors. It's an interesting concept.

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Mmh. The only real problem with that is that I don't trust other authors to do the job right.

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On the point about deciding the last five million years of the planet's history; I do much the same, but with a difference: as I go back in time I think "hey, there's some good story potential in this historical happening - I could write a prequel set in it!" over and over until the first chapter of story 1 starts to look like the grand conclusion of an era-spanning series.

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Well, when I talk about that, I mean more like geological and climatological stuff that shaped the history of the world, in addition to the world's recent evolutionary history. The stuff with proper story potential (unless I'm writing a fictional natural history piece, in which case all bets are off) doesn't really start until a little bit before the dawn of civilization on that world.

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