Today on the blog I’m hosting Noor Al-Shanti, who will give us some tips for presenting worldbuilding naturally in your stories. She has some great advice here and hope you’ll find something you can use later!
Noor Al-Shanti likes to write epic length fantasy and science fiction novels, but hates writing author bios.
There are hundreds of excellent bits of advice out there regarding worldbuilding. If you’re trying to do a good, thorough job of it you can find all kinds of articles and lists telling you what you should include, what aspects of the world you should think about, and what kinds of questions you should ask yourself as you’re developing the world. I’ve found a lot less discussion out there exploring how to take all these ideas and notes and concepts, all these names on the map and cultures and languages, and actually integrate them into the story in a smooth way. So that’s what I’d like to explore in this blog post. It’s a big topic, of course, and I don’t have all the answers yet, nor will I ever have the answers that will work for you, because everybody has a different style, but hopefully my exploration will provoke some questions and get you thinking.
It’s all about the style
First of all, I think the discussion of how to reveal your worldbuilding in the story has to at least address your worldbuilding style. You might do a lot of worldbuilding and planning work up front before you even begin writing the actual story, writing notes and filling out the details of every aspect of your world, so that you have all of that in your arsenal before you can start the novel. Or, like me, you might have much looser worldbuilding style that focuses more on story. I started my worldbuilding with a map and I do have notebooks that I sometimes write notes in, but I prefer to do my worldbuilding through story. I like to explore the world along with my characters by writing out different stories set in different parts of the world and discovering the details as I go along. No matter which style you prefer, it’s very important to remember not to include all of this worldbuilding in your story.
The detailed planning method
If you use the detailed planning method, it means that you will have a huge amount of detail that is never included in your story. Think the LoTR appendices and the Silmarillion and the languages Tolkien made up, only a small part of which ever appeared in The Hobbit and LoTR. He was able to draw on bits of that information when he needed to, to put in little hints and descriptions that showed that his world was vast and had depth and breadth and was full of cultures and histories. It felt real. Now you may still feel that Tolkien included too much of this detail in his published stories, or you may love his work so much that you’re reading all the appendices, learning elvish, and studying the history of middle Earth, either way my point is that he built a lot more than he ever showed us in the books he published during his lifetime. So don’t be afraid to just leave your notes in those notebooks and files if they don’t fit in with the story you’re telling. It’s better to leave the reader with a feeling that there’s more to the world than to have huge sections of infodump clogging up the pages. Let the details you worked on enrich the story, not take it over.
Worldbuilding through stories
The same concept still applies if you use stories to do most of your worldbuilding. In this case you might write all kinds of short stories or even novels set in different parts of your world or from different perspectives. You might love these stories while you’re planning and writing them and think that they’re essential to your world. They might flesh out really interesting histories or wars or cultural aspects of your world. Once you’ve written these stories they’ll become part of your world and its histories. This doesn’t mean you have to publish every last one. Yes, I’m even talking about entire novels here.
Nothing goes to waste
This isn’t just a worldbuilding tip, it’s a tip for improving your writing skill too. When you write something, whether it’s a short story or a novel, leave it for a while and do something else. When you get back to it a few months later you may realize that your skill has improved so much that you can now see many flaws in these earlier writings. Even if the piece is well-crafted and your technical skill was already good, you may decide that the story doesn’t quite have the impact you wanted, or doesn’t fit completely with the style you’ve developed and you may decide not to publish it. Even if it’s never published each of these stories still exists in your world and you can draw on it for names or events or other details that you just mention in passing in your newer works, giving readers that little hint that there’s more to this world. More to explore and wonder about. Check out the bios of your favourite authors, most of them will mention not just one, but many unpublished books that they worked on for years. That work doesn’t go to waste, it helps flesh our your world.
The devil is in the details
So, if you’re not going to include everything, how do you know how much of your worldbuilding detail to include in your current work in progress? Again, this can vary from author to author, it can even vary depending on when you write the story and the surrounding culture and technologies that influenced you. For example, I find that my own storytelling style is influenced by TV in the way I organize my scenes and chapters. Each chapter has a kind of general theme or a point in the progress of the story that I want to focus on and I explore that main chapter idea through the eyes of the various main characters in the different scenes, just like how a TV show checks in with the various main characters each episode to see how their story has progressed. Again, no matter what your style or preferences are there are a few questions that you can ask to help you make decisions about what details to include.
The first, and most important question is: Do you need these details to tell the story you’re trying to tell? This can be a difficult question to answer, but I think it’s important to ask it anyway and think about it, even if you end up being unsure. It can be useful to ask whether the detail will enrich your story or bog it down, whether it will clarify something important or if that important thing can be better highlighted in a quicker way without mentioning this extra detail.
Another important question is, how much information does (or can) your character know? You have to base the amount and type of information you reveal on the point of view you are using. For example, you might have planned out your character’s wardrobe meticulously and made sure that their clothing makes sense considering available materials in your world and trade and even culture. But if you’re writing a scene from the point of view of that character it makese no sense to spend a paragraph or two describing every item of their clothing. People don’t stop at random parts of their day just to think about all the things they’re wearing. These details might become important and come to the forefront of their mind if they, for example, find a tear in their favourite shirt and feel bad because they can’t wear this item that someone they love made for them. It might come to their mind if they’re tired and walking and suddenly realize their shoes have a hole in them when water leaks in. It might be important if the character is going to a formal event and they realize they don’t have the right outfit. If there’s no logical reason for your character to notice the detail or think about it, then you shouldn’t be describing it through their point of view. This doesn’t just apply to what the character is wearing or what they look like, it can apply to what they’re observing too.
Let’s say your point of view character is meeting someone for the first time. They’re NOT going to notice everything about that person’s appearance. They might notice a particular detail because it reminds them of something else, or annoys them, or whatever, but they’re certainly not going to notice every single feature and article of clothing. Again, let your details enrich the story, but don’t let them take it over. If it makes no sense for the character to be thinking about a detail or noticing it, if there’s no way they would know about it, then don’t try to shove it into a scene from that character’s POV. It will be jarring. It could be much more interesting, for example, to highlight something by having the character wonder about it, or by having them realize that they don’t know the answer to a question.
Trust your characters with your readers
Finally, I want to talk about the images a reader will make while reading. No matter how much detail you include and how vividly you can see your world in front of you the reader’s image of that world will be different. Their view will be built on their own experiences and knowledge and expectations. And at the end of the day, you’re not going to be able to control it, so don’t try to fight it too much. Give the reader key details, highlight what’s extremely important, and then just let the reader’s imagination run with it and fill out the rest. Instead of wasting words on superficial descriptions that the readers will gloss over, forget, or ignore in favour of their own images, focus on showing the character’s feelings. Focus on conveying their fears and joys and worries and excitement. That way your reader can put themselves in the place of the character and journey along with them, discovering and experiencing the world almost first-hand and getting that sense of wonder and adventure.
Finally, I want to thank the wonderful Timy for giving me the opportunity to guest post at the Asylum. I’ve always loved all the creative features she comes up with including Tales from the Asylum, which I had a ton of fun with last year, and the cool new Party with the Stars feature. These are great ways for authors to look at and write about their world from a different perspective and help flesh out their worlds.
Connect with Noor Al-Shanti
Grab a copy of Noor Al-Shanti‘s epic fantasy novel, Children of the Dead City which is on sale for $2.99!