Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 11, 2022

Worldbuilding: the enemy of good writing?

by Janet Forbes

building a colorful world with a crane

It’s called the worldbuilding trap.

Worldbuilders disease.

In fact, it seems like worldbuilding is Public Enemy #1 amongst writers. 

But why?

Some of the biggest, best, and most memorable books - especially, but not only, books in genre fiction - are steeped in worldbuilding. And strong settings are the reason fans buy not just sequels, but lorebooks and artbooks of their favorite novels, video games and TV series. 

It’s why there are so many Lord of the Rings spinoffs. 

And dammit, it’s why I know Klingon.

Whatever your genre, your readers want to escape to the place you’ve created. They want to immerse themselves in your book, open the cover like they’re pulling the duvet over their heads, and revel in your world setting. Worldbuilding, then, is just about the most important thing for a writer, especially of genre fiction. So why do some writers seem to hate it so much?

Here’s my spicy take…. Worldbuilding gets a bad rap because authors don’t know how to handle it.

Worldbuilding has been framed

Worldbuilding in your novel is the egg in your souffle. If it’s well balanced, well-mixed, it makes everything work better. If it goes wrong, it leaves everything smelling of farts. 

And it’s particularly a problem in genre fiction. Here’s why.

As fantasy and scifi developed as genres, prologues that told you ALL about the world were common. Told. As in, the opposite of Show-Don’t-Tell.

Large, dull paragraphs of exposition-dumping (often using Butler-and-Maid style dialogue) were also common, as authors struggled to convey information about their fascinating new world settings using less-than-stellar methods.

Authors who’ve read a lot of older genre fiction, and those who are younger in their craft, often fall into these mistakes. And it makes people hate worldbuilding.

But as always, it’s clunky writing that’s the real villain here. 

Worldbuilding has been framed. 

Worldbuilding Exposition - how to get it right?

OK, so if you’re still following my metaphor, how do we remove the eggy smell from our souffle?

There are two main ways to do this. 

  1. Baking in the worldbuilding to our core elements
  2. Making sure new information is in motion, and emotional

Baking the Worldbuilding into your souffle book

Somewhere in your novel writing process, you’ll have figured out the three basic elements - setting, characters and plot. 

The trick to a strong novel is to make those things knit together beautifully. It’s time to break out my favourite saying:

“Your setting is the tapestry across which your story is told, weaving through your characters & plot.”

Janet Forbes

The reason for that eggy worldbuilding smell is usually because the setting is tacked on as an afterthought. Let’s add some pointy ears and a weird religion to this character. Yup - that’s definitely going to smell by next chapter.

Instead, use your characters and your locations as vehicles to convey the intricacies of your world.

For characters, consider building in:

  • Unique backgrounds that give insight into your wider setting
  • Taboos and morals influenced by, or in reaction to, those backgrounds
  • Interesting professions (and past professions) unique to your world
  • Associations with important organizations (universities, clans, crime syndicates)
  • Naming conventions tied into cultural or religious ideals
  • Physical expressions of their background, religion, training etc. (tattoos, weapons, clothing, piercings)
  • Idioms that have deeper cultural meanings - e.g. not room to swing a warg

For locations, consider:

  • Choosing representative locations in your setting - instead of a general store, make the scene happen in a potion shop, a cybertech garage or an exotic animals shop! 
  • Filling your location descriptions with the trappings of your world. Tapestries of ancient battles, songs of long-lost heroes in the background, or induction hyper-spanners littering the workshop. 

But also, plot is deeply steeped in setting: the organizations that act, the history that set current events in motion. Make sure you've woven all the elements of your plot from and into your setting, and your book will be tighter and stronger. 

By the way, I always recommend starting with a worldbuilding “meta” when the story is just a spark in your mind’s eye, before you get too deeply into character and plot. It definitely helps this baking-in process. 

In motion and emotional - Worldbuilding exposition done right

Exposition - that is, delivering crucial information to your readers - is necessary. It moves the story forward. Deepens the conflict. Provides stakes. 

But as I mentioned, exposition done wrong leads to that eggy smell. 

So how do you get exposition right? 

Step 1: Ask yourself - should this fact be here?

Consider if you really need to introduce the information. It might be critical if it’s:

  • important for your plot (foreshadowing!)
  • adding to the mood of the scene 
  • leading to deeper understanding of a character

If it’s not doing any of those things, see if you can remove it, or introduce it as a mood element or a detail later. If it DOES need to be there, then consider:

Step 2. How do I make my readers care about this fact?

