April 19, 2007
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This post on worldbuilding by M. John Harrison begins with a very quotable line: “Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.” I’ve written on this topic before and drawn a similar conclusion, but I think that especially in the field of science fiction, there is some leeway to be found. There is definitely a segment of readers who want to read detailed descriptions of a world. Often these readers are the kind of people who like to imagine their own stories within someone else’s world and want as much detail as possible. At an extreme example, look at Tolkien’s “Silmarillion,” which is little more than a worldbuilding exercise, or any of the subsequent books which do not so much tell further stories of Middle Earth as flesh out the background and texture of it. Even in the “Lord of the Rings” series, huge passages are devoted to loving descriptions of the world and its history. Stephen Donaldson’s “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant,” similarly, break to give the reader lengthy passages of description and, on occasion, history.
If you limit the writing you do about your world to the immediate world your characters are experiencing, you will end up with a well-textured background to a good, snappy story. But people love unfinished business and possibilities, and a few extra paragraphs about history, a description of something not entirely relevant, a strange custom or behavior can all spark in the reader a curiosity that lingers after the story is over, that draws them back to your world wanting more of the tantalizing details you’ve dangled in front of them. Moreover, it can do the same for you, as you sit thinking, “okay…how DID the elves/aliens/Sharath tribe get there in the first place, and why do they venerate that artifact?” A whole other novel can come out of that. And yes, that worldbuilding doesn’t have to go into your story, but if it did, then you have a built-in hook to that second story for your readers, who may have been wondering the same thing.