New Worlds Theory Post: Gratuitous Worldbuilding

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

My very first “theory post” for this series talked about worldbuilding as a habit of thought — something that runs constantly in the background while you write. I’ve also advocated repeatedly for putting in things like superstitions or details about money even when they aren’t directly load-bearing for the plot.

The intersection of those things is what I think of as “gratuitous worldbuilding.”

That isn’t the best term for it, but I don’t have a better one. “Incidental,” maybe, but I like the connotation of doing a thing just because it pleases you. And while that may seem self-indulgent, I think it genuinely enriches the story — at least the kinds of stories I like to read and write.

When I say “gratuitous worldbuilding,” I think of the kind of thing Sarah Monette does all over the place in her Doctrine of Labyrinths series. In fact, Monette is the author who made me aware of it, and caused me to start pursuing a similar goal in my own work. She’s a master of the little flavorful touches scattered throughout the text that make the world of the story feel real and lived-in, the details that are there just because they would be, not because the story requires it.

A lot of this is a matter of description. Don’t just say your character puts on perfume; give some thought to what the perfume smells like. Don’t just say someone makes a sign against the evil eye; tell us what form that takes. Is the rich clothing your villain is wearing made of silk? Velvet? Linen? Fine wool? When your protagonist is returning from a night on the town, instead of saying they spent time at a tavern, say they were coming home from a play — and mention what kind of play it was.

These kinds of things add descriptive richness to your scene, but it doesn’t end there. Or rather, it doesn’t have to. Maybe in the course of writing some incidental dialogue about the play before assassins ambush your heroine in the street, you decide randomly to take your inspiration from the Takurazuka Revue, with all-female performers and outrageous costumes. The reader’s mental image, which maybe defaulted to Generic Shakespeare, suddenly finds itself taking a different shape — and their impression of your fictional society changes.

Or take that perfume example. Just by specifying that it’s sandalwood, you’ve implicitly told the reader that sandalwood is a) available and b) considered an attractive scent. But what if you add in a word, so that now it’s imported sandalwood perfume? Now you’ve implied trade, and also that your character can either afford to throw money at an expensive import, or else that he thinks his upcoming social encounter is important enough to merit that kind of outlay.

Sure, you can achieve the same effect by other routes, like having the character think about the importance of this evening’s gathering. But you’ve heard the writing advice “show, don’t tell”? This is how you show. And sometimes what you want to do is show and tell, reinforcing the significance of something by weaving it into the background as well as highlighting it in the foreground.

Done badly, that’s a bludgeon. But done well, it makes the explicit statements three-dimensional, demonstrating in subtle ways that what you say is true.

I don’t want to over-emphasize the knock-on consequences of this kind of thing. Half the point of doing it is just because you can, and because your character would. If they’re reading a favorite book of poetry when someone comes to visit, why not name the poet? Think of how often you encounter references to pop culture in your daily life — and how flat a fictional world feels if no one there ever does the same. Your characters have lives outside the plot; they have games they like to play, sports they like to watch. The world has history before the first page, full of villains and heroes, great events and atrocities used as metaphorical descriptions for current people and events. You don’t have to know the full rundown on every such thing to namedrop it in your text; often it’s enough to have a single sentence guiding your words.

Now, some of you reading this are probably already frowning at my words and preparing your rebuttals. Let me save you some effort and admit: yes, it’s entirely possible for this to become a bug rather than a feature, overloading the reader with so many unexplained references that they can’t tell what’s important and what isn’t. If I tell you that Halcura slung her wilkanta into the xi baso like Goffbin at Solleg, you’re going to be lost. Is Halcura playing a game? Fighting someone? Should I be admiring her? Condemning her? Who knows.

So you shouldn’t overdo this, that much is clear. Like so much in writing, it’s a Goldilocks problem: you have to figure out what is neither too much nor too little, but just right. And furthermore, you have to do that in the awareness that not all readers are going to agree on what constitutes “just right” — that some of them would be happy with more, while others think that what you have is already more than enough. It depends on the audience you’re aiming for.

And also where you put it. The very first scene of a story or book is a great place for descriptive touches that don’t require explanation, because they reference objects or ideas from the real world; that will make the setting feel vivid without laying too big of a cognitive burden on the reader (who is already grappling with unfamiliar characters in an unfamiliar situation). Later, once you’ve established certain things as a foundation, you can get away with salting in tidbits that don’t have real-world foundations to give them context. But back off again when you get into a tense scene, because you don’t want your reader to be distracted from the crisis by trying to figure out an unfamiliar word. If you really want to throw in that historical reference or unforgivable insult, find somewhere earlier in the text to establish it, so you can call back to it at a key moment.

Then, when you’ve done all that . . . get beta readers. One or more people who haven’t heard you explain every random setting detail, so they can read through the story and tell you where the worldbuilding comes too fast and thick. With their help you can work out which bits should stay, and which should go.

But don’t toss ’em all out. Like I said, these are the kinds of details that make the world seem real, like music coming through full sensory surround sound rather than a pair of tinny earbuds. Choose wisely, but choose at least a few.

