“Limit worldbuilding?” you ask. “Limit worldbuilding?! Why would I limit worldbuilding? I love worldbuilding! You love worldbuilding!! Everyone loves it!!!”
Yes, absolutely. Everyone loves worldbuilding. It’s what helps readers really feel immersed in a book. However, it can also be what yanks readers out of the book.
Have you ever read a book that talks too much about the world? That wastes precious dialogue and pages on infodumping? Have you ever written something like that? Or maybe you never even got to the writing because you were so busy with building?
The question is: where do you stop? Well, my little ADHD brain hoards fun facts like a dragon hoards gold, so let’s answer that question with an example from the real world. After all, isn’t the whole point of worldbuilding to create a world that feels real?
So let’s talk about Punt.
Punt was a region in Africa that had a long and illustrious trade relationship with Egypt. The trade records from the period imply that Punt was an incredibly wealthy country, exporting predominately luxury goods. These records span nearly 1500 years. In comparison, the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and Empire lasted only 1229 years combined.
Punt was a well documented, regularly visited, everyday trade partner of Egypt.
Punt was not, however, ever marked on a map.
We have no idea where Punt was. We have theories, but they’re all based on a Sherlockian reading of Egyptian documents because the Egyptians never discussed it in their writings. Punt had been their trade partner for centuries. Everyone knew what Punt was – everyone knew where Punt was. Why would they need to write it down?
In order to build a world that feels real, you have to build a world that mimics the real world. There should be things that aren’t discussed because everyone knows. Your readers should have questions that don’t get answered.
Look at me. Look in my eyes.
I am not telling you to intentionally put plot holes in your stories. I am telling you to intentionally put unimportant questions in your stories.
It was at a YA writing conference that I was first introduced to Brandon Sanderson’s Hollow Iceberg technique of worldbuilding (not by the man himself, though you can find YouTube videos of him discussing it). Although he did not originate this writing technique, he was the one to apply it successfully and openly to worldbuilding.
Beginning with a non-hollow variety of icebergs, worldbuilding should be both above the water (explicit) and below the water (implied). You don’t want to tell your readers everything. In fact, it’s called infodumping when you do and it’s usually frowned upon. But, in order to balance the iceberg, something must exist beneath the water.
And here’s where the paralysis comes in. Most writers try to create an entire iceberg. A continent on which their story will be told, with governmental systems to each county and a matching family tree of nobles. A magic system with a political and environmental history that explains how the magical creatures of the world came to be. A tragic childhood to help explain the motivations of every character on the page.
Stop. Inhale. Exhale.
You don’t need to know everything, you just need to know enough. A hollow iceberg will still float.
In his series, Way of Kings, Sanderson builds a vivid and detailed world. One of the most unique aspects of it is the Safehand. In the series, it is considered immodest for a woman’s left hand to be uncovered. Highborn women don’t even use their left hands, let alone show them! Sanderson has a detailed cultural explanation for why a Safehand exists.
Yet I’m left wondering why the left hand?
Although he may have a reason tucked away and set to reveal in one of the later boooks, he also may not. As the story stands, it doesn’t matter to the characters so it shouldn’t matter to the author. There should be things that are like the Land of Punt. Accepted, unquestioned, and unimportant.
Look at me again. Look into my eyes.
There will be things that matter to the characters that don’t matter to the readers. There will also be things you should know that are kept under water. There will be things that are unspoken.
Differentiating Unspoken from Unimportant
Let’s get into the nitty gritty. Differentiating unspoken from unimportant and avoiding worldbuilding paralysis does not start with worldbuilding. It starts with outlining.
I will never not preach it. Whether you’re a pantser, a plotter, or a plantser. Whether you use save the cat, snowflake, bookend, synopsis, flashlight, whatever you please. It starts with outlining an idea. You can’t build answers for what you need to know if you don’t know what you need to know!
ALSO: How I Plan My Novels
An outline is the easiest way to find the unimportant because it’s the easiest way to find the important! I’ll use one of my current WIPs to work through a shallow example of this.
The simplest outline of my unnamed WIP is:
"Elodie is in a politically advantageous, but arranged, engagement when she finds evidence that both her family and her betrothed’s family have been hiding a document in a dead language that could end a century long war over magic rights. She flees the country with the help of her rebellion leading childhood best friend, Anna, but the two are separated shortly after entering The Wild. She has to depend on a soldier from a country she’s been raised to believe is evil to translate the document, end the war, and find her friend."
Let’s look at a few obvious worldbuilding necessities. What has a direct impact on the story?
- Her family is politically connected. We’ll need a government system for her country.
- The war has stemmed from a magic issue. We’ll need a magic system that can be manipulated by outside forces.
- There’s a place called “The Wild” that doesn’t belong to either country. We’ll need a continent big enough to accommodate it.
These questions matter to your characters and your readers.
Now let’s look at a few things we may want, but don’t need. What has no impact on the story?
- Her arranged engagement shouldn’t last long. We don’t need a deep understanding of how marriage works in her country.
- Although ending the war is the main conflict, the war itself is background noise. We don’t need troop movements or battle tactics.
- The continent has to be big, but the story is told in her country, her companion’s country, and The Wilds. We don’t need a dozen fleshed out countries, just a dozen names.
These questions either don’t matter to or aren’t asked by your characters and your readers.
The hard part is figuring out what is unspoken, what has an indirect impact on a story – which is why I start with a character outline, or a character sheet. I need to know what my characters care about and want to know. A great place to find a basic character sheet is the Free Novel Plan. You can also try out the Character Bible!
Using the Free Novel Plan, here’s a quick character breakdown for Elodie:
At the beginning of the story, she feels stuck playing a role she does not want. Her biggest regret the moment the story begins is not doing more to protect Anna at the beginning of the war. Her biggest challenge is deciding who she wants to be. At the end of the story, she decides what her role is.
Now that we have a character breakdown, there are a few unspoken worldbuilding questions we can ask.
- Elodie feels stuck playing a role, politically and romantically. We don’t need a deep understanding of marriage, but we should know if arranged marriages are common.
- Elodie was alive at the beginning of the war and regrets not protecting Anna. We don’t need troop movements or battle names, but we should know what the war looked like in the cities in the months after it began.
The unspoken worldbuilding is the questions that only matter to your character.
Now any writer worth their salt knows that as you outline and write and rewrite and edit and beta and edit and reoutline and write again, things change. You’ll need to build your world up more as you go along, but worldbuilding to the detriment of writing isn’t going to help you get to the end of your manuscript.
There comes a point where we all need to say, “Enough is enough! I don’t need to know what the national food of the country my characters never visit or meet anyone from is, I just need to name the country.”
Written for The Plottery
I’m Elizabeth Miles, but you can call me Lizzie! I am a full-time stay-at-home mom and part-time author during breaks from chasing down over-confident toddlers. Mystery, romance, and fantasy are my favorite genres for both reading and writing.