For the first few installments of this diary, I’ve been touching on all the things worldbuilding is and what it requires. Now I’m going to talk about what it’s not.
Worldbuilding is not a dumping ground
Worldbuilding is not about finding excuses to insert things that you’ve been dying to use somewhere.
Well, to some degree, it is—hell, I do this all the time, gleefully. We all want to find a place for that perfect comeback line, that zinger of a description, that amazing bit of alien technology.
But I can’t throw in stuff like that blindly. And you shouldn’t do it without performing at least some kind of test of fitness for the material. There are some elements that will complement your world—and, by extension, your story. The more worldbuilding you do, the more obvious it becomes what fits and what doesn’t without having to break your story (if only in a given draft) in the process.
Worldbuilding is not a work-avoidance exercise
I’ve touched on this before, and I’ll keep harping right on it until my tongue flops out of my head: The best reason you engage in worldbuilding (and for some folks it’s the only reason) is to make your storytelling work—to create the place where your story happens, and to give it a living environment to unfold in. If you catch yourself using your worldbuilding as a way to avoid writing, to duck out on word-count quotas or to forestall writing that really difficult clash of wills between protagonist and antagonist, quit kidding yourself.
Worldbuilding is not a way to justify lazy storytelling
This is a parallel concern with #2 above. Don’t use worldbuilding as a wholesale way to avoid blatant deficiencies in your story. If something happens that is obviously a cheat, don’t try to change the construction of your world to accommodate it.
Note that this isn’t the same as using life’s own inconsistency and incompleteness as part of the story itself. If you have a character who has an eccentricity which you can build on and maybe make part of his social background, that’s one thing. If he has an abrupt about-face of motivation, don’t try to explain that way with the same trick. Fix it on the appropriate level in the story.
Worldbuilding is not for showing off
This may seem paradoxical: What part of worldbuilding isn’t meant in some way to impress the reader? Don’t readers respond that much more to an author with vision and imagination? (I’m going to be addressing this particular canard in a future installment as well.)
Some of this, you can indeed get away with and make your story that much sexier. But when you start flirting with elements that only justify their existence as attention-getters and not as genuine story components, you need to pull back.
A random example of this is when you have a 19th-century setting that has some stray piece of 20th-century technology (e.g., radio, lighter-than-air craft) thrown in for the sake of making things snazzy. Unless you’re prepared to defend how every single one of the several hundred allied technical discoveries required for such a thing were somehow present in your setting a good century before they were ever feasible, leave it out.
Since this last rule is largely a matter of applying discipline to one’s imagination, that’s how we’ll segue into the next installment ... wherein I’ll discuss what we talk about when we use that rather overused word.