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World Building Without Bogging Down Your Novel


I was asked to talk today about how you build a world without bogging down your novel. And it's something you see all too much of, not just in the work of those working toward becoming professionals, but in professionally published manuscripts as well.

Part of the problem is that writers become so in love with their world that they hit you with as much of it as they can right from the beginning. There are dumps and dumps of exposition that are supposed to paint a vibrant world, but too many colors of paint hit the canvas and instead of a beautiful sunset and a happy little tree, you're looking at a big smudge of brown where too many colors mixed.

That's not to say you can't get away with some florid description. Sometimes, my favorite passages in books are descriptions of the world that leave my breath taken.

But you don't need all of it in your book.

The question you need to ask yourself is this: does it add to the story?

If you're creating a fantasy or a sci-fi world of your own design, are there parts of the history or ecology or culture that will heighten the stakes to the current situation with your characters? If the answer is yes, then you need to find ways to incorporate that into the story before the context is needed. But not all at once.

If the answer is no, then you need to ask yourself what it does for the story. Does it add a bit of verisimilitude? Does it enhance a character? Does it add to a setting? If it doesn't do anything but "sound cool," then the right answer is to probably excise it from your draft.

You don't have to cram every detail you come up with into your book for your world. It's okay to leave things by the wayside. It's Hemingway's iceberg theory, right? If you know every intimate detail of your world and only show the audience the tip of that iceberg, if you're authoritative enough with the details you do reveal, then you're going to make the reader believe the rest of the iceberg is there. You can imply that it's there and the audience will believe you.

But if you get down into the finer details, far below the surface, people will believe the iceberg exists, but they'll think it's incredibly boring and unnecessary.

The key to not letting your world get bogged down is playing a game of restraint with what you tell the audience.

I would also suggest you keep your own made up terms and words to a minimum. Add maybe one per chapter, tops. This is a new vocabulary and unless you're George Lucas, it's really hard to get people to track all of these new terms. Lucas was able to throw so many semi-familiar terms at audiences with a specific tone that they were able to understand what was going on without knowing the details. But if you open up with just pages of mumbo jumbo in a tongue you made up, you're going to bog down your story.

Think about what makes you roll your eyes and skip a passage in the books read. Go back, read it, figure out why you wanted to skip it. Then when you're writing your story, make sure you don't do that. They say so much of writing is reading, and it's true. You need to read a lot so you can learn what you like and what you hate. You need to soak in everything.

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As for my writing lately, I've been plugging away on my novel and articles for places.

The latest is a piece for Salt Lake City Weekly about Westworld. 
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As a reminder: Please join my short story Patreon here.  Your contributions to the Patreon help me write more like this.

The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

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