Why Worldbuild?

I am starting this blog corner that will contain my thoughts on worldbuilding, how I would use said world elements to guide and enhance my writing and how to build those elements. To open I am going to approach the topic generally. Tackling the topics of why worldbuild in the first place and the different levels of worldbuilding as I see them.

I am going to start with the different levels of worldbuilding. The first level of worldbuilding is what I call the campfire level. This is also the level often found in black box plays, and in Shakespeare’s plays. All of these things want to give you just enough detail to generate a picture but not enough to waste any time. At this level descriptions such as dark and spooky, are sufficient. Often at this level details such as how dark and how spooky are often counterproductive to the experience. As it wastes time and ruins the mood.

The second level is what I call the short story level. At this level the author now expands enough to help focus a singular image, but much like the campfire level they don’t have enough time to really get into anything specific. This is the other level Shakespeare frequents, as do the majority of the playwrights. Adding things such as names to locations, key details or descriptions beyond singular words help separate this level from the previous.

Level three is the novel level. Now as the author has the time to expand on their settings and hide details into the descriptions of locations, characters, and objects. This can be done to foreshadow plot points, develop characters and help show the world off. This can help add tension and keep the plot rolling while giving your readers more clues about the world.

Level four is the comic, TV show or movie level. Now that visuals are involved you have to add in those details one way or another. Questions such as: What do the characters wear? What kinds of people are around? What do the streets and buildings look like? Are now unavoidable as you have to set the scene with a full image. It also becomes more obvious when you don’t do all of the work.

Level five is the Table Top Role Playing Game. Here you need everything including smells, tastes, cultural norms, currency, accents, weather, and everything else you need on hand. If you don’t have it you will have to come up with it on the fly. Get things set up ahead and then drill down on what your players are looking into.

Now as for why you should worldbuild, and how much. I will start by quoteing Monte Cook:

Novelists, in particular fantasy and science fiction novels, work on worldbuiding as a backdrop for their stories. But that’s all it is – a backdrop.
— Monte Cook, Different Kinds of Worldbuilding from The KOBOLD Guide of Worldbuilding
Saying I agree with this analysis might be an understatement. Many popular novels I have read have been sitting at level two on the worldbuilding scale. This isn’t an objectively bad thing. As the story will be told though the eyes of a character or two you won’t need everything down to the finest details. Saving time by cutting the fat, a favorite phrase of more than a few of my English teachers, will let the writer and reader get to the point faster.

With all that said, if you are spending the time to write a book, or a series of books take the time to get to level three or four on my scale. It will help you keep things consistent with in the books. As you have more than you need you can show only what is important and keep all the extra details for either other parts or other books. Since you have these details you could add depth to characters by using them in the plot. To construct an example: You are writing a story involving ruling families and their politics. Women wear their family crest on bracelets and it is so important that even when infiltrating other families the leading lady keeps her family bracelet on. One day a lovely lady gets introduced as an assistant or something for the leading man. Weary of spies your leading man checked her bracelet. However he didn’t notice the house affiliation announced on the bracelet due to his lack of knowledge. A book later on he is looking for a spy and the lovely lady is wearing the bracelet that would prove she is the spy he is looking for. It isn’t until the leading lady comes in and notices the subtle detail in the bracelet that reveals the loyalty, both ruining the romance and exposing a new antagonist.

This may be a bit contrived but think of all the details you could then hide in there. Perhaps there are insights into the characters of all three of them based on what they see, what they point out to each other and what they think it means. Each detail adds more to the depth of the backdrop, helping it transition into a proper world.

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