Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How Much World Building is Enough?

Writing Wednesday

As with just about everything else related to writing, I think the answer depends on 1) what you need to feel confident in telling the story, and 2) what kind of story you're trying to tell.

The one non-negotiable requirement for fantasy is that you have to know all the details of the elements in your story that go beyond reality, and always follow the rules you establish for those elements (e.g., a magic system).

Beyond that, the level of detail in your history and landscape really does depend on the story. Narnia has a mythic (some might say doctrinal) context and so we neither know nor care about the succession of kings or their border squabbles. Lord of the Rings is about specific events in specific places and so the history is crucial. And in the Xanth novels, the history and landscape are little more than stage dressing.

In addition to the material your reader sees in the story, there's the question of what you need to tell your story confidently. Where writers of realistic stories can rely on common knowledge, the author of a fantasy has to work out what knowledge would be common among his characters. In one of my projects, I felt compelled to take my time-line back 5 billion years. I don't say that to boast, but to illustrate what I felt I needed to do to be able to tell the story with confidence.

Image: Simon Howden /

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