Your World is an Iceberg21 Feb 2017
A question that every beginning writer asks is, “How much world building information do I need in my story? How much do I need to explain to the reader?” This comes up frequently for writers working in fantasy and science fiction, since world building is an integral part of the process. But every genre of fiction incorporates information about its setting in order to give the reader a sense of place and time period. What might be world building for some is research for others. So even though I’m going to be talking about world building in this post, the advice here can apply to the more realistic and historical genres. Because the question being asked here is not about world building, really. It’s about exposition.
My short answer to this question is give the reader as little world building information as you can get away with. To explain why, let me present the iceberg metaphor. For the record, I didn’t come up with this. I first heard it when I was in undergrad; whether it was a professor or a fellow student, I can’t remember. Regardless, the metaphor goes like this:
Your fictional world is an iceberg. Readers will only see the tip – the stuff that makes it onto the page. You the writer should know some of what lies beneath the surface – the details and explanations that the reader will never see.
The narrative of FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series is a perfect example of this iceberg metaphor. The story of those games is scattered between item descriptions, character dialogue, and environmental details. A community of players has gathered around these games, filling whole websites and YouTube channels dedicated to examining the iceberg’s tip and speculating about what lies below. The game’s developers are the only ones who know the truth, and chances are good that they will carry those secrets to their graves.
The question for the writer now becomes what should that tip of the iceberg contain. The plot will give you that answer. Only those aspects and details which relate directly to the plot should be included in the story. Everything else can be left underwater – not mentioned in your story at all or only mentioned in vague, broad strokes.
This is why I often build my fictional worlds alongside my story’s plot. The plot tells me what I need to know about the world in order for the story to make sense. A tale of political intrigue would need a great deal of information on how the government is organized, who has what kind of power, and how said power is normally transferred (succession, election, etc). Since all of the major characters would be members of the elite, the pagan superstitions of the working class probably won’t play a huge factor in this story, so I can leave that aspect of the world vague (if it is ever brought up in the story at all).
The reason why I find the iceberg metaphor so helpful and effective is that it positions the reader on a need-to-know basis concerning the world. This is where the reader wants to be; they want to get to the juicy plot as quickly as possible and with as little learning as possible. You don’t need to explain how magic works in order for the reader to understand that a spell is being cast. All they need to know is what the spell does and what the magic looks like. When I try to include as little world building information as possible in my drafts, I find that it prevents a lot of fluff from making its way into that draft. More often than not, the feedback I receive is about what readers want to know more about, instead of what they felt was unnecessary.
This is why I don’t use or like world-building exercises and character questionnaires. These things provide me with so much information that I end up throwing out or ignoring as I develop the plot. Eventually, I stopped wasting my time with them and began my writing process with the plot.
Before you start complaining in the comments, let me say that I don’t hate that these exercises and questionnaries exist. I know that they help a lot of writers, and if you’re one of them, that’s great. If completing these things helps you develop the larger iceberg and mine for inspiration, keep doing it. But when it comes time to write your first draft, resist the urge to convey all of that information to the reader. You are allowed to have secrets. It is often wise to hold some cards to your chest.
So when you are wondering how much world building information you need in your story, start by including the broad strokes first. Add details where your plot demands and where your feedback highlights. The end result will be a story with the right amount of information – just enough for the reader to understand what’s going on without bogging them down with irrelevant details.
What about you? How do you approach world-building? Are there specific resources that you use? Let me know in the comments.