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New Worlds Theory Post: Gratuitous Worldbuilding — 17 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Gratuitous Worldbuilding - Swan Tower

  2. In fact, Monette is the author who made me aware of it, and caused me to start pursuing a similar goal in my own work.

    I noticed it first with Peter S. Beagle in The Innkeeper’s Song and Giant Bones. Those stories are strewn with small personal or cultural details that make the reader feel as though so much more world exists beyond the parameters of the narrative, as though Beagle could switch his attention to any one of these offhand references and tell their entire story. It’s entirely possible, maybe even probable, that that’s not true, but it doesn’t matter. It makes the world feel textured and complete.

    If I tell you that Halcura slung her wilkanta into the xi baso like Goffbin at Solleg, you’re going to be lost. Is Halcura playing a game? Fighting someone? Should I be admiring her? Condemning her? Who knows.

    But that kind of string of unexplained references always makes me want to know, so as long as I get some idea from follow-up context (Goffbin? Seriously? I mean, he looks good, but he always washes out in the semifinals. Solleg was a one-off), I’ll go with it.

    • as though Beagle could switch his attention to any one of these offhand references and tell their entire story

      Judging by the responses I’ve seen Monette make when people ask about random historical figures or cultural references in her series, she can. πŸ˜›

      But that kind of string of unexplained references always makes me want to know, so as long as I get some idea from follow-up context (Goffbin? Seriously? I mean, he looks good, but he always washes out in the semifinals. Solleg was a one-off), I’ll go with it.

      Heee. πŸ™‚

      Yeah, if there’s context to help you figure out the significance of those words, it’s fine. But when you pack them in too thickly, you stop having room for that context, or else you drag your scene to a halt for things that were supposed to just be incidental touches of color. So it’s a balancing act.

      • Judging by the responses I’ve seen Monette make when people ask about random historical figures or cultural references in her series, she can.

        Nice.

        (It’s also true that the act of asking can create the story, which makes me feel that even if half the time the answer is “I have no idea, it sounded good!” it’s still worth asking.)

        But when you pack them in too thickly, you stop having room for that context, or else you drag your scene to a halt for things that were supposed to just be incidental touches of color.

        Where have you seen that happen? (I’m not arguing about whether it does, I’m just trying to think of failure modes I’ve personally witnessed and drawing a blank.)

        • It’s hard to name examples because if a story loses me in that fashion, I often don’t keep reading. It crops up sometimes on Beneath Ceaseless Skies — Scott Andrews likes rich worldbuilding, but short stories offer limited breathing room for seeding these things in gradually, so there have definitely been pieces that laid it on so fast and thick in the first scene (or even the first few paragraphs) that I’m lost. I also know I bounced out of Ashok Banker’s Ramayana retelling because I kept flipping to the glossary only to find the Hindi and Sanskrit words he was dropping in the text meant things like “bowl.” In situations where this was not a special kind of bowl for which there was no good English equivalent — at least not that I could tell — it was simply a character eating their dinner out of <word most Anglophone readers can’t parse>. And that happened frequently enough that the cognitive burden of dealing with it detracted from the story to the point that I stopped reading.

          • but short stories offer limited breathing room for seeding these things in gradually, so there have definitely been pieces that laid it on so fast and thick in the first scene (or even the first few paragraphs) that I’m lost.

            That makes sense.

            In situations where this was not a special kind of bowl for which there was no good English equivalent β€” at least not that I could tell β€” it was simply a character eating their dinner out of . And that happened frequently enough that the cognitive burden of dealing with it detracted from the story to the point that I stopped reading.

            Hey, do a post on the language component of worldbuilding. Because what you’re describing registers to me as immersive more than story-breaking (I have enjoyed stories told in more than one language simultaneously, even when I didn’t get all of the other language), but I believe that it wore you out of the narrative, and it makes me wonder if readers have different tolerances for real-world languages vs. invented languages or what.

            • I think people definitely have different tolerances for it. Mine is higher than most, I think — I like languages and enjoy learnings bits from them — so what bothered me in this instance was that the foreign terms didn’t feel like they were contributing anything other than obfuscation and Othering. Being estranged from the concept of “bowl” didn’t deepen the story for me, or make me feel like I was learning something about the culture. Whereas if something set in Japan used a term like wabi-sabi or mono no aware, that would provide me with a word/phrase for something that takes a paragraph to unpack. Or if a story that involves Judaism uses the word menorah, calling it a “candlestick” or “lamp” instead would lose the signal that this particular type of candlestick/lamp has special significance. Or if it’s a story about a bilingual character code-switching, that again is giving me something extra: I’m getting characterization and clues about how they interact with the world around them. But when it’s a story about someone in their own culture speaking the same language as everyone around them and you use a foreign or made-up term for things with no particular significance for which there are simple English equivalents? Then you’re asking me to do extra cognitive labor without a lot of benefit in exchange. And at its worst, it starts to feel like pointless exoticism.

