World Building

I actually can’t stand hyper-real, “vivid” world-building. Leiber names maybe at most a dozen streets in Lankhmar and describes less than half a dozen neighborhoods — I’d be surprised if he mentions more than four neighborhoods.

However I realize I am in the minority with this opinion and wonder if the clotheshorse swordporn I hate so much might stem from audience overlap with the SCA that values that level of immersion.

Remember Lucas’s Law: The Clone Wars were so much better imagined than seen. The job is to write stuff wide enough for the reader or player to get lost in and shape on their own, than to shape it all for them and suck the life out of it.

(from an email discussion with some friends)

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12 responses to “World Building”

  1. Rick Bowes says :

    Evocation is Leiber’s gift. And it’s the only way to describe something which doesn’t exist. Mostly I set things in New York City which in its own way does exist and even there it’s more effective to evoke – the one street person, the one corner of the one neighborhood should be all that’s needed. To paraphrase Belasco: “If you can’t evoke a place in a couple of sentences then you don’t know the place – even if you’ve invented it.”

    • Justin says :

      That quote is perfect.

      • Rick Bowes says :

        Well, what Belasco (American producer/playwright circa 1900 famed for the “realism” of his productions – when bacon was cooked on stage the smell of real bacon cooking was wafted out into the audience) said was:

        “If you can’t write your idea on the back of your calling card, you don’t have an idea.”


  2. gordsellar says :

    It strikes me I usually am not talking about “world-building” when I talk about “worldbuilding” — for me, it’s usually about whatever technologies, cultural norms, circumstances, weird stuff, or whatever else differentiates the characters’ fundamental reality from ours.

    (ie. I never thought of worldbuilding in terms of painting a very clear picture of the world for the reader. It’s about how you warp the world, the reality, or whatever. How you define and delineate the world so that it is somehow speculative, and then express that in the text… hm.)

    • Justin says :

      Which I think goes back to Rick’s quote above about evoking a place, even an invented one. I also think worldbuilding goes on in mimetic novels like the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities would require worldbuilding or even the suburbs in a Jonathan Franzen novel.

      Ultimately I am a less is more guy and against books being longer than 500 pages.

      All the coolness in the world can’t save you when my eyes start to glaze over because it’s page 600 and there’s still over a 100 pages to go and the author’s stopped to tell me what someone was wearing or how Cool Thing X is made. But that’s a totally pet peeve of mine.

      (BTW, I saw you mention “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” — I have a copy of the 1979 BBC miniseries. It is so so so so much better. Alec Guiness is amazing. He makes poddering around in comfortable shoes tense and menacing.)

  3. John Johnson says :

    I’ve never considered description to be part of worldbuilding. For me the two are separate–you might know everything about a place, but what you choose to tell is something entirely different. For me less is more when it comes to description, as long as what’s there is vividly described.

    I’m more likely to remember a shopkeeper who’s described as tall and lanky with a scar running the length of his face, then if that same shopkeeper were described with what he was wearing, his hair color, eye color, the stains on his shirt, etc.

  4. asakiyume says :

    I’m so divided! I definitely think less is more in many instances. Casual references to something like the Clone Wars is much more effective than descriptions (much less whole battle scenes)–a world seems much bigger when you don’t try to list everything in it; plus, many different imaginations of it can happily flourish there, then. But on the other hand, I love having bunches of precisely those throwaway details, so that my sense of the world grows and grows.

    • asakiyume says :

      –um, make that are much more effective.

      subject-verb agreement. d’oh.

      • Justin says :


        There’s certainly a push and pull at work. You want to know, but you don’t want to be disappointed.

      • asakiyume says :

        My rule is that any details that are added should expand readers’ sense of the world rather than closing it down. Of course people will argue about what expands and what shuts down, but for instance, all the details in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker really expand the world for me, and he does it by throwaway mentions. He refers to cults, beliefs, and bits of history over at the edges of the plot, and the world feels really rich, and wide, for it. On the other hand, explaining the Force or giving us the clone progenitor? Those things closed down the Star Wars world (for me, anyway).

      • Justin says :

        The more I think about this, the more I think the Ship Breaker way is the way to do it. How much depth any of those things he mentions has doesn’t matter. They could be names and a sentence for all anyone knows. But they evoke the whole world.

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