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A WAY WITH WORLDS:
By Steven Savage, creator of the Crossworld of Xai.
Archives available at Seventh Sanctum
Last column, I further explored the issues of writing about your worlds and communicating them, specifically how some setting-oriented writers could overload their readers with information about their world, and why they do this. Letting people in on your world is one thing - burying them under detail is another.
Personally, I wish this was a more common problem, because when I read fanfic or original work, I see a lot less description than I feel I and other readers need. There is often too little said about the setting and the elements of it relevant to the story – as well as a lack of good solid description period.
As a person whose read literature from various ages, I sometimes feel the amount of description in literature of the last decade or so has decreased. Maybe it's me, maybe I'm getting old, though I'd at least like to assume that's not it.
To put it simple, description is vital in stories. To an extent, a story really only is description (just of a whole lot of different but related things). If you don't have description, you don't have as much of a story. If you don't explain the important whys and hows of your setting or give a reader a visual cue as to what an important character looks like, you haven't really given the reader much to read.
As I've said from the beginning, your world is your main character. If you don't describe it enough, if people don't know enough to understand it, then people don't "get" your main character - and they won't get your story. They may try, they may think they do - but they won't. Writing is communication, so if don't communicate, you've failed.
So, last column we discussed why people have too much information in their stories, especially concerning the setting. Now, let's take a look at why there may be too little . . .
ITS FANFIC! Now, my column is mainly dedicated to building original worlds - but good world development and handling applies no matter how much of the world is your creation. And when it comes to fanfiction, too often description about the world gets the short end of the stick. Many times I've read a fanfic and wondered "why is this happening" or "is this normal?" or "what happened?" – usually followed by "why am I even taking the time to read this?"
Why? Though there are many fringe reasons, common reasons, but one overwhelming one comes out again and again in my experience:
Because people assume readers already know enough.
Don't assume your readers know enough. They may be fans of the series, true, but that doesn't mean you can't set the stage, remind people, or do a different take on things. Doing so helps set moods and helps explain things that may be going on in your stories.
Also, your knowledge of the world may be more extensive than the readers. Writing only for a person of your level of knowledge may leave others out of the experience of your story.
In addition, there is the chance your fanfic will be read by someone not steeped in the original continuity. Writing for them also means that you will write for all audiences - an excellent skill to develop especially if you want to be a professional or original writer.
PEOPLE KNOW MY WORLD! The fanfic problem also applies to people who write their own worlds and eventually assume all readers are equally up to speed. This is not the case - even an individual reader may not be "up to speed" on one day, and fully aware of your world another.
Your world is probably quite complicated and detailed. Your readers are not you - they don't know it as well. They forget things because they didn't know they should remember them. Good description of your world and its elements helps keep them up to speed.
Don't treat your readers like idiots or psychics - treat them like people. People need communication.
When I edit fanfics and original worlds, I like coming into a story ignorant of the continuity (or putting myself in a state like that), unless its part of a series sequence I'd probably have read. This way I see it as a story, not as a part of something I supposedly am intimate with.
THE STORY IS THE THING! Sacrificing detail for the story - whether to get to the action, compress the size, etc. isn't really gaining anything. What you are doing is loosing the overall coherence of your work. Detail, pace, clarity, etc. all work together in harmony to make a good story.
You need detail just as much as you need properly-sized paragraphs or a pace that doesn't put your readers to sleep.
THAT'S THE OLD WAY! Those of us who've read early writing, classic novels and Penny Dreadfuls, have seen some stories with pretty excessive description. Let's face it, some classic writers read like they were possessed by Thesauri.
However some styles may vary, the need to describe things to your readers and to inform them about important world elements did not go out of style. There may be different ways to do it, more precise ways, timely ways. But some way of communicating the world and its elements to the reader must be followed.
I'M BEING MYSTERIOUS! In letting people in on your world and its elements, if you tell everything, you probably ruin the story (and risk TMI mentioned in last column). However, you can easily go far in the other direction and leave the reader completely lost. A mystery isn't fun unless there's a chance to solve it.
This isn't an easy call. You have to provide just enough information, plus maybe a bit extra just in case. This is more of an art - so make sure your beta readers pay attention and are on the lookout for when you're not so artsy.
I DON'T HAVE TIME FOR DETAIL! Then you're not being a writer.
I DON'T KNOW THESE DETAILS! Then you're not being a writer or a worldbuilder.
SUMMARY: Good writing, good world-building and world-exploring, means having the right amount of detail for your readers to understand and enjoy your story. Anything else diminishes what you do.
As an additional note, when working on describing your world and putting description in your story, don't try to compensate for either TMI or too little description. You'll only skew your writing. Write with the idea of communicating and telling a story in mind.
A Way with Worlds is hosted at:
The complete works are archived at the Way With Worlds archive. A German translation is in the works at Christian Spliess's Page