Worldbuilding: the enemy of good writing?

by Janet Forbes

Worldbuilding: the enemy of good writing?

It’s called the worldbuilding trap.

Worldbuilders disease.

In fact, it seems like worldbuilding is Public Enemy #1 amongst writers. 

But why?

Some of the biggest, best, and most memorable books – especially, but not only, books in genre fiction – are steeped in worldbuilding. And strong settings are the reason fans buy not just sequels, but lorebooks and artbooks of their favorite novels, video games and TV series. 

It’s why there are so many Lord of the Rings spinoffs. 

And dammit, it’s why I know Klingon.

Whatever your genre, your readers want to escape to the place you’ve created. They want to immerse themselves in your book, open the cover like they’re pulling the duvet over their heads, and revel in your world setting. Worldbuilding, then, is just about the most important thing for a writer, especially of genre fiction. So why do some writers seem to hate it so much?

Here’s my spicy take…. Worldbuilding gets a bad rap because authors don’t know how to handle it.

Worldbuilding has been framed

Worldbuilding in your novel is the egg in your souffle. If it’s well balanced, well-mixed, it makes everything work better. If it goes wrong, it leaves everything smelling of farts. 

And it’s particularly a problem in genre fiction. Here’s why.

As fantasy and scifi developed as genres, prologues that told you ALL about the world were common. Told. As in, the opposite of Show-Don’t-Tell.

Large, dull paragraphs of exposition-dumping (often using Butler-and-Maid style dialogue) were also common, as authors struggled to convey information about their fascinating new world settings using less-than-stellar methods.

Authors who’ve read a lot of older genre fiction, and those who are younger in their craft, often fall into these mistakes. And it makes people hate worldbuilding.

But as always, it’s clunky writing that’s the real villain here. 

Worldbuilding has been framed. 

Worldbuilding Exposition – how to get it right?

OK, so if you’re still following my metaphor, how do we remove the eggy smell from our souffle?

There are two main ways to do this. 

  1. Baking in the worldbuilding to our core elements
  2. Making sure new information is in motion, and emotional

Baking the Worldbuilding into your souffle book

Somewhere in your novel writing process, you’ll have figured out the three basic elements – setting, characters and plot. 

The trick to a strong novel is to make those things knit together beautifully. It’s time to break out my favourite saying:

“Your setting is the tapestry across which your story is told, weaving through your characters & plot.”

Janet Forbes

The reason for that eggy worldbuilding smell is usually because the setting is tacked on as an afterthought. Let’s add some pointy ears and a weird religion to this character. Yup – that’s definitely going to smell by next chapter.

Instead, use your characters and your locations as vehicles to convey the intricacies of your world.

For characters, consider building in:

  • Unique backgrounds that give insight into your wider setting
  • Taboos and morals influenced by, or in reaction to, those backgrounds
  • Interesting professions (and past professions) unique to your world
  • Associations with important organizations (universities, clans, crime syndicates)
  • Naming conventions tied into cultural or religious ideals
  • Physical expressions of their background, religion, training etc. (tattoos, weapons, clothing, piercings)
  • Idioms that have deeper cultural meanings – e.g. not room to swing a warg

For locations, consider:

  • Choosing representative locations in your setting – instead of a general store, make the scene happen in a potion shop, a cybertech garage or an exotic animals shop! 
  • Filling your location descriptions with the trappings of your world. Tapestries of ancient battles, songs of long-lost heroes in the background, or induction hyper-spanners littering the workshop. 

But also, plot is deeply steeped in setting: the organizations that act, the history that set current events in motion. Make sure you’ve woven all the elements of your plot from and into your setting, and your book will be tighter and stronger. 

By the way, I always recommend starting with a worldbuilding “meta” when the story is just a spark in your mind’s eye, before you get too deeply into character and plot. It definitely helps this baking-in process. 

In motion and emotional – Worldbuilding exposition done right

Exposition – that is, delivering crucial information to your readers – is necessary. It moves the story forward. Deepens the conflict. Provides stakes. 

But as I mentioned, exposition done wrong leads to that eggy smell. 

So how do you get exposition right? 

Step 1: Ask yourself – should this fact be here?

Consider if you really need to introduce the information. It might be critical if it’s:

  • important for your plot (foreshadowing!)
  • adding to the mood of the scene 
  • leading to deeper understanding of a character

If it’s not doing any of those things, see if you can remove it, or introduce it as a mood element or a detail later. If it DOES need to be there, then consider:

Step 2. How do I make my readers care about this fact?

After all, we’re writing because we want our readers to feel things. We want them to be eager for new knowledge. This is my rule for exposition of new information:

All your exposition should be in motion and emotional. 

Janet Forbes

Essentially, this is an extension of the “show-don’t-tell” principle, and should be treated with the same rules (and with the same caveats!).

Here’s an example. 

Let’s say, I need my audience to learn about the First Principle of Magic. It’s critical for the solution at the climax of my novel. How can I introduce that to my audience in a way that is in motion or emotional to my MC (main character)?

  1. In motion: MC is involved in a magical explosion, but leverages the First Principle of Magic to save another character. Essentially, involved with MC doing things.
  2. Emotional: MC is humiliated by another, who taunts them for not knowing the First Principle of Magic. A friend explains it while MC has a small meltdown that they’re out of their depth. Involved with MC feeling things. 

In both those instances, the audience has learned the First Principle of Magic. But it was through an exciting scene that gave emotional depth and action to the novel, and developed the characters, too. You can apply this to anything you like – faster-than-light travel, a societal taboo, or whatever.

That’s worldbuilding feeding into plot, feeding into character, and feeding back into worldbuilding… 

And it’s going to make you a souffle book I’m dying to devour. 

If you need help avoiding Worldbuilders Disease – i.e. compulsively building your setting instead of writing your novel – then do check out the worldbuilding “meta”. It’s a great tool for prioritizing what worldbuilding information you NEED (and avoiding the trap of worldbuilding you don’t need).

What are your tips for folding the worldbuilding into your stories?

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About Janet

Janet Forbes (she/her) is a published fantasy author, RPG game developer and (secretly) a velociraptor, and has been building worlds since she was knee-high to an orc. 

Janet Forbes

In 2017 she co-founded World Anvil, the award-winning worldbuilding and writing software (and tabletop RPG manager) which boasts a community of 2 million users. 

As a writer, Janet has published short fiction in several collections, was the lead author of The Dark Crystal RPG (2021) with Riverhorse Games and the Henson Company, and has also written for Infinite Black, Kobold Press and Tidebreaker. 

As a D&D performer, she has played professionally for the likes of Wizards of the Coast, Modiphius and Wyrd Games. Janet is passionate about teaching, and has given seminars on writing and other topics for Exeter University, GenCon, Dragonmeet, the Circle of Worldbuilders, Full Sail Writers Conference, PWA’s Fantasy week, and more. She holds a BA and MA in Early Music Performance, is an experienced archaeologist, and speaks 5 languages.

Top image by Deleyna via Midjourney

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