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Jessica Townsend, author of the Nevermoor fantasy series, once said that building a fully realized world is a product of treating “things that are overblown and ridiculous” as “everyday things.” What defines a world like Narnia is as much about the food and where the characters sleep as it is the White Witch.
But you can’t info-dump everything, so which aspects of your world do you call attention to, and when do you glaze over details? How much time do you need to spend world-building even before you start writing Chapter One? Here are three guiding questions to help you find the right balance for your story.
#1: What type of story are you writing?
Genre can determine how much time you need to spend on world-building — and whether a few selective details or more complex descriptions better serve your story.
For example, if you’re writing an epic high fantasy for adults, you’re going to need to touch on many different facets of your world as your characters visit diverse locations and navigate society’s rules, as well as any magic. You’ll need to invent a lot more energy than you would than if you’re writing fabulism (a real world story with fantasy elements), where you can rely more on the familiar and expectations that readers already have about how the world works.
Blogger/author Janice Hardy says you should “describe what will be assumed incorrectly,” as well as “what’s unique to the world or situation.” This is scene-level advice that applies to broader world-building. The more different your world is from our own, the more you need to draw the readers’ attention to those details, because otherwise they’ll fill in the blanks you leave with their own reference knowledge.
But you could world-build forever and only put in 10% of it (the iceberg model), so how do you decide what’s relevant to share? That’s when character and conflict come in.
#2: How does your character fit into the world?
When you write scenes, you’ll want to avoid info-dumping and instead weave in details that are relevant to your character. A good way to do this is to filter everything through your protagonist’s point-of-view. What would their eyes glaze over, and what would they notice and why?
This is a good rule of thumb for taking your iceberg amount of world-building and finding the right percentage to surface in your story, because you should only be mentioning what’s relevant and important. Your protagonist is a good filter because their occupation or hobbies, status in society, and feelings and opinions (what motivates them; what they love and hate) will guide what to focus the narrative lens on when revealing details about your world, and how deeply.
You definitely want to paint in what’s going on around them, but here’s the difference: If a protagonist has visited a market countless times, describe the hustle and bustle in passing, for as long as their eyes would pass over them. If a protagonist is seeing something for the first time, think of how real-life tourists soak in every detail and idle a lot longer. You only need what the scene calls for.
#3: What’s the goal and conflict?
What your protagonist care about is one measure of determining what world-building to do and share. But you also need to consider their goal (focus) and the conflict.
Let’s continue with the market example. If your protagonist’s goal is to find an assassin lurking in the market, they’re going to pay closer attention to everything happening around them, and they’re going to be on the lookout for suspicious people and activity. They may be scrutinizing the actions of others and questioning what’s normal. Because of this, you’ll want to understand the inner workings of the market, because you’re going to need to describe it down to exact details. At this point, the market is less background noise and more the focus of the story.
This can apply to scene-level or story-level goals and conflicts. For example, say there’s a whole league as assassins in your story, and there’s a political conspiracy to kill the king. As the author, you should probably know the intricacies of the court and league more than the market when it comes to the broader scope of your story, because you probably plan on staging more scenes in the castle or assassins’ den than you do the market.
The TL;DR (too long didn’t read) is this: Your story’s characters (especially the protagonist) and conflicts are like a magnifying glass revealing what you should focus the bulk of your world-building energy on. There’s no need to spend hours inventing an agricultural system for your novel if your characters aren’t going to spend any time near a farm or the people who work there. You might need a few details to sprinkle here and there if they’re passing through, but only as much as their attention warrants.
Write what you need for the story you’re telling; forgo the rest.