A Note on Worldbuilding

26 Jul

Remember the book?  (Ooooh, the book.  Grrrr, the book.)

Two months on and I’m still not finished with it.  I’m closer to the end now, maybe a hundred pages away.  Most of my progress has only happened because I decided it was better if I started skimming.

Two hundred pages of that and I haven’t missed a damned thing, plot-wise.

Because there hasn’t been much plot.

Plenty of character development… for people I suspect are mostly side-characters we’ll never see again once this bit of the arc is over.  Our Hero becomes fascinated with one companion in particular:  a man from another culture whose methods of communication are vastly different.

And here’s where the problems begin.

“Teach me,” says Our Hero.

“‘kay,” says his companion.

Then, for the better part of two hundred pages, we get to sit in on the lessons. It gets tedious very quickly.  Even though the conversations are different, the misunderstandings become repetitive.  We learn — over and over and over — about the nuances in the companion’s communication style.  We get lessons in his culture.  Eventually, after a battle scene that finally inches the plot along, and a 70-page side trip into more worldbuilding (I shit you not), Our Hero follows his companion back to his home country for even more worldbuilding.

And no.  Gorram.  Progression.

Here.  Let me show you how a character can learn another language without it taking up half the goddamned story:

See that?  Three minutes, and Antonio Banderas has solved the problem of “Oh shit, do we have to read subtitles for the next hour and a half, or have everything run through a translator?”

While I will commend the writer of this book (grrrr) on the detailed and intricate world he’s created, and will freely admit that he can string sentences together and create colorful characters, that’s about the best I’ve got.  When it comes to story, we’ve simply been wallowing.

Writers:  know your worlds.  It’s essential that you understand the rules governing the places you create.

However.

Your readers don’t need to know every last excruciating detail.  Reveal only what is necessary.  Don’t dump it out all at once or spend chapters and chapters teaching the protagonist about the society while nothing else happens plot-wise.

Let’s say your hero spends time with the River People.  Their boats are swift and sturdy, and eventually the hero will escape from the villain in one.  If you’re devoting thousands of words to how the boats are built, or why they’re shaped a certain way, that knowledge had better come into play later on.  A few paragraphs?  Fine.  Sure.  It’s a neat tidbit and a bit of flavor about the world.  But chapter after chapter?  Showing the hero selecting the tree from which to carve the boat?  Showing him carving it out and boiling the pitch to make it water-tight?  If it has no bearing on the plot, ask yourself if you’re not simply wasting the readers’ time.

For a good example of a character learning about a new culture, take a look at Daenerys Targaryen in A Game of Thrones.  She’s married off to Khal Drogo and has to pick up the Dothraki language and its culture as she goes along.  We sit in on some of her lessons with Doreah, but they always move the plot along.  Her handmaidens, Irri and Jhiqui, fill in interesting things Dany needs to know while other things are going on.  When Dany learns she has to eat a stallion’s heart in front of the Dothraki, she does — and the action has a noticeable bearing on the story.

Venture with me, if you will, back to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books.  I’ve complained bitterly about the plot stalling for several books, but hark back to the early titles with me, and think about when Rand and the Two Rivers folk spend time with the Aiel.  They tromp all over decorum, embarrass themselves and have misunderstandings that are sometimes comic, sometimes serious.  They spend plenty of time with no bloody idea what the Aiel are on about, or how to interpret their words and actions.  But while all that’s happening, Rand is moving towards becoming the Car’a’carn.  Egwene is learning the strength and self-resilience that will not only make the Wise Women accept her enough to teach her how to control her Talent for Dreaming, but the things she learns in the Wastes will eventually help her become the goddamned Amyrlin Seat a few books on.

In this book?  (Oh, this book. Grrr, this book.)  I’m seeing none of that.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe in the next 100 pages or so, I’ll find out why the agonizing details of all the lessons were so damned important.  Maybe because I’ve been skimming, I’ve missed Our Hero’s Huge Epiphany.  (Spoiler: I haven’t.  I was actually watching for one.  It’s not there.)

Eight hundred pages in.  Out of that, I’d guess two hundred pages are actual plot, and that’s if I’m being generous.

I don’t think there’s a golden ratio of worldbuilding to character development to story.  If there is, I certainly don’t think I’m the person to declare what it might be.  Still, devoting less than a quarter of your time to your plot is probably doing it wrong.

Build your world.  Love it.  Know its ins and outs.  But be careful not to overwhelm your readers with it.  Those keen little tidbits can always be published as extras for your fans, whether as neat bonus stuff on your website, or in an eventual compendium if you’ve got an epic on your hands.

Pop into the comments and talk to me!  What stories have you read where the worldbuilding was done well?  Have you read anything where the setting dragged down the plot?

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3 Responses to “A Note on Worldbuilding”

  1. Mel July 26, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    That scene in the movie? Was the moment I said “bullshit” and stopped watching. Suspension of disbelief goes only so far…

    • falconesse July 26, 2011 at 7:27 pm #

      Totally understandable. However, if they’d spent 3/4 of the movie showing the Danes teaching Banderas’ character every last nuance of their language and culture and only devoted a quarter of the film to going after Grendel and his mother, it would’ve been terribly slow (or a completely different movie, at the very least.)

      I don’t expect Our Hero to very quickly learn every tiny obscure detail of this other culture — though, like in that clip, he has not only learned their language passably well, but also displays a level of understanding of their specific martial arts form that takes most people born into that society years to attain. He does this in two months. (Or, possibly, two weeks. I can’t remember if the unit of time he uses refers to weeks or months.)

      While it’s an interesting glimpse into the culture, I see no real character development. Aside from adding a few notches to his bedpost, Our Hero hasn’t come to any new realizations about himself. He hasn’t changed at all, aside from getting Even More Awesome. The metaplot — which has barely progressed over 800 pages — gets a page and a half of chatter at the end of this arc.

      It’s incredibly frustrating.

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