I recently read an interesting essay by M. John Harrison about the damaging value of worldbuilding in fiction – specifically SFF fiction. You can read the whole essay here, but the important quotes are:
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 unneccessary 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 neccessary. 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.
This is interesting to me because what he described here is, to me, not worldbuilding: it is bad worldbuilding. It is the sort of worldbuilding you see from time to time where a writer obviously thought that if they put enough complicated gilding on a story, it would distract from all the shit underneath. Such types of worldbuilding often surface as:
- Descriptions of fashion
- Descriptions of food, drink, or tobacco (ESPECIALLY feasts)
- Descriptions of international relations and history
- Descriptions of songs and customs
- Descriptions of domestic or municipal laws
- Descriptions of weaponry, usually the implausible kind
These are usually bad, in that they do not often contribute to or shape the handful of conflicts and tension that form the story – which is what worldbuilding (and, in my opinion, everything in the story, really) should do. Stating that worldbuilding is what saves a bad story sounds to my ears like, “What do you mean, I’ve got a serious heart condition? I’M WEARING A REAL FANCY ROBE. I’M FINE.”
But not all worldbuilding is bad. And not all worldbuilding occurs in fantasy or science fiction. Nor does all worldbuilding occur in fiction, really.
There are tons of longform nonfiction pieces that utilize worldbuilding to great effect. Take this excerpt, from David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets:
West Baltimore. You sit on your stoop, you drink Colt 45 from a brown paper bag and you watch the radio car roll slowly around the corner. You see the gunman, you hear the shots, you gather on the far corner to watch the paramedics load what remains of a police officer into the rear of an ambulance. Then you go back to your rowhouse, open another can, and settle in front of the television to watch the replay on the eleven o’clock news. Then you go back to the stoop.
Or this passage:
The Midnight Dance of the Universal Desk Sergeant, a performance that is somehow the same whether the precinct house is in Boston or Biloxi. Was there ever a desk sergeant who didn’t peer out over reading glasses? Was there ever a desk man who wanted to be bothered with police work at three in the morning? Was any station house desk ever manned by anything but aging civil servants, six months from their pensions, whose every movement seemed slower than death itself?
Or take this exchange, from the classic Frank Sinatra Has a Cold profile by Gay Talese, in which Sinatra attempts to intimidate, improbably enough, a very young Harlan Ellison, who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time:
The room cracked with the clack of billiard balls. There were about a dozen spectators in the room, most of them young men who were watching Leo Durocher shoot against two other aspiring hustlers who were not very good. This private drinking club has among its membership many actors, directors, writers, models, nearly all of them a good deal younger than Sinatra or Durocher and much more casual in the way they dress for the evening. Many of the young women, their long hair flowing loosely below their shoulders, wore tight, fanny-fitting Jax pants and very expensive sweaters; and a few of the young men wore blue or green velour shirts with high collars and narrow tight pants, and Italian loafers.
It was obvious from the way Sinatra looked at these people in the poolroom that they were not his style, but he leaned back against a high stool that was against the wall, holding his drink in his right hand, and said nothing, just watched Durocher slam the billiard balls back and forth. The younger men in the room, accustomed to seeing Sinatra at this club, treated him without deference, although they said nothing offensive. They were a cool young group, very California-cool and casual, and one of the coolest seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, blondish hair, and squared eyeglasses. He wore a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, for which he had recently paid $60.
Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffling a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison, a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay, The Oscar.
Finally Sinatra could not contain himself.
“Hey,” he yelled in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. “Those Italian boots?”
A lot of this doesn’t seem necessary. In the Simon excerpts, he speaks in broad terms about theoretical characters: the person on the stoop, the desk sergeant. From the Talese excerpt, he describes clothing – fashion, in other words, one of the problematic instances of worldbuilding I mentioned above.
Now, just because these things are real, describing real places and real events, that doesn’t mean they’re not worldbuilding: the authors could have theoretically included every piece of fact about the surroundings and the events of that day, from the type of carpet to the architecture on the building facades. Or they could have included none of these facts, and wrote a stripped down version of the events, with the descriptions of the surroundings intruding only when it directly affected the action, like a military intelligence report.
But stories, nonfiction or fiction, take place within a mental space for the reader, a space that readers dream up using the words on the page. And worldbuilding is not the process of telling everyone what the local laws are, or what sort of shoes everyone wears, or the history of that nation’s or wars. It is the process of shaping and curating the reader’s mental space.
Real worldbuilding is when you pick the two or three tiny little tidbits that can do the most to help readers create that mental space. You’re not weaving them a tapestry, you’re giving them perspective. Think of it as an aquarium, and the writer is adjusting the ph balance in the water, or the temperature, or other chemicals: by adding a teeny little bit in the background and letting it permeate, it can substantially change how the contents grow or thrive.
So, like most writing devices, if you do it bad, yes, it breaks the reader’s contract. Do it right, though, and the story can sing.