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girl reading booksSF Signal just ran an interesting article in its “Mind Meld” feature area called The Rules of Worldbuilding. This article quotes “rules” from various sf authors, giving their take on do’s and don’ts in this area.

One author, Robert Bennett, touched on something that I think applies especially to people who approach fiction writing from a gaming background. Some of his comment I agree with and some I don’t. But let’s start with the quote itself (emphasis is mine):

My third rule of worldbuilding – and this is probably where I break from 90% of people who do any worldbuilding at all – is that it should all be in the text. IE, no maps, appendices, legends, dictionaries, family trees, or any other companion material that you have to have to navigate the story. If a story twist means I have to go looking for an atlas to figure out what the hell it means, that means you just made me break from the text. This CAN be done well, but boy howdy, you sure can overdo it – I feel like with a generation of writers raised by RPGs, some just assume that you can click “World Map” in the corner of the page to figure out where the next quest point is in the story. But that’s not a story, that’s a game.

Example: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Only one of the fifty-some-odd novels has a map, but it doesn’t need it: where things are doesn’t matter as much as who’s doing what and why.

What’s Right About This

If it is possible to provide supplementary info for a world–appendices, wikis, glossaries, etc etc–it is easy for us as writers to unconsciously rely on this material for info we’re not actually fitting into the story, but which is necessary to understand the story.  From that point of view, I agree with Bennett’s critique. Traditionally, a good story stands by itself: you don’t need aids to understanding, for the tale is sufficient unto itself.

I say “traditionally” here quite on purpose, though, for today other forms of storytelling are emerging, such as interactive multimedia ebooks, which assume as a matter of course that the story as told will naturally incorporate multiple forms of information, and be approachable from many different angles.  If you are writing for that kind of market, disregard this discussion. But if your output or audience is still in the more traditional mold of “buy a story and expect the whole thing to be there between two covers,” then the idea of the “self-contained story” (i.e., everything you need to understand it is there in the story itself) still holds.

So is this a good or a bad thing? Well, if you expect someone to pick up your fiction and enjoy your world just as it is written on the page, it pretty much does need to hang together all on its own. If they have to look things up to follow along, at the very least this creates a speed bump, and at the worst can completely derail the story.

The Justifiable Supplement

Now here is a caveat to add: I say this even while being guilty of the same thing myself, but my experience also makes me think that to some extent this depends on your audience and their reading habits and what they actually like to engage with.  My first novel Mainline lacks a glossary, which I desperately wanted to include so that neologisms and jargon would be easy for readers new to my world to keep track of.  (Tor Books wouldn’t let me include one because of length constraints.) Sure, you can understand the book without it to refer to, because one guesses at word meanings from context. But this is not the same as reading an actual definition.

While a lot of readers don’t care about whether or not there is a glossary, others have asked me for one, or to point them to one online. I think this is symptomatic of a certain kind of science fiction reader/fan being really engaged with a world (as well as the story itself) and wanting to grok more about it.  Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and if including supplemental material makes these readers happy, then by all means, do so.

What’s Wrong With This

Which brings me to the point at which I disagree with Bennett’s comment.

I don’t think that just by making supplementary material available to readers, that this automatically requires that readers break from the text to go look things up to make sense of the story.  Yet in his remarks (at least as written), Bennett seems to assume that any and all supplemental information (everything he listed), if it is on offer, is stuff we “have to have to navigate the story.”

I would say, rather, that whether or not we “have to have it” is completely dependent on what the author has decided to bundle up in the supplements, and how the author has presented the world as given on the page.  So this is a combination of strategic info-sharing about the world, and craft in story telling.  A well-written book can still be comprehensible without breaking from the text, and yet ALSO have all that supplementary information on tap for those who wish to explore it.

The important point here is that the supplemental not be essential to the understanding of the story.  It expands the reader’s experience but is not a necessary crutch for the journey to continue.

