So, worldbuilding. People talk about it a lot, especially in fantasy and science fiction, and the bar for doing it right can seem pretty high. That dude Tolkien, after all, created a whole language. Or, er, several. And that other dude George R. R. Martin just published his backstory author notes for the A Song of Ice and Fire series (the book is Fire and Blood, comprises roughly eleventy billion pages, and reads like your favorite encyclopedia ever), and if you get the audiobook you can drive from New Orleans to Los Angeles and not run out of entertainment the whole way. That’s a lot of words, folks.
Not to mention a lot of pressure.
But don’t worry: you don’t have to be Tolkien or Martin. You just have to be you and do what works for your story. I’ve done a lot of worldbuilding, with varying levels of success. But more importantly, I’ve done a lot of reading in other people’s worlds, and a few things seem to work consistently, and a few don’t. These tips should give you a head start and a belly full of confidence.
To Jargon or Not To Jargon?
Early on, my editor advised me to tone down the technical stuff and especially the made-up terms, and I sincerely did, but all the while I was thinking, “My readers are smart; they’ll be able to figure this out.” Well, I was half right. My readers were very smart. And also they didn’t want to have to go look stuff up. So by the end a lot of them got annoyed, which is kind of an argument against using jargon.
But you have to make some stuff up every once in a while, right? Lightsabers, muggles, hobbits, Skynet … all of these things that we just read right past and digest easily are completely invented and jargony, but we aren’t annoyed by them. So how’d those authors do that?
Honestly, no idea, but one writer who does jargon really well is Cara Bristol. In her first Cy-Ops Sci-fi Romance series book, she introduces a lot of new terms for familiar things, but she doesn’t make the reader work too hard to understand what’s being described. Like this:
At stall 2105, which corresponded to her apartment number, she found her white PeeVee. As she approached, the lights came on and the door unlocked. She stowed her luggage in the trunk and then slipped into the control seat of the Personal Transportation Vehicle. (From Stranded with the Cyborg, © Cara Bristol, 2015)
So right here, she introduced a new term for a thing that we all know well—a car—and then not only gave clear context to let us know it’s a car, but also told us flat out it was, well, a car (a “Personal Transportation Vehicle”). There is literally no way a reader can get lost here, which I think is pretty brilliant. So, if you just have to jargon, make sure to make crystal clear what the thing/concept is and how it’s used in the world, and then also compare it to a known thing/idea if possible.
Nailing the Showpiece Setting
A lot of times when we are thinking up a fantastical story, part of the excitement is the fantastical setting. I mean, alien planets, gritty dystopian wastelands, magical fairy meres—these are the images we see behind our eyelids and yearn to share. Sometimes in our excitement to tell the story using these shiny, amazing settings, we just dive right in. Which, oops.
Folks giving out query advice are quick to tell you to bring the most amazing part of your story to the very beginning, to capture the reader on page one. I’d caution against doing that with a showpiece fantastical setting.
Harry Potter’s epic doesn’t start out mid-quidditch, right? It starts out on Privet Drive, in a very familiar-feeling setting, and the story takes its time and care leading readers into the made-up parts. So, timing the roll-out of a wondrous set piece is crucial.
So is showing the function of the setting. What I mean by that is, don’t just describe a place and then not use it for something plot-relevant immediately. One of my favorite books is Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, but I have to blushingly confess that I had no idea, on first read, that the Source Victoria was a repository of nanites that could be formed by matter compilers into everyday stuff. I mean, on the page it’s described as a giant, diamond calla lily, which I’ll grant you is beautiful, but I had no clue what this thing was or why I should be impressed. So maybe describe the setting or made-up item and then put it to use right away.
The World Tastes Like Chocolate
Scientifically, inputs to your visual sense, your eyeballs, result in the least brain activity. So perhaps describing something cinematically is not our best plan.
If you really want to get a reader’s brain locked on to your world and story, give them tastes, textures, sounds, and most especially smells.
Olfactory (smell) details are also the things that we remember best, for good or bad. So make sure your world has plenty of savory or tart food, scratchy or slinky clothes, rancid or refreshing aromas.
But Cravats and Fichus were Real, Not Made-Up Things
Here’s the dirtiest little secret of worldbuilding: every good writer does it regardless of genre. For instance, if you’ve ever read a historical romance, chances are you’ve read words like cravat, Hessians, fichu, quadrille, or wallflower. Heads up: these are not everyday words in the twenty-first century. They are all jargony words, meant to build a world. Just like lightsaber and muggle, these words are necessary for putting a reader into the story world.
Don’t assume that just because you’re writing something that actually existed that you aren’t building a whole new world for your readers. You are. With all the attendant pressures and research obligations.
Here’s another thing that might blow your mind: worldbuilding can also include words and phrases like pumpkin spice latte and I know, right? You might hear those phrases in the office and read them on Twitter, but they are also specific to a world, a feel, a shared setting. If you’re writing contemporary, you still operate under the burden of research, and you still have to think about how to introduce terms, items, and ideas that not everyone all over the world will necessarily know. Be kind to your global readers and don’t assume that they know how Central Park smells in spring. One famous book featured a thunderstorm in Washington State, and while most of us who don’t live there just read right past it, residents were annoyed by the fact that although it rains a lot in the area, thunderstorms are rare. Getting that detail right instead of glaringly wrong would have made the world, um, sparkle a lot more.
But that can also be said for all worldbuilding, eh? We just do our best. Good luck, and may the words be with you.
Feature image by Visual hunt