I shudder when I hear the term ‘world building’.
It makes me think of people sitting there for weeks, months, years, plotting every minute detail of their story universe and the thought of it just makes me itchy.
I know it’s integral to a lot of speculative fiction writing, but whenever people talk about it I wanna grab an umbrella to prepare for a deluge of backstory.
I’m not saying backstory is bad by any means, but I am most certainly the kind of person who gets bored of it really easily. The Silmarillion, for example, has been sitting on my shelf for ages, half read because I just can’t bring myself to trudge through it. Tolkien’s writing is stunning sometimes, but the backstory reads like a text book and I left school long ago.
So you want to write a story that’s full of backstory and myth and history? I get it, some people like that kind of thing. Maybe I’m not your ideal reader and that’s cool, but if you want your book to appeal to a wider swath of speculative fiction fans (or people like me who get bored of detailed histories) I can offer my thoughts on backstory and how to keep it from spreading like the plague that rocked your fantasy world thirteen centuries ago and caused lasting devastation.
Sprinkle don’t pour
The info dump is my worst enemy. Thick, meaty paragraphs of history about the world with no break for action or dialogue. I’m here for the story, not the history lesson. Please keep it minimal, sprinkle, don’t pour.
In the beginning
In the beginning you want to keep it especially light because I want to head right into the story and learn about the backstory once I’m invested. If I don’t have a reason to care and you dump backstory on me, it’s likely I’ll just cut my losses and leave your book on the shelf next to The Silmarillion.
No info dumps in dialogue
Usually people don’t sit around and tell each other tales of history (unless it’s a bard and then it’d better be funny). They don’t spew out whole massive stories in one breath and even if they do, people don’t really want to listen. Keep your dialogue minimal and realistic and save the backstory for small sprinkles in the text.
Is it really relevant that nine hundred years ago there was a battle between two warring tribes somewhere on a far continent? Do we really need to know every detail about the invention of the laser guns that are so prolific in your world? You’ve worked hard on all the details, but that doesn’t mean that they are all relevant, or even interesting. I want to know what I need to know for the story’s sake or for character building, not much more.
It’s about character & present story
Ultimately your story is about your characters and what happens to them. Sometimes that may include a little context or history, but overall it should be present and future, not past or ancient history.
It’s your world, you’ve poured all your blood, sweat and tears into it. It’s awesome you’re having a good time, but at some point it’s time to administer the drugs and stop the plague of backstory before it takes over the entire universe. Backstory and history are great things to add in sprinkles, but more than that and you’ve lost me.
Agree and have more tips on keeping it simple?
Hate me for saying you should cut down on your favorite part of writing?
Let me know!