Some thought provoking words on worldbuilding in fiction

I read this post on S F Signal, which links to this post on Warren Ellis’s website. Both are essential reading for writers. In the S F Signal post, China Mieville talks about worldbuilding and references the M John Harrison quote that Warren Ellis posted. I’m going to repost that quote here, because it stunned me and made me really stop and think. Go and read the S F Signal post, and then read the quote below. I might ruminate on this and post some more about worldbuilding later. It’s got my brain cogs a-turnin’.

M John Harrison On Worldbuilding

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.


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9 thoughts on “Some thought provoking words on worldbuilding in fiction

  1. I can understand both sides of this. My initial reaction to reading this is to automatically jump to the defence of worldbuilding. There are a lot of good fantasy and sci-fi novels where the worldbuilding is done with skill and serves as a believable background for the story. Game of Thrones for one would not be half so enjoyable without the background that has been put into it. Personally, I actually get incredibly frustrated at Mieville’s books because the internal consistency is so lacking.
    On thinking about it though, I can recall plenty of cases where I have become incredibly frustrated at the narrative being sacrificed for the sake of a 10 page datadump that serves no other purpose than for the author to show off that s/he too can do a Tolkien. Where worldbuilding becomes dull and pointless is when it becomes obvious that the story is there to support the world rather than vice-versa.
    As ever though, I think it’s largely a matter of personal taste for the reader.

  2. Simon, my initial reaction was the same, which is why I stopped to think about it. And I realised that the truth for me is that the worldbuilding needs to be told with the story, not independent of it.

    You’re right, it’s a lot to do with taste. Like some people love the exposition in hard SF and for others it’s mind-numbing. But I think quality worldbuilding should be invisible. I plan to think on it more!

  3. The quote definitely made me raise an eyebrow. As a writer, I know I need to do world building so I know my setting, but I am also aware that all that work will not necessarily ever appear in the actual book!
    Worldbuilding gives the book flavor, in that it doesn’t end up being the same old cultures with the same old beliefs, etc. Yet as mentioned by you, Alan, I definitely believe it should be told (and only the pertinent parts) that fit with the telling of the story not just putting it in there to show how smart we are.
    George RR Martin and JK Rowling are both good examples of integrating both. I know JK Rowling showed she had literal file cabinets of info on her world, but she didn’t drown us in it in the books. Yet her deep immersion in her world made it that much easier to weave it with the story.
    Though, just like a lot of other facets of writing, it’s something new authors need to learn and be aware so they don’t info dump.
    Wow, I blabberd a bit. Sorry!

  4. “I know I need to do world building so I know my setting, but I am also aware that all that work will not necessarily ever appear in the actual book”

    Good point!

  5. The difference between “the Magic goes away” series and Kulthea is a negative sign.
    Do we really need to talk about why worldbuilding matters? If you’re going to bend everything to the story, I won’t believe it!

  6. Disclaimer: I write this as a non-SF writer.

    I agree with Simon’s comment that “Where worldbuilding becomes dull and pointless is when it becomes obvious that the story is there to support the world rather than vice-versa”. And with Alan’s “quality worldbuilding should be invisible”.

    There are few things I despise in fiction. One of them is tracts of prose dedicated to description. Don’t tell me, ffs. Write it like it is integral. I don’t care if your character had three dogs when he was ten, or that there are two mountain ranges either side of vast fertile valleys, if the childhood is irrelevant, or if that part of the world is just a part and not “parcel”.

    If I film you somewhere, I don’t film the environment first and then put stories into it. They are filmed together. For me, that’s the way that fiction ought to be – regardless of the genre.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents.

  7. Using film as a comparison is an excellent metaphor. You have to tell the story with what people see in the scene, not film the scene for five minutes then have the characters walk in. Great way to look at it!

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