Being a Better Writer: Worldbuilding – What To Share and What To Keep

Hello readers and writers! Welcome back after yet another weekend! Who’s geared up and ready to write! There’s a whole new week ahead of us, and who knows what stories might flow from our fingertips as we enter a new week and a new month!

I’m right there with you. Last Friday I wrapped up the last changes and edits to the Alpha 1 edition of Starforge, which means the Alpha 2 crew now has access to the entire length of the second Alpha. And they’re making good time too! At the current pace, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them finished it this weekend!

This has several meanings. For starters, it means that I’m currently bereft of editing for a brief moment, so I can work on other projects, such as the Starforge cover (ooooh yeah), short story writing, or getting more prep work done on the next Jacob Rocke book—perhaps even a few chapters written.

But it also means that Starforge is edging closer to the Beta reading, as based on the feedback from this Alpha, we’re close if not there. Maybe I’m wrong—I’ll wait until the second Alpha Reader crew has passed final judgement before making that call, but right now it does look positive. If things maintain their current course, though, the first Beta read could arrive this month!

Which would have other implications as well. See, once Starforge is officially out of Alpha, and there aren’t any additional structural changes in the pipeline, I can start dropping some real preview chapters on everyone. Previews, sneak peaks of characters and new tools at the trio’s fingertips. Sands, I could even start sending out early previews of the novel to select readers to start building hype.

Get ready folks, because Starforge is coming! The grand finale of the UNSEC Space trilogy is almost here!

All right, with that said, let’s step away from the news and over to the subject of today’s post, which is once again worldbuilding!

Not without reason. If I recall correctly from our last topic call, today’s subject is indeed one of the reader requested topics we were asked to cover. Which … I get it. Worldbuilding remains a tough sea to navigate for many writers young and even experienced. We’ve spoken before of the challenges and even pitfalls of worldbuilding on the site, from starting guides to more involved deep dives.

And yet, there’s still more to cover. Worldbuilding, it would seem, is a topic almost as deep and varied as the resultant subject can be.

Which brings us, more directly, to today’s specific request. Which asked us to discuss how to know what should be shared and what should be held while writing a novel. Because not everything that a writer comes up with during worldbuilding has a place showing up in the narrative. In fact, for many worldbuilders, a majority of what you write out for worldbuilding won’t show up directly in the novel proper—though note that I use the term “directly” there, as figuring out the backstory of how the Magistrate of Evans in your story committed grand fraud, which is why everyone in your story now is suspicious of public officers is going to cast a shadow of influence over the whole work. We just likely won’t get the history-style writeup on it that you set aside in your worldbuilding.

Okay, enough preamble. Hit the jump, and let’s talk about what to hold back and what to show.

So let me be clear up front: There is a common and basic rule that is going to hold true with today’s topic. A sort of “rule of thumb” that’s both helpful and problematic in equal measure where worldbuilding is concerned, because while it is true, it doesn’t provide the whole answer, and ends up needing a more in-depth understanding of the subject.

That rule? You’ve very likely heard it in some version or another. It’s this: Everything in your story should serve the story in some way.

Now, I will note that there’s a common variation of this saying that makes the rounds frequently, especially in new writer chats, which is “everything in your story should move the plot forward.” Which is good general advice, but less useful as a rule for reasons we’ll actually discuss and touch on later. But without getting into them this early, it’s sufficient for us to say instead that everything you put in your story should serve the story in some way.

Okay, so let’s put some actual meaning to the term “serve” with regards to this directive. What does it mean to serve a story. I would argue that the most basic definition that we could arrive at is “anything that enhances the story for the reader.”

And this doesn’t just mean moving the plot forward. Sure, moving the plot forward enhances the story for the reader … but so does letting the reader understanding why a character is making the decision they’re making because the author gives them character background. Setting up a scene and explaining how the vaulted ceilings of the Evens Cathedral and Public Hall were once leafed in gold could move the plot forward … but it also may just serve as mental scene setting for the reader, with no influence on the plot other than the building being where one character meets another to discuss something plot-relevant. But describing the once-great hall with its peeling gold leaf, or the burned-down nature of the candles lighting it … that brings mood and paints an evocative picture for the reader of the where.

