The Well, Writing

Worldbuilding: The Devil’s in the Details


How do you incorporate details into a story? Like if it’s a fantasy, how do you balance world-building with plot and character development? If it’s set in a historical period, how do you make sure the details are accurate, necessary?

-curious writer

The most important element of worldbuilding is the knowledge that people will approach your world with only the understanding of their own world. If they’re an avid reader, they might have a broader vocabulary concerning worldbuilding, but you can’t rely on something a reader might or might not know. So as you introduce details of a foreign world, be it fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, alternate realities, what have you, always keep in the back of your mind how it relates to the here and now—the world to which your reader will unconsciously compare your world.

After you’ve ingrained that fact into every part of your creative subconscious, you have to ask yourself the question, does the reader need to know this? That’s a good place for friends and beta-readers to come in, if you’re not comfortable making those calls for yourself yet.

I’ve beta read and edited for writers who didn’t include nearly enough details, which left their world bland and boring, for writers who included so many details you couldn’t get through a page without getting lost, and writers who included a good amount of details, but all the wrong details, leaving the world feeling a little off-kilter with a lot of dangling ends. All are fixable, usually with another set of eyes. But there are a few ways to avoid this as you’re writing.

First, know that you’re not going to find that sweet spot in the first draft. It’s just not going to happen, and putting that pressure on yourself will make for cringe-worthy writing.

Balancing worldbuilding with character and plot depends largely on what kind of writer you are. If you’re a pantser who errs on the side of not enough detail, like me, the answer is to include as much detail as you can as you figure out your plot, use it to shape your plot and characters, and then go back and take out what either isn’t relevant anymore or what isn’t strictly necessary. If you’re a planner who errs on the side of too much detail, ask yourself as you’re writing, does my reader really need to know this? will this be important later on? is this relevant to the plot and not just in there to make me look smart? If the answer to any of these questions is no, take it out.

Obviously that’s a gross generalization, but no two writers are the same, so no two writers are going to have the exact same process. Especially since the amount and type of detail depends also on your audience, your genre, the length of your book, whether it’s first person or third, and how you weave details in. There’s no right or wrong way, as long as it produces a good book in the end.

On a practical level, the best way to weave details in is through plot or character development. You describe a weapon while describing a character’s aversion to violence. You mention the weird weather while a character grumbles about it on their way to an appointment. You drop hints about the economy while an important transaction happens. Etc. The best way to get a feel for how to do this? Read. Specifically, read good books. Here are some I would suggest for excellent worldbuilding:

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (high fantasy)
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (high fantasy)
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (high fantasy)
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (historical fantasy)
The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell (YA historical urban fantasy)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (humor science fiction)
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (middle grade fantasy)
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor (YA fantasy)

The thing that all these books have in common is that they tell a story first, and weave details in as they become necessary.

So as you’re writing, tell your story, first and foremost. And as you’re telling your story, think of your reader. If there’s something fundamentally different about the make-up of your world from the real world, that needs to be pointed out very soon. If there’s a slight anatomical difference in your characters that isn’t central to the plot, it can be dropped in later without much explanation. If you have a magic system, the usage, consequences and limitations need to made clear, probably near the beginning of the story.

Writing, at its core, is just managing your reader’s expectations. The reader is going to expect that your world follows the rules of our own, unless you tell them differently. And if you tell them differently, it has to make sense. There are logical reactions to any change you make in a world. For example, if snow in your world is bright purple, then the logical conclusion is that all water is purple, and it’s purple because it has something in it, because everyone knows that water is clear. So if you make the claim that snow is purple, but in your world water is just clear, you need to give a reason for the disconnect. If you make the claim that all water is purple but there’s nothing out of the ordinary in it, you need to give a reason why. Etc.

As a general rule, you can’t mess with the laws of physics. You can’t mess with the basics of biology. Chances are, you the writer are not going to understand these things well enough to remake them anyway, so it’s best if you don’t try. And if you do try, don’t mess with more than one or two laws of science. There’s a threshold of acceptance that your reader won’t be willing to cross, and if you start making up too many random rules, they’ll stop understanding and thus stop caring.

That threshold of acceptance also extends to how quickly you introduce your details. If you info dump on the first two pages, you’ll overwhelm your reader and they’ll stop caring. For each detail you introduce, give your reader at least a few pages for it to sink in. That means letting the detail be important to the story for a few pages, not just dropping it and moving to a different storyline before dropping more details. It has to be seamlessly added to the worldview that you’re creating for them. Similarly to how someone dropped in a foreign country is going to have a bit of a culture shock, you can’t force too many details on them at once. Someone planning to go to a foreign country for a period of time is going to learn pieces of the language. Then they’ll learn a few pieces of culture. Then some history, as it pertains to whatever they’re going to be doing there. Don’t give your reader culture shock. Ease them in.

Obviously there are exceptions; there are always exceptions. And if you think you’re one of them, more power to you. But don’t be appalled when you’re not.

As for the accuracy of your worldbuilding, research. Research, research, research. Your world has to make sense. The sense of the mystical you get from the best worldbuilding doesn’t come from a world that’s lacking in important details or isn’t fully explained, it comes from the writer weaving in detail so well that you don’t notice it. It comes from a world that makes so much sense, you’re not sure how it’s not real.

Ultimately, how you include the detail in your story is going to be unique to you and your book. So as you’re writing or reading through, ask yourself these questions:

If a reader with no knowledge of my world or characters starts reading this, have I given them enough information for the story to make sense?

Is my world balanced? Have all the details I’ve included been taken to their logical conclusions in how they affect other details? Does everything work together to make a real world?

Does my reader really need to know this specific detail? Why?

You won’t create a perfect first draft. Or a perfect second draft. You might not even create a perfect final product. There are plenty of books out there with abysmal worldbuilding that do just enough that the average reader doesn’t notice the holes. But your ultimate tool for effective worldbuilding is going to be other people. You know everything there is to know about your world, so it’s always going to make sense in your head. The question is whether it makes sense in other people’s heads, too.


2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: The Devil’s in the Details”

  1. I might add to this that how much information and in what method you deliver it can depend on the genre. Sci-fi is more forgiving for straight-up infodumps than romance is, for instance—my favorite author, Alastair Reynolds, has on more than one occasion digressed from advancing the story proper to explain how a concept works. In his case I think it was beneficial, as in, say, “Redemption Ark” when the Inhibitors basically sing the star apart.

    I think also sometimes you should just present something without bothering to explain how, why, or what it is. Like in “John Wick”, we don’t know much about the krugerrand system the criminal underworld uses for payment. They just do it, and the rest is left as an exercise to the viewer.

    1. I did mention that it depends on the genre you’re writing, but while sci-fi publishers might be more forgiving for info dumps, it’s still not generally good for the reader. There are always exceptions to rules, and the best writers can break them in the best ways, of course. But there’s never a reason to not keep your reader in mind, nor how he or she will respond to what you’re writing.

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