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» And on the seventh day…. Brian Farrey Books

And on the seventh day….

“I am an echo of the eternal cry of ‘Let There Be’.”
–Stephen Schwartz, CHILDREN OF EDEN

As I said a few posts ago, dissertations on craft just ain’t my thang.  There are people who do it far better than me ontheir blogs.  But every now and then, a topic comes up that I can’t resist talking about.  And this one interests me as both a writer and an editor: the idea of world building.

I’ve seen discussions of this come up online more and more lately. The consensus seems to be that readers love “good world building.” But when I see this, it’s almost always when the discussion involves genre writing (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.).  Because of the nature of genre, a high premium is placed on skillful world building. It’s the backstory that explains the horrific events leading to the creation of the dystopian society. It’s the laws that govern the use of magic.  Genre world building can be a bit tricky, especially when it comes to avoiding the dreaded info dump. (Also known as Death by Exposition.) It can be even trickier depending on the voice (first person narrator world building should be an Olympic event). And because of that,  genre writing is where world building is most likely to go awry, when laying out the societal infrastructure takes pole position over building the character’s world. Some writers fall so in love with their own backstory that they forget not ALL of it needs to be spelled out or that the story is about the characters, not the fifty years of imagined history that preceded them.

In this year’s Printz award winner, SHIP BREAKER, Paolo Bacigalupi does a great job of building his main character’s world. You get plenty of information about how the world works but you get it through the lens of Nailer, the protagonist.  His day to day struggle to survive says more about the world he lives in than three or four pages of info dump. Or just look at the first page of MT Anderson’s FEED (an oft cited, yet I still feel vastly underappreciated, book) if you want a master’s class in down and dirty world building.

Ultimately, though, I think it’s a mistake to default to genre writing when discussing world building.  It’s easier to admire because it turns reality on its head in ways the brain can’t ignore. It’s also easier to deride when it becomes something that is applied with a turbo-powered sledgehammer. But all writing should be about world building. From your two paragraph flash fiction to your 115,000 word first novel that should probably be half that size. From the story of a young man who extricates himself from an abusive family to the story of a deaf girl who becomes the manager of a rock band.  There’s no spellcasting, no matter transporters, no arenas where children fight to the death.  But there are still worlds that these characters live in. It may bear a strong resemblance to the world you see every day but it’s not the same. Because, when done correctly, you’re seeing it through the protagonist(s)’s eyes.

Done correctly? Yes. Because just writing isn’t world building.  It’s far more calculated than that. For me, world building doesn’t always come out in the first draft.  I might hint at it but it’s later passes where things really begin to flesh themselves out.

The best kind of world building happens without the reader even realizing it.  It builds slowly, offering insight at impeccably timed intervals. It’s insidious, lurking in an offhand comment from a secondary character, tempering the old with the new, taking the familiar and giving it a twist. Most importantly, it’s an intimate experience. It’s a protagonist (or protagonists) offering a private, totally subjective tour of their personal human condition. Reliable or unreliable, our narrators accomplish as much through their observations, their philosophies, and their actions as was accomplished in a very famous six day period.

I’d like to see more appreciation for world building in non-genre writing. It’s there. Don’t let the familiar fool you.

Published in: on January 27, 2011 at 11:16 am  Comments (4)  


  1. Awesome post, Mr. Farrey, and I agree. 🙂

  2. Great post, Brian! Spot on. 🙂

  3. such a great point. The thing that stuck out for me is looking at the world thru MC’s eyes. Sometime sin worldbuilding we can make the mistake of getting so caught up in descriptions we forget to see it thru the MC’s eyes.

  4. Excellent post–wish I had read it before today’s revisions…

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