Approached from this angle, I see no problem with all kinds of additional world-building information being made available to readers. Maybe not all as an appendix to the book, but through related means: a separate, downloadable world guidebook, perhaps (like you can create with our Gazetteer Writer’s Manual), or a wiki for quick look-up and cross-referencing of world minutiae, to family trees and histories and character interviews and so on at an associated book page or blog.

The only pitfall I see here, really, is when the writer skips giving sufficient context within the work for something to make sense, thinking “Oh, people can look that up in xyz reference material if they really care.”  Sure they can look it up–but it if really matters to the story, enough of that world building stuff must be incorporated into the tale so the reader who can’t or won’t look things up can still completely enjoy the journey.

And to that extent, at least, Robert Bennett and I are again in agreement.

7 Responses to Offering World Building Info Outside of a Story

  1. Nate says:

    Hey Teramis,

    I think you’re quite right with regards to Bennett’s quote and you bring a more balanced view to supplement inclusion.

    I personally believe a reader should only have to break away and read worldbuilding supplements if they so desire and they should be able to understand the story itself (unless obviously the story is part of a series and so the reader should be somewhat familiar with the world).

    The other thing to ponder about are books based upon popular IP’s. I’ve recently been reading the Gaunt’s Ghosts series of books from The Black Library (Games Workshop’s publishing house) and I think if you weren’t already immersed in the lore of the Warhammer 40K world then you’d struggle to get into the books and understand them.

    I think the difference here is that these books have been written as a supplement to the Table Top game and as a way for Games Workshop to draw their already immersed fans deeper into their world, rather than a stand alone story.

    All the best,

    The Worldbuilding School

    • Teramis Teramis says:

      You make a great point about that are themselves relatively supplemental to an IP. Star Trek and Star Wars novels are also examples of that approach: if you are unfamiliar with the original setting, then it may take some time to come up to speed with the books, because there is an awful presented that is assumed knowledge on the part of the reader. (Star Fleet Academy may not be defined, for instance, because all readers are presumed to know what that is from TV show references.) Depending how deftly such things are handled (or not) it can make the IP referred to rather impenetrable for someone approaching it only from the spin-off books.

      I agree with you that such things are usually tools to further fan immersion. I would much prefer that such things be written with the requirement that the book (or series) can stand alone even if one is unfamiliar with the original source.

      • Nate says:

        Yea I also thought about the Star Trek and Star Wars books being in a similar vein. I’m told some of the Star Wars books are really good (especially the Han Solo series).

        I find cross-media IP’s and their worldbuilding/narrative quite an interesting subject. It seems whether it will be a stand alone media or a supplement depends heavily upon the ‘products’ positioning within the market and quite often it’s medium.

        Obviously the first example is as we’ve already discussed with the large IP’s producing books positioned for further fan immersion and to tie them back into a companies main product/merchandise.

        Secondly, you have the switch to mass media (such as book to film) where by you’re trying to expand the fan base and so the film will usually explain the world rather than reference it. This seems to be the more popular of the two as the same story gets rehashed but in a different medium.

        Also with the expense of film you need to capture a wider audience in order to make it profitable.

        TL;DR Essentially it comes down to positioning and objectives. Do you want to expand the fan base or do you want to immerse your current fans deeper into the world?

  2. A tabletop roleplaying game is different from other media, so I mostly agree with his points as regards fiction. Any worldbuilding data thrown in for color should somehow circle back to reinforce the story. Anything else is a distraction to the reader.

    Even in a roleplaying game, there can be too much detail. As a player, I’ve been overwhelmed with trivia and fiddly bits while trying to make a character appropriate to the setting. As a gamemaster, I’ve found worlds that have been figured out to the tiniest detail and leave very little creative space left for me to play with those details and craft my own story from them.

  3. Bruce Gray says:

    I know this isn’t -exactly- on topic, but thanks for the link to SF Signal, which almost every Sci-Fi fan should enjoy.


    • Teramis Teramis says:

      Totally agree! SF Signal is one of the best sf sites on the web, and every science fiction fan should at least be aware of it and take a gander to see what’s worth browsing.

  4. […] The author of the article doesn’t take quite so strident a view: Offering World Building Info Outside of a Story […]

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