Don’t fall into the world building trap of the never-ending punch-list of things you need to detail. “Oh, I just need to flesh-out the Purple Widget People that live on the eastern shores of Avoiding mystery Island.” How do you know when it’s time to stop writing the background and start telling the story?
Last time we dug into Atlas’ Tool Box we talked about Where to Begin, and we said, with world building, we should begin where the story begins. Does that mean we should end where the story ends? No. What it means is we should end once we have all the elements the story needs in order to be told. The trap that leads us into is that many writers have no idea what their complete tale looks like, let alone where to stop world building. To answer both the questions of where to stop world building and what does the story need to be told, we need to make sure we don’t let world building become a substitute for writing our story first.
Don’t let world building become a substitute for writing your story
, CC BY-SA 4.0, LinkThis is a problem more for Pantsers than Plotters. In the world of writing by the seat of your pants, it’s just plain fun to let your pen wander after the Main Character, wherever he or she goes. The writer essentially becomes the first reader of where the story goes, and that’s fun, but it’s also a trap because there’s no story there. Oh sure, there’s exploring and good times, but what is the point or the objective? For the Pantser to ensure they know where to stop world building, they just need to detail one little item; where does this story end? What is the point of this tale? Figure that out and you can then figure out what the world needs to add complete depth and feeling to your tale.
For the Plotter, where the story is going is no question at all. Once the outline is done, the story is complete in its skeletal form. Now it just needs flesh on its bones. For the Plotter the outline becomes the guide for all the things the world needs in order to be complete. The Plotter only needs to walk down the outline with another piece of paper handy, taking notes on the things the outline indicates need to be fleshed out in the world before the story gets there. The danger to the Plotter is that we often just start writing the story now that we’ve finished the task of assembling the skeleton, and make up the world as we go. The Plotter’s risk of the dreaded Writer’s Block comes when he or she has already painted the lobby of the hotel a nice neutral earth tone two chapters ago, but now they need it to be a garish yellow hue because they’re stuck on the word garish. A more egregious example would be our gumshoe getting captured by the villain (they always get captured at some point) and needing a way out of that backroom their being held in…in the villain’s lair…filled with henchmen…in the heart of Bad Guy territory…wounded. You get the picture.
In both cases world building can become a feel-good drug that is easy to perform, simple to start, and complete in manageable chunks. The quick pop of success in world building can keep a writer from tackling the difficult part of getting started on the story. If you know what your story needs from its world, you will know when to stop world building and start telling your tale. But how do you know where those details inside the manageable chunks need to end?
If the gumshoe is going to the police precinct downtown, do you really need to know where every single falafel stand is or just the one he catches a whiff of as he passes by? Do you need to know what every business is on his route also, or just the seamstress’ shop and the full glass fronted five and dime with the chocolate hand print smeared on the glass, that sandwiches the dilapidated second-hand store you’re going to foreshadow as he walks by?
Move through each scene in your head before you write it. Envision the world from the point of view of the character you’re writing. This is where the five senses we discussed last time come into play. What is the most dominant thing in this scene that catches the POV first from your character’s perspective? What comes next? What things do these dominant impressions overshadow or blot out that might unconsciously jar your reader from the scene you’re painting in their mind’s eye?
Knowing what the scene looks like from the point of view of the character in whose head you want the reader to be helps to crystallize the details needed. If you know only the things your character can see, touch, feel, smell, and hear, you’ll have a really good idea of all the details that the reader needs to know. Doing this step can help you avoid another pitfall writers have great trouble with, and that is the info dump.
Much of world building is only cool to the writer
“But I really want to tell them about the cool microbial life-cycle in the fish the Purple Widget People eat that makes them purple!” Yes, you fleshed it out and have an entire eco system based on this one fish, how it changes the skin color of those who eat it, can be used to dye cloth, and when used as fertilizer causes the purple mango to grow, well, purple. What does that have to do with the McGuffin the gumshoe is tracking down? If the answer is nothing, then cut out the two and a half pages you just wrote about how McDetective is marveling at the split purple mango sitting in the purple cloth and wondering if the purple juice is what stains the cloth purple or if there’s something else? This feature is only cool to you because you are a micro-biologist who can put a room to sleep in sixty seconds discussing the mating habits of certain mutated protozoan (no I don’t care how protozoa mate — it’s just illustrative to my point. Work with me here!).
This is a problem for both Pantsers and Plotters. The Pantser has a tendency to drift into Info Dumping because he or she needs the world to reflect something for the story. The Plotter ends up here because they haven’t truly fleshed out the world as well as they have the story, and again gets side tracked with the details. In both cases the writer ends up going down the rabbit hole because the subject is easy to write, cool to write because we like it, and feels like progress. The easiest way to catch this happening is when you discover the details just keep coming and coming. At that point it’s a good idea to quickly review the scene and ask the age-old question, “Does this advance my story?” If the answer is no, then back up, delete, and resume.
Whether Pantser or Plotter, the beginning of your story can also help you know where to end your world building, or at least where to end it for that scene. Likewise, walking through each scene in your head or through the outline will reveal only the details needed to fully flesh out each point in the story. Be sure not to get sucked down the rabbit hole of the dreaded info dump, because your editor is just going to cut that piece anyway (mine laughed maniacally when he read this sentence).
These three tips are not the only ways to know when to stop world building. Where you stop is up to you, but make sure you stop. The reader generally speaking is never going to see all the details of your world, nor should they. Those details are what makes each writer’s world his or her own and is the coolest part of being a writer. While our readers are immersed in what we write, only we know the real secrets behind the things that make that world tick. Besides, if you let it all out of the bag when you tell the story, what would you have to talk about at conventions when your fans ask you questions?
Check back next month with Atlas’ Tool Box and we’ll talk about how to stay consistent in your world building, so that the world you build doesn’t become a distraction from the oh so much more entertaining story you’re trying to tell.
Mark Malcolm is a child of God, husband, father, project manager, technical writer, gamer, fiction writer, Marine (’87-’91), has practiced Shao Lin Kung Fu and Tai Chi, been published in magazines and newspapers (editorial anyway), and seen the Southern Cross.
The goals he has currently are to more accurately identify the path God has for him to walk, continue to provide for his family, establish a solid web presence, build a career writing novels through both traditional and independent publishing, and learn to better relate to the people around him.
Mark Currently has his first book out Guardians of the Herald: Angels and Demons on sale from his website where you can get an autographed copy plus short story here: http://www.firstchevalier.com/product/guardians-of-the-herald-angels-and-demons-2/.
Offers structure and content critiquing services: http://www.firstchevalier.com/the-cavliers-sword/fiction-critiquing-services-by-the-cavalier-mark-malcolm/