The Dangers of World-Building

An article today on NPR about fantasy world-building suggests that what was once for the most outcast of nerds is (along with general geekdom) gaining more widespread acceptance, that the incredibly detailed worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and Robert Jordan have a definite – and perhaps lauded – place. I'm a total geek. I love my world-building. I've been building a world for my stories for years, and it's great fun. And I certainly hope to be able to communicate some of that detail – and some of that love for the world – to my audience.

But to my mind – and I've heard the same from multiple writers and readers – there's a danger here. A couple, actually. Danger one is that as a writer, you spend too much time figuring out the world and not enough actually writing a story.

The more interesting danger is having to keep the balance between the world detail you put into your story to make it compelling, and having so much in there that it becomes boring. Yes, all that great detail about Middle Earth or Westeros does make the world feel more real, make it easier to immerse yourself in it, but it can also ruin the experience if it gets in the way of the story.

A lot of people I know loved the story of The Lord of the Rings and hated the writing. I don't need to know the entire history of the sword to understand why it's important; I just need a sliver of that. I would rather read a really compelling story that shows me just enough of the world to believe it, to be interested, and to want more. And then, if I do want more, maybe have some place to get more. Like an appendix. Or a wiki.

And this, I think, is one of the powers of (good) transmedia storytelling. I don't have to shoehorn all that world lore into my story; I can create other resources and other stories to explore it instead. Or maybe I can create an enhanced version of the book, where you can click on a name to get its full family history and coat of arms – but if you're not interested, or you want to come back later, you don't have to.

You can't argue with numbers, and Lord of the Rings, Song of Ice and Fire, and Wheel of Time are all hugely well-selling series. But then, so is Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and they gave us just enough world information to make the story interesting.