Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Not All That Is Known

Steven Swain

2003, Steven Swain

hen writers worldbuild, we are sometimes afflicted with the desire to incorporate all of it into our story somehow.  This is often not necessary. And the more you worldbuild, the more unnecessary it is.

For example, when you set up a royal genealogy going back twenty generations, and then you mention the King who was nineteen generations back, restrain the urge to recite all the generations in between like some Biblical list of "begats." It is sufficient to merely mention that this particular King was nineteen generations back. You don't even have to specifically mention the number of generations if your royal titles are set up so that every King has a title that all the others had and the only change is in the number. For instance, if the current King is known as "Robert, Twentieth King of Vehreni." If this is the case, all you would need to do is refer to "Henry, Second King of Vehreni" for the reader to have all the clues he needs to know that Henry was eighteen generations before Robert. 

In fact, you can use this method as a shortcut in worldbuilding. You will notice that I only mentioned two names.  I didn't even bother coming up with the other eighteen names.  And you don't need to, either, until it becomes necessary.

In David Weber's The War God's Own (Baen, ISBN:0-671-57792-1) the author has one character tell another "Let this be a lesson to you, my friends. Never assume that just because something was once common knowledge it must be still."  With apologies to the author, I would like to modify the words slightly and apply them to this topic.  "Let this be a lesson to you, my fellow authors. Never assume that just because something is in your worldbuilding notebook it must be in the story."

Oftentimes all that is necessary for the reader to know about the history of the world is a hint here, a mention there, perhaps a short snippet of a tale somewhere else.  Those tantalizing glimpses of a world that goes deeper than the immediate story is enough to make the world seem all that much more real.

I like to compare it to our own world's history.  Consider three civilizations: English, Egyptian, Babylonian.  We know a lot of the history of England - enough, in fact, to have an information overload. How much English history that we've learned do we bother to remember? Not all that much, right? We know much less about Egyptian history.  In comparison to English history, we don't know all that much.  We know the names of some kings and how long ago they lived and maybe which dynasty they were part of.  We know of their monuments and statues -- the ones that remain.  We are teased with glimpses of the long history of Egypt and those glimpses give modern Egypt that aura of mystery, of age, of continuity. Contrast those two with Babylon. We know practically nothing about Babylon, even in comparison to ancient Egypt. A mere few tidbits: a monument or two here and there, names of a few kings. These few facts are almost all the proof we have that it really existed. Likewise, when using an ancient civilization as background or a sideline in your story, only a few facts are needed to convince the reader that it existed.

A writer has to be almost mercenary in how the facts are doled out amongst the available number of words.  The writer has to consider carefully the effect that will be given. Will this particular fact be a tantalizing glimpse of some ages-old civilization, or will it be merely another fact in a long list of recited facts about some civilization we know almost too much about? Get the most punch for your facts when you can. The mercenary soldier spends as much as he has to on his armor and weapons and other equipment and, often, not a penny more. The rest of the money is saved for entertainment.  So, too, the writer. Spend as many words as you have to for setting up the world, but no more. Save the rest for entertainment - the actual story itself. But don't misunderstand me - those "world words" are essential. You must have them! Don't skimp when skimping isn't called for.

It can often be a delicate balancing act. It is as demanding of care as walking a tightrope. The tightrope walker can sway only so much -- but no more! -- before he will fall.  Likewise, the author can be flexible in the amount of world words used in contrast to entertainment words, but only to a certain point! Beyond that point, the story will fall. This analogy is not meant to frighten, only to caution.  Just as the tightrope walker gets better with practice, so will you.

This is not to say that you should not worldbuild.  In fact, worldbuild all you want. The more you know about your world, the more facts you have, the more judicious you can be in which facts you give the reader.  Just remember that not all that is known to you should be explicitly given to the reader. Good luck and happy writing.