Hiding the Worldbuilding Iceberg
“I want to elaborate on this tonight after work,” I told Twitter, as I QT’d @PaulJessup sharing Lincoln Michel’s article “Worldbuilding Doesn’t Need to Build Everything.”
After my book came out, I learned that worldbuilding is one of my strengths. This shouldn’t have surprised me. When entering college, I rationalized studying aerospace engineering as a means not only to get a day job but also to “write better science fiction.” I thought studying aerospace would help me with world building—and it has in many unexpected ways.
Despite that intentional selection and the years I’ve put into developing the Project Black Book world, I don’t yet think critically about what to include or exclude as far as details when I’m drafting. I know what information is important to my characters in the moment, and my first drafts follow their trains of thought. Since that leaves my poor alpha readers lost and confused, I’m working on elaborating the details that the reader needs to understand.
But the Percallans who get referenced as Gertewet allies in Rights of Use? No one needs to know that yet.
The scuffles that grounded the motherships in book 2? Not relevant to that plot.
In various writing groups, I’ve been called out for infodumping so many times that I now err on the side of too little information. There is a balance of how much of the worldbuilding iceberg to show, and that balance is going to be different for every author, maybe every world that author writes.
I think Lincoln Michel’s worldbuilding essay is great, but as an Extended Universe fan, I’m going to have to disagree with their assessment of Star Wars. Yes, the throwaway lines in the original trilogy are part of what make it feel so rich, but prequels to explain aspects of a thing can be wonderfully entertaining. (Unless it’s Prelude to Foundation.) My problem is that, too often, prequels don’t continue to expand by adding the same proportion of throwaway lines. This is a whole new universe! You shouldn’t reach the limits of new things until your stories have covered lifetimes. That’s one of the things the old Extended Universe (or the best parts of it) did really well: continue to add the little details. Continue to not tie up every loose end.
Michel’s “world seeds” approach is interesting, but it would drive me crazy to work that way. I need to delve deep into how my world works and how the elements interrelate. I need to understand what medical access is available on each planet, how they handle their sewage, where their water comes from, and what their gender distribution is and what they tell themselves about that. I’m a woman in STEM. I need to thoroughly understand everything I’m saying, and I will tell you only the part of it that is relevant in this particular moment.
Maybe in time, I’ll be less terse.