This is why the advice of “everything in your story should move the plot forward” can actually be very poor advice. I’ve read stories from new writers that have set aside everything—setting, character development, the works—unless it directly moved the plot forward, and those stories were shallow as a dry stream. There was little if not nothing for the reader to grab onto or catch hold of, from setting to character, even when it was well-written. It was just “Hey here’s the dark hold of the bad-guy and so now action because we have to move the plot forward” … And ultimately that wasn’t a very satisfying read. There was no depth to it. No nuance. Unless it “moved the plot forward” the writer had discarded it. And the result was a story that felt empty.

Now this isn’t to say that we can just go overboard with every setting or every character. If we give our story too much depth, we can “drown” the reader in information, which also doesn’t serve the story. Our readers want to be immersed in our setting and story, not so deep in it they can’t see sunlight and feel the crushing pressure of extraneous setting crushing the breath from their chest.

So clearly, there is a balance. Which is why I prefer the saying that everything should serve your story in some capacity.

I promise this is directly related to the today’s topic, in case you were starting to wonder.

Anyway, going by the rule of “serve the story” allows us to see what needs we have, or rather, our audience has, and then fill them in without becoming overwhelming.

Let’s look at an example that’s quite fresh on my mind. Because it’s from, of all things, Starforge. There’s a scene in Starforge a little over halfway through its length that is just, quite literally, the protagonists sitting around a “campfire” with a bunch of secondary characters and shooting the breeze. That’s it.

The scene doesn’t move the plot forward at all. Instead it just “kills time” as the characters are doing. But should it be cut?

Absolutely not. Because outside of thinking solely based on the context of “does it move the plot forward” the scene actually serves several very important purposes in the story, the most key of which is giving the readers a breather, AKA a pacing moment. The chapters before and after the one with this scene are tense, tight, desperate battles to the point of exhaustion for the characters. If the scene were cut for “the plot” then the readers would pass directly from tight, intense battle to tight, intense battle. Instead, they’re given a moment to breathe and in addition to learn more about some of the secondary cast of characters that have been there with the protagonists.

The result is that many of the early readers have singled out that moment as one of their favorites in the section, despite it doing nothing to advance the plot (and a few even noted that). But it served the story by being both time to flesh out some of the secondary characters and to give the reader time to settle, relax, and “reset” their tension before the next chapter dove right in again.

Now, with that said, there was worldbuilding taking center stage during that campfire moment, bringing us back toward our core topic today. As the various characters chatted and spoke, they gave the readers neat little tidbits and grains of information about where they were from, or what life was like, that served as … well, rather than say to deepen the waters of the worldbuilding, more to make sure those waters weren’t empty.

So, if we’re writing with the aim of making certain everything we write serves the story in some way, then how can this affect our worldbuilding.

Actually, that’s a poor question. Because it won’t. Worldbuilding happens regardless, and most writers are familiar with how much material they craft for said worldbuilding, usually far in excess of what they need.

However, writing with the aim of serving our story does mean that we will use some of it.

Like I said, we’re finally back to the central topic of today’s post, with knowing what to hold and what to share. But there was a good reason for all this lead-in: Knowing what to hold and what to use from your worldbuilding requires an understanding of what serves your story best.

For some … this is difficult. Especially if you’re a new writer and may not know what sort of audience you’re writing for, this sort of decision can be very difficult. “Am I serving the story by including this detail from my worldbuilding?” is a question asked by many a young writer … and I assure you many of us more experienced writers ask the same thing sometimes. I’ll admit to a little nervousness with the above-mentioned campfire scene, even though I was very certain it fulfilled exactly what I wanted it to for the reader. I just wasn’t certain, and so took a risk on it, because I knew I needed a pacing moment regardless.

Point being, don’t worry if thinking about this fills you with a little alarm. It’s normal to have reservations about what to share from your worldbuilding and what to keep. Some of this will come down to your audience, and some of it will come down to experience. Both of which you’ll become more familiar with as you experiment and try.

But first, before we dive even deeper, let me assure you that as long as you write the story, there’s nothing wrong with doing quite a bit of worldbuilding. Just don’t get drowned by it and never write the actual story. At some point, you have to sit down and write the story. Whether you push yourself into doing this by setting a schedule or by simply saying “that’s enough worldbuilding, let’s start,” you should always remember that the purpose of worldbuilding is to tell a story set in that world, not for the sake of the worldbuilding. Fun as it may be.

So do plenty of worldbuilding. Just make sure you actually move past it and start writing.

Okay, that aside over, let’s finally talk about the decision process behind holding and sharing the elements of your world that you’ve come up with.

At its core, the decision about holding and sharing seems pretty straightforward: Does it serve the story? Share it! Does it impact the plot? Share it! Does it not do either of those things? Hold it!

But as with many things in writing, the simple and straightforward there isn’t quite our full answer. For example, there’s the matter of audience to consider.

See, our audience—the readers we’re writing for—are going to determine what we hold onto and what we share, as well as how we share it. Take, for instance, books like The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time. Both are Epic Fantasy books that have zero qualms having a character recite or sing a history book just to give the reader one line of plot-relevant material (if that, sometimes), amid several dozen lines of information that are key to understanding how the world works … but not to anything plot-vital.

Some audiences do not like this type of book. Not one bit. While other readers love it. And then there are the people that are in the middle. They don’t mind a little extra information, but they also want at least a chunk of it to be vital to the plot.

There are other considerations of audience as well when it comes to our worldbuilding. For example, some readers do not want the book to ask them to either trust the author or keep track of information to ponder on their own. If the book drops a tidbit of knowledge that’s going to be important later … then NO, they don’t like that. The book had either better make it clear, direct to the reader that this is important information, or the book needs to cut it.

Meanwhile and again, there are readers out there that are quite fine trusting and responding to a line with “Huh, that detail seems innocuous, but I’d better keep it in mind for later, as it might be vital.”

None of these readers are right or wrong with their different preferences (unless, of course, they attempt to shove those preferences on everyone and penalize those that don’t). They’re just preferences for how stories present information and what sort of priorities they have about the world and setting in relation to plot. There isn’t exactly a right or a wrong. At least, not from that angle.

But from the writing angle, there is a “right” and a “wrong” for your story based on what audience you’re writing for. For example, if you’re attempting to write something for the high-energy, short-book “plot thrill ride and nothing else crowd,” then you should be holding a lot if not all of your worldbuilding unless it is 100% immediately relevant to the plot, and only then sharing it.

Likewise, if your readers are comfortable with a little extra detail to deepen the setting past wetting the bottoms of their feet, you can share a bit more here and there—though do keep in mind it’s best to avoid info-dumps and be clever where you can. Naturally it follows that you may even go for an audience that loves the sharing of the majority of your details.

Now, there’s one other bit to this I wish to call to attention here: Keep in mind what details you’re sharing. Remember that our goal is to serve the story, so what you share should be, in some way, something that serves the story as a whole. Keep it related to the context, or to your character. After all, if for example you have a character whose hobby is model airplanes, and you’ve built a deep history for your world about how airplanes there progressed, and this character needs to “vent” or change their focus for a bit, you could have another character ask them about some of their favorite model planes, and why they’re favorites. You could make such a segment long or short, but it would both serve as a pacing moment as well as being a chance to share both worldbuilding you’ve made and give that character some more life and personality.

Keep the details you do share relevant in some way. Don’t just share details because you can. Have a character share them, or a scene show them. And yes, this means that sometimes you’ll want to share details or information that just does not have a place, and you’ll have to hold it. That’s okay. It happens. Just keep it in hand, and maybe you’ll get a chance later. If not, resist the temptation by recalling that the aim is to serve the story. Always.

So, to sum up what we’ve discussed here today, it’s fine to create a surplus of worldbuilding information and detail while worldbuilding, as long as you do get around to actually writing. Once writing, however, remember that what you put into your story should be written with the aim of serving the story. So you’ll want to have an audience in mind to shape what you share and what you hold.

Know who you’re writing for. Again, this is something that will grow easier to determine with time and practice. You may make a misstep or two along the way, but you’ll also with each one understand better where and what you can share and hold as your story takes shape.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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