After all, we’re writing because we want our readers to feel things. We want them to be eager for new knowledge. This is my rule for exposition of new information:

All your exposition should be in motion and emotional. 

Janet Forbes

Essentially, this is an extension of the “show-don’t-tell” principle, and should be treated with the same rules (and with the same caveats!).

Here’s an example. 

Let’s say, I need my audience to learn about the First Principle of Magic. It’s critical for the solution at the climax of my novel. How can I introduce that to my audience in a way that is in motion or emotional to my MC (main character)?

  1. In motion: MC is involved in a magical explosion, but leverages the First Principle of Magic to save another character. Essentially, involved with MC doing things.
  2. Emotional: MC is humiliated by another, who taunts them for not knowing the First Principle of Magic. A friend explains it while MC has a small meltdown that they’re out of their depth. Involved with MC feeling things. 

In both those instances, the audience has learned the First Principle of Magic. But it was through an exciting scene that gave emotional depth and action to the novel, and developed the characters, too. You can apply this to anything you like - faster-than-light travel, a societal taboo, or whatever.

That’s worldbuilding feeding into plot, feeding into character, and feeding back into worldbuilding… 

And it’s going to make you a souffle book I’m dying to devour. 

If you need help avoiding Worldbuilders Disease - i.e. compulsively building your setting instead of writing your novel - then do check out the worldbuilding “meta”. It’s a great tool for prioritizing what worldbuilding information you NEED (and avoiding the trap of worldbuilding you don’t need).

What are your tips for folding the worldbuilding into your stories?

* * * * * *

About Janet

Janet Forbes (she/her) is a published fantasy author, RPG game developer and (secretly) a velociraptor, and has been building worlds since she was knee-high to an orc. 

Janet Forbes

In 2017 she co-founded World Anvil, the award-winning worldbuilding and writing software (and tabletop RPG manager) which boasts a community of 2 million users. 

As a writer, Janet has published short fiction in several collections, was the lead author of The Dark Crystal RPG (2021) with Riverhorse Games and the Henson Company, and has also written for Infinite Black, Kobold Press and Tidebreaker. 

As a D&D performer, she has played professionally for the likes of Wizards of the Coast, Modiphius and Wyrd Games. Janet is passionate about teaching, and has given seminars on writing and other topics for Exeter University, GenCon, Dragonmeet, the Circle of Worldbuilders, Full Sail Writers Conference, PWA’s Fantasy week, and more. She holds a BA and MA in Early Music Performance, is an experienced archaeologist, and speaks 5 languages.

Top image by Deleyna via Midjourney

26 comments on “Worldbuilding: the enemy of good writing?”

  1. Wow! I love your profile Janet. How interesting is your own world.

    Thankyou for sharing your wisdom. I enjoy weaving characters’ worlds through the plot and bringing it full circle into world building.

  2. What a wonderful post. It definitely needed to be said, and will help me and others with their world building. Thank you.
    And I love your soufflé analogy.

  3. Excellent article.

    I’ve grown my own world-building organically, as my stories progress. However, I’ve known talented writers who become so obsessed with their world-building, they never sit down and write their story.

    Just (unfortunately only) a few days ago, I wrote an important dialogue scene, which I started with the key character responding to a phone call, then hurrying back to his office. Afterwards, it occurred to me how much fresher the scene felt, just adding that small action.

    Too many of my key dialogue scenes have started with everyone in the room (static), any relying on one character’s opening statement to set the tone. For the most part, I can keep my dialogue crisp, but it can be a struggle not to allow the scene become one of “talking heads,” even if I’ve given them little ‘tics’ to personalize the scene for readers.

    1. Hey J.H.!

      Thank you so much for your lovely words!

      Yes, becoming obsessed with worldbuilding (because it's super fun) is definitely a danger - we call it worldbuilders disease in my community. As a "vaccination", I always recommend using a worldbuilding meta approach to help focus efforts on what will be useful for the story!

      Setting details are definitely great for breaking up that “talking heads” issue though. Giving characters things to deal with and interact with as well as the other people in the scene can reveal hidden traits and motives, act as foreshadowing or thematic delivery, and also reveal more about the world. It's a triple whammy of writing efficiency 😉

  4. Awesome article, Janet!

    I love your saying that all exposition should be in motion and emotional. I couldn't agree more. Backstory, world-building, all that information the reader needs to understand the story works so much better when it flows naturally from the character's thoughts, actions, and emotions.

