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A WAY WITH WORLDS: TMIBy Steven Savage, creator of the Crossworld of Xai. Archives available at Seventh Sanctum
First of all, welcome to the halfway point! My goal is to put out at least 100 Way With Worlds columns, and this is the midpoint! So, if you're ready for two more years or so . . .
Several times here I've discussed how important description is when writing about your world. Most notable I've noted you can overdo it or do it wrong.
In this and the next column I'm going to explore the two extremes of worldbuilding and description - providing too much information and providing too little. I figured it's time both of these issues get their own column.
TMI: TMI stands for "Too Much Information," and is a slang term meaning someone has said too much.
Writers often aren't at risk for TMI - I usually find many writers could use more information in their writing. However for some detail-oriented people, especially world-builders and setting-intensive folks, it's a real risk.
This may seem like a rather strange statement - after all, the goal of writing is communication, correct? And communication requires information, correct?
This is of course the case - the problem being that good communication doesn't mean dumping every bit of information on your target, providing information they don't need, or doing things to annoy your target. Communication doesn't work if you confuse, overload, or just plan irritate the person you're communicating with.
We worldbuilders and setting-driven writers occasionally go into TMI territory, and when we do, we do so big time. We're armed with a whole universe of amazingly minute detail and planning, and we're not afraid to use it! Besides, everyone likes to hear about our worlds, right?
Well, no, people are there to read a story. If they want detail they can ask us, read our author's notes, etc. A person watching an episode of a Sci-Fi show doesn't necessarily want a lecture in Fictional SF Made-Up Physics and Imaginary Race Biology.
So, as worldbuilders and authors, we have to make sure we don't go overboard. I'm going to examine the most common areas of going overboard I find.
"LOOK, REALISM!" How many times do you need to know a character went to the bathroom?
Believe it or not, people will detail this. Or maybe they like to give extensive details of why someone is a psychotic killer. Perhaps its time for a lecture on local Elven politics right in the middle of an action scene.
People are not going to be impressed by the realism of your world when its shoved in their face - and some things can be assumed (such as characters actually going to the bathroom or eating). People can give your characters and world credit for being realistic or at least having its own realism.
"LOOK, WEIRDNESS!" OK, so you've got some things in your world that are very bizarre. It is good to let your readers know this.
However, if your cast doesn't think of things as bizarre, shoving it in the face of your reader is going to be very obvious. Violating a character's perspective to inform your reader "look I got weird" is going to irritate them and break the sense of continuity. Don't let the reader know "look, you're only reading the story" by broadcasting how strange something is.
"LOOK, DETAIL!" You've fleshed out your world. The readers can give you credit for that.
Don't engage in long pointless descriptions, toss around terms extraneously, or in general show off just how much you've created. Any good story will tell it. Any good writer can make sure the important details are communicated.
On the other hand going overboard in describing things can confuse the reader and break the illusion of seeing a world - and make them aware they're reading a story. It's like suddenly having a good arcade game's pixels become very obvious.
This is a fine line that takes practice to walk properly - how much detail, when to show it, and how to show it. All I can say is practice - and get good beta readers.
"LOOK, I BUILT A WORLD!" Cousin to showing too much detail is reminding your reader they're reading a story in a constructed environment. Reminding them to check the maps in your web page, having a lot of asides, and trying to be too helpful in helping them understand your creation is a case of TMI.
It can also seem like bragging. Don't make the readers dislike you, it's not conductive to their enjoyment.
"DESCRIPTION-O-RAMA" You have a world. You want to describe it - but do you have to?
Make sure your readers know enough to understand what is going on, but do not describe things just because you designed them. This ventures into "Look-I-built-a-world" territory as well as affecting your writing negatively by throwing in too much.
SUMMARY: TMI is a condition that affects some writers - probably it'd be nice if it affected more. However, it's a still a way to affect your writing and ruin the experience of reading about your world for your readers. Seek balance and don't loose site of the goal - communication.
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The complete works are archived at the Way With Worlds archive. A German translation is in the works at Christian Spliess's Page