              • And at its worst, it starts to feel like pointless exoticism.

                I feel much weirder about it when it’s not a language from the writer’s own background, I agree. I was thinking specifically of cases like the poetry of Daljit Nagra or the fiction of Zen Cho, where even if it’s not strictly code-switching, the simultaneity of more than one language (or more than one English) is natural and essential to the way the writer and/or their characters think. There are several very effective, very evocative examples of this style in An Alphabet of Embers.

                • On further reflection: I think part of the issue in the case of Ashok Banker’s work was the glossary itself. I’m reading along through a scene, I hit a word I don’t know, I stop reading to flip to the glossary, and it literally just says, “bowl.” So I have now disrupted my reading for a single word that provides me with no particularly interesting information. Whereas if it had said “A particular type of bowl commonly found in excavations of sites from the X period. It is usually made out of red clay with geometric patterns painted in white, and was characteristically associated with the elites of the period, having been influenced by their trade with the Y Kingdom” — then at that point I would have gone back to the scene with a richer mental image and sense of the context. (Basically, offloading the infodump so it doesn’t slow down the scene.)

                  I’ve definitely read things where the use of terms from a different language, even without explanation, feels like it’s adding something to the effect. This just wasn’t one of them.

  3. I think of those as quintessential bricolage. I love reading a book in which the world feels lived in. (Though sometimes the detail can feel like too much, or grandstanding. For the most part, at least for me as a reader, the former can slip into the latter when there is no awareness within the story world.)

    • the former can slip into the latter when there is no awareness within the story world.

      I’m not sure I follow what you mean by that. Can you expand?

      • Say, you have characters sitting in a room when hero or heroine dashes in, chased by a spy. She hides among these characters, who go on talking, one pontificating about fine-hackled,double-bucked, as another side eyes and then begins to weave not in the accepted tablet form, but the honeycomb, which the heroine recognizes as from the enemy’s land. A message?

        The details about the linen then add to the story, whereas in another example the narrator can be entertaining as all getout showing off details of hackling, and bucking, of fine linens, but the characters are not thinking about linen while they are wearing it, so the linen lesson reads like grandstanding.

        • Ah, got it — the “I have done my research and now you will learn about it” type of infodump. Which can also be done with invented stuff, if the writer is just too much in love with it, but I mostly see it with research.

  4. I call it local color.

    But the thing is, you have to have the point of view at the right distance, or else have the character have a reason to think “imported sandalwood perfume.”

  5. I humorously object to the title of this post: If readers notice β€” and especially if readers notice its absence β€” it’s not gratuitous.

    Here’s an example from science fiction. Battlestar Galactica (either the cheesy 1970s original, including all the extra cheese, or the great-concept-flawed-later-execution 2000s reboot) is supposedly based on an escaping remnant of civilization cut off from luxuries and resupply. The reboot does well in making that into a continuing plot axis, and even throwaway lines (early in the first season, during a water-supply crisis, Colonel Tigh blows off “soft” civilian concerns with not being able to take a hot shower every day), but it’s horribly inconsistent because it was limited to a series of plot points and not fundamentally part of worldbuilding. While he’s snarking, Colonel Tight is freshly shaven, has clean hair, and wears an immaculate uniform. He’s speaking to maintenance personnel who are equally well-groomed, despite one of them having just come off the maintenance deck. And the room he’s in has a spotless conference table and recently waxed floor. OK, it’s a military unit, grooming and cleanliness matter; but then one does not see uniforms and work gear and even the “few” pieces of civilian garb brought along for the three-hour tour short “airliner-type” trips out to the fleet before the Cylon attack become stained, or frayed, or patched, or repurposed into quilts or makeshift padding. We don’t see people wearing poorly fitting clothing because either short rations have thinned them down or what they had that fit wore out. Not even as we get well over a year into the timeline.

    Similarly, it’s absolutely astounding that there’s so little nonportable personalization of living spaces, either in the “military” quarters or elsewhere. And what there is is just casual snapshots; no leftover concert tickets or posters, no celebrity autographs β€” no pinups. (Yeah, I really, really believe that last one. Especially with fighter pilots.)

    So there we are. Grime and pinup soft porn as nongratuitous worldbuilding. More grouchily, there’s even less excuse for fouling up “showing versus telling” in background details on TV/in film/in video games than there is in text.

    • I did start out by admitting “gratuitous” isn’t the best word for it. πŸ™‚

      In some ways, though, your example feels to me like a different (though related) issue, which is thinking through the consequences of your worldbuilding as already established. It’s akin to saying things take place in a desert city and then having everybody behave as if water were abundant, or setting up an ideology that says everything should be done by male/female couples in cooperation and then acting like medieval European gender roles would still apply.

      But the personalization of quarters is definitely the kind of thing I’m thinking of. Little grace notes that don’t necessarily have anything to do with previously-established scarcity of resources or anything like that — just touches of pop culture or whatever, sports or music groups or whatever else people might put on their walls.