    I think I may have the opposite of world-building disease. Although I write fantasy, I tend to think in terms of character and story first, so the settings sometimes don't get as much attention as they should. It's something I need to work on as a richly realised and unique setting is so important to impart that sense of wonder that fantasy readers are looking for.

    And though I know a lot about my story world/world meta, there are large areas of uncharted territory and history that I need to fill in. I've tended to do that as I go along and as needed, but having a more fully realised world for my characters to move around in will help my story telling. So I'm slowly trying to build that world in World Anvil now - it's a fantastic resource.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and advice!

    1. Hey Becky,

      Awesome article, Janet!

      Funnily enough, although I'm obsessed with worldbuilding, the rich details are something that creep into my novels and stories later in the process. Because I plot HEAVILY, those touchy-feely details are often worked in later in, as the details of scenes emerge.

      What I always recommend it this: have a clear idea of the overarching setting (I always recommend the worldbuilding meta for this) at the start. And trust that the details which add richness to the world will be added as you spend more time viewing it through the eyes of your characters.

      After all, the world exists to your characters only as they can see, hear, feel and sense it (think John Locke and the Sensitive Knowledge theory!). So it makes sense to build the details through their eyes. If you've already though about the big structures, and you know the mood and theme you're trying to conjure, you can just riff off that, too.

      I know you'll be great. Remember, no world is built in a day 🙂

  5. This is excellent, Janet. Thank you. I really can't explain the approach any better than you do. It's about weaving in relevant facts via motion and emotion. Doing so unnaturally became easier for me to avoid when I switched to writing in Deep 3rd POV. That perspective shift made a huge difference. In other words, I can be enamored of my (extensive) worldbuilding all I want, but to my MC it's just the world she lives in. Even so, and as you say, information still has to be passed along via doing and feelings. How an airship is able to fly given the rules of the world don't matter to most people, but they matter a lot to the one character onboard who's terrified of flying.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely words, Christina! <3

      I often flip in and out of perspectives when I'm trying to wrangle worldbuilding (and then clean it up for the final draft!) I've found its a good way to make sure I'm remembering to keep the details fresh and present!

  6. I love this so much, Janet! The souffle analogy, especially pointing out that the bad egg is going to smell later, is so apt. I've done far too little worldbuilding in the past and I'm currently loving the chance to go back and make those worlds full and entertaining.

    1. Thank you so much -I think I must have been hungry when I was writing this! 😀 I also continue adding world details through all my drafts - just keep embroidering that tapestry 😛

  7. I am just about to start writing a new book and had been struggling with this exact same thing. Huh, lucky me for opening your blog at the right time. Thank you very much

  8. I used to hold true to the triad of writing; character, plot and setting. Then it dawned on me that setting is essentially an another character. In every seen the visual and tactile must speak to the reader just as any character with a heart beat does.

  9. Wonderful post and excellent advise dear Janet. Especially the part about exposition... well... the story of my life 🙂 One of the main reasons that I took a break from writing as a writer and dedicated more of my little time to world building, gamebooks (much easier at least for me) and scenario writing for rpgs.

  10. Thanks for this article, Janet! I loved that I learned AND you made me laugh. I have really enjoyed hearing Deleyna rave about World Anvil. If I wrote in a different genre, I would be there in a heartbeat.

    1. I find that interesting, Jenny, because I've been using WorldAnvil long enough to find the most amazing projects -- including NON-fiction, who use the platform.

      Take parenting, for example. While many use WorldAnvil to collect and organize their project information and share it as bonus content for readers and potential publishers, I know of a world, where a couple with a rather large family, is working on a choose-your-own-ending adventure.

      They are taking real life events and allowing readers to see what it's like to BE the parent of a lot of kids!

      I've learned that WorldAnvil isn't limited by any genre.

      You might want to consider how it could used to motivate you, your readers, or those you WANT to notice your projects. I bet you'll discover a clever and effective way to use it.=)

  11. You FORGOT to add in your credentials that you make a damn good souffle that doesn't STINK, Janet! LOL.

    Wonderful article, and I'm glad writersinthestormblog.com had you contributing your expertise to their article database. Writers need more information, and I mean the TRUTH here, about World Building.

    What I'm taking away from this for my own benefit is, "It's not always the ingredients you add to your world building, but how you put those ingredients together."

    Is that right?

  12. I'm a newcomer to World Anvil with several books whose settings need all those great worldbuilding tools.

    While I'm at it, I'm bringing aboard my other projects, too. The manuscripts feature that allows me to have all my writing in front of me is something I just can't pass up.

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