Fantasy writers know all about world building, but no matter what genre you write, you’re going to have to convey the characteristics of your main character’s world. The trick is finding the right balance. Too much detail can turn into pages of info-dump, where plot and your MC takes a backseat to purple prose describing things no one cares about. Too little detail and there’s no context to engage your reader.
I write contemporary fantasy, and I’m always struggling with how much info to include about the fantastical details of my world. One trick I’ve found especially useful is asking whether, if the novel was not taking place in a fantastical world, I’d include that piece of background information. I find that by doing this, I can learn whether a particular detail is essential to the plot. If it’s not essential, out it goes, no matter how interesting or fun it might be.
Let’s say I’m writing a contemporary novel about my MC’s first year at college. She’s away from home for the first time and trying to find her place in the world. I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d even consider including the history of the university, a blueprint of the grounds, or who sits on the board of directors. Heck, no. I’d focus on my MC’s actual conflict and include only those details about the college that were necessary to the plot.
Now switch it up. Same plot—my MC is attending her first year at the magic academy, and she’s away from home for the first time and trying to find her place in the world. Does the world building change? Is it now okay to include snippets of the history of the university, a blueprint of the grounds, or the board of directors? No. No. And No. The same rule applies—I’m only going to include details about the academy that are necessary to the plot.
This is not to say I don’t think about other aspects of my fantastical world. But that I thought of how or why something is the way that it is doesn’t mean I have to include it in the novel. If that detail is not important to what is going on with the MC at that exact moment, it has to stay out. We’ve all heard how every word has a purpose and how important it is to kill our darlings. These concepts hold true with world building too. If there’s no particular reason for a detail about your world to be included, it must go, no matter how interesting that detail is.
Fellow Pitch Wars mentor Charlie N. Holmberg’s The Paper Magician series is a great example of keeping the world building tied to the plot. The series takes place in the late 1800s where magicians specialize in a field: paper, glass, metal, etc. The MC, Ceony, graduates from magic school and is assigned to study paper magic, which she feels is the lowest form of magic. She then learns paper magic, falls for her instructor, and becomes involved in warding off practitioners of dark magic.
At no point in the series did Holmberg explain how or why Ceony has magic propensities while others don’t, how magic is used in the world outside of Ceony’s experience, how magic was discovered, or anything about the use of magic in the world that wasn’t directly tied to Ceony’s actions. All of the world building is on a need-to-know basis and explained to the reader only in the context of what is happening to Ceony at a specific point in time. This is perfect world building. The novel isn’t about the Ceony’s magical world. The novel is about Ceony, and by not including a zillion unnecessary details about the magical world, the focus remains on Ceony.
Everyone should totally read The Paper Magicians series—it’s great fun. But there’s plenty of other examples of successful world building being limited to the plot. Go back and dissect The Hunger Games. In the first book, we get very little on how and why the districts were formed. It’s not until later in the series, when the overthrow becomes central to the plot, that more of the history into Pan Em is described to the reader.
To sum up, I know it’s tough editing out world building. We spend so much time developing our world we want everyone to know we put in the work! (And hey, it helps with reaching those word count goals too.) We just have to remember that the story is what’s important, and unnecessary details will slow down the plot and risk boring the reader.
So what about you? What tips or tricks do you utilize to keep your world building in check? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!