Writing around the story

I don’t like “worldbuilding.” The word is unnecessary. All writing is construction, from the sentence to the scene. And all writing, all of it, requires placement. Making up a portmanteau for something every writer does already is both unnecessary and pretentious. You’ll encounter it more in certain circles of the fiction world than others, and that also casts it as a shibboleth. I’ll be upfront. I don’t like that, either.

If the goal is writing a story, then everything that isn’t writing the story is counterproductive. You need to know how to place the piece, and that takes figuring out. Where is this in physical space? Where is it in time? That’s what I mean by placement—all of the contexts required to communicate.

However.

Once you’ve got it figured out, stop building the world and go back to writing the story. Because once it moves past “useful,” you’re only writing around the story.

There’s a second problem with “worldbuilding.” Anything that exists off the page, doesn’t exist. No one cares how many secret dissertations undergird the economy of your fantasy novel. No one cares how many three-ring binders support the weight of your essay. No one cares how many maps perfectly describe an unreal terrain. No one cares.

And that can be a hard pill to swallow. It’s what I refer to as the “show your work” problem. That’s when all those notes, all that labor away from the story, start creeping in and cluttering up the place. In a massive act of projection, it always makes me think the same thought: “The writer says, ‘I did all the work, and by God you’re going to see it.’”

But writing a story isn’t an algebra test. Placement takes time, and effort, and it produces a lot of secondary work. No one gets credit for secondary work, because—see above—it doesn’t exist, and no one cares. Required information, i.e. placement, is clarifying. It’s context. Unrequired information, secondary work, not only isn’t context, it’s noise.

So: Leave all that off the page, where it doesn’t exist, and no one cares about it. And take heart in knowing why no one cares about it:

They’re too busy caring about what’s on the page to bother.