I loved the voluminous appendices to The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). Every. Damned. Convoluted. One. Always have, always will. Even at the (ferociously precocious) tender age of 12, when I first read Professor T. (I know, right? Major revelation! Shocking! Bet you didn’t see that particular plot twist coming in my narrative.)
Okay, well, in reality, the idea of that being a major revelation --- at least, to anyone possessing the slightest acquaintance with me --- is laughable, not shocking at all. But I bring it up because it speaks to the idea of world-building, which some anonymous little gnome was inquiring about on my Twitter feed the other day, and I thought the idea worthy of exploration.
World-building --- which I define as the concept of crafting details about worlds we create, details which include people, places, events, etc. --- isn’t just confined to the fantasy genre, though that’s where it tends to get most of its press, both positive and negative. Mystery writers populate their worlds with the aforementioned details. So do horror writers. In fact, so do writers of just about every genre. But world-building seems to have a rep nowadays which is often most politely described as dubious, especially in a society as obsessed with hurry as ours. I see editors constantly exhorting writers to ruthlessly cut every detail except those absolutely essential to the story, and to that, I say, “Whoa, folks. Throttle back and let’s just think this through a minute.” I mean, look how Peter Jackson cut out the entire Bombadil sequence from LOTR’s film version, AND the scouring of The Shire. Big Mistakes, Pete. Big. Huge, as a pretty woman once said.
I clearly recall the late Roger Ebert, film critic extraordinaire, describing Tolkien’s books as proceeding at the leisurely pace of a Victorian travelogue, employing a style testing our capacity for the declarative voice. Which isn’t always true, of course, but I see Ebert’s point --- though we must remember authors write for, and of, their times, and Western society in the 1940s-50s was vastly --- almost unrecognizably --- different than today in outlook, values, pace --- and, sadly, literacy.
But Stephen King makes the case for world-building (clearly but not intentionally) in the preface to his revised/expanded edition of The Stand. In it, he amusingly talks about how you could strip all the so-called ‘extraneous’ details (he calls them ‘chrome’) from the story of Hansel and Gretel… but the resultant limp excuse for a narrative wouldn’t be worth the bother of reading. It’s the details which make the story, he says… and I say, right on, Mr. K. Which brings us back to world-building.
Now, I totally get the fact not everyone reading LOTR is enamoured with, or even the slightest bit interested in, those mammoth appendices. That’s fine. They’re present for nerds like me who love a story so much (warts and all --- and in the interest of fairness, I’m prepared to admit even LOTR contains warts, yes, precious, it does) we want every imaginable snippet of obscure background information (things like the fact King Argle-Bargle XXXV or whomever, living hundreds of years before the freaking story even takes place, reigned from this date to that and died of dropsy), and yet comfortably removed from the main narrative for those preferring their literary experience to be… well, LOTR-lite. But what those appendices do is provide colour, chrome, structure, and logic to a completely imaginary world, a framework from which the author can hang the plot. They’re evidence the author has given some --- or a great deal of --- consideration to making their world real, populated by totally believable people, cultures, societies, etc., and in LOTR’s case, realistic languages, too --- though, to be fair, that was Professor T’s specialty.
So… without resorting to nearly book-length appendices, and in the interests of attempting to satisfy both ends of the literary spectrum I referenced (nerds-versus-lite-crowd), how do we strike a happy medium with world-building?
Well, the first and great commandment is: Avoid Information Dumps; they’re messy, pedantic, boring… and, frankly, folks, as far as putting info dumps in dialogue go: nope. Big Nope. People just don’t talk like that --- except tedious, know-