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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Guest Post: Goldilocks and the Art of Worldbuilding by Marc Turner

Everyone who reads fantasy books loves to lose themselves in a new world. It’s the ultimate form of escapism. One of the reasons I enjoy the genre so much is that you can do anything with it. A new magic system? Absolutely. An entirely new gender? Why settle for just one? Fantasy stories are limited only by the scope of the writer’s imagination.

But when it comes to worldbuilding there is, in true Goldilocks fashion, such a thing as too much or too little. And both can be fatal to a book.

This Worldbuilding Is Too Hard:

Many years ago, when I first sat down to read The Lord of the Rings, I didn’t get far. My edition (every edition?) contained a “prologue” (really a factual essay) entitled “Concerning Hobbits, and other matters”. Because it was a prologue, I thought it was required reading for the story (yes, yes, I know), so I tucked in. Among other things, I learned that Hobbits love “good tilled earth” and are “inclined to be fat”. After half a dozen pages, I’d had enough. I set the book aside and started on something more interesting. Something with, you know, a story in it.

As it turns out, that prologue wasn’t necessary for my ultimate enjoyment of the book, but it does illustrate for me the dangers of too much worldbuilding. And the problem needn’t be as extreme as the example I’ve cited above. Just recently I was reading a fantasy book that had me hooked for the first fifty pages. It had a good premise and an interesting protagonist, but the author kept putting a brake on the story to tell us this about the world or that about a character. The book lost all forward momentum, smothered by needless information.

What does “needless” mean in this context, though? How much is too much? That will vary with every reader, but generally I think a useful test is, “Can the story continue without a certain piece of information?”. If the answer is no, put it in. If the answer is yes, leave it out. In a matchup between worldbuilding and story, story should always come first. Else taken to extremes you end up not so much with a novel as with an encyclopedia about your story-world. And not many people are going to want to read that, no matter how interesting or original it is. Good worldbuilding, for me, is about working out what should be in the background, and what should be in the foreground. If you focus the reader’s attention too often on things that are not important to the story, they could become confused as to what the story is about.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan out your story-world in advance, of course. For my debut, When the Heavens Fall, I have notes on every culture and their history. Most of the information in those notes will never appear in my books, but that doesn’t mean the time I spent on them was wasted. They give me material I can drip feed into the story when it becomes relevant, and they ensure that there is a uniformity of theme to the world. What do I mean by uniformity of theme? I mean that if you’re writing, for example, a grimdark story, you’re probably not going to fill it with frolicking lambs, or invent a new language with a dozen different words for “fluffy”. I think of my notes as being the foundations on which my books are built. If instead I’d just made everything up as I went along, it would all have come crashing down sooner or later.

This Worldbuilding Is Too Soft

What about the other extreme, though? What about too little worldbuilding? I confess, when I pick up a new fantasy book, one of the first things I do is look at the map at the front. I like to get a feeling for where things are in relation to each other. Of course, you can’t judge a book by its map any more than you can judge it by its cover, but there is a certain kind of map I see sometimes that sets alarm bells ringing on the worldbuilding front. It’s the map that has a couple of settlements, an obligatory forest, river and mountain range . . . and nothing else. It might even be set on an island, with no mainland in sight. With a map like that, you could start to wonder if the author has built not so much a world as a goldfish bowl in which the entirety of the story will take place.

In When the Heavens Fall I like to give a reader the sense of a world that exists beyond the four corners of the story. When a protagonist enters stage right, the story-world shouldn’t just spring up out of the ground like one of those pop-up books, nor should it collapse again when the protagonist departs. It will have existed long before this particular story began, and will continue to exist long after. Good worldbuilding doesn’t just support plot, it also supports theme, culture, setting and character. It should govern every aspect of the characters’ lives, from what they eat, to how they interact with people from different nations.

I mentioned above that I think it is advisable to keep some things in the foreground, and some in the background. But it’s equally important that there should be a background, because otherwise the reader may begin to feel that the world doesn’t hang together. It’s like when you go to a theatre and see this stunning mounted backdrop of trees or mountains (or whatever) on stage. It looks pretty, but you know that if you got up and pushed the backdrop over, there would be nothing behind it but a blank wall. And a lot of angry actors, no doubt.

But how do you build a more substantial background and keep things there? One way is not to thrust every piece of information under the reader’s nose, but instead to let them imply it from the rest of the story. Readers are clever people. If a king bows low when his high priest enters the room, readers don’t need to be told where the balance of power lies between then. Nor do they need a ten-page political and theological dissertation on the nature of church-state relationships – unless that is what the book is about. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s good to leave a few unanswered questions for the reader to ponder over because that generates mystery.

It can be a delicate balance to draw, deciding what information to put in and what to exclude. But speaking personally, I would much prefer to have to fill in some gaps myself than be spoon-fed every last detail. Just don’t leave the “best bits” hidden behind the curtain, else the reader might complain that they never got to play with the shiniest toys.

So now it’s over to you. How much worldbuilding do you like to see in books, and which authors in your opinion do it best?


Official Author Website
Order When The Heavens Fall HERE (US) and HERE (UK)
Read "There's A Devil Watching Over You" by Marc Turner (short story)
Read Beauty In The Ruins' review of When The Heavens Fall
Read Civilian Reader interview with Marc Turner

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: Marc Turner was born in Canada, but grew up in England. His first novel, When the Heavens Fall, is published by Tor in the US and Titan in the UK. You can see a video trailer for the book here and read a short story set in the world of the novel here. The short story has also been narrated by Emma Newman of Tea and Jeopardy fame, and you can listen to it free here. Marc can be found on Twitter at @MarcJTurner and at his website.

Note: Author picture courtesy of Stuart Boulton,  Mark Tallentire & The Northern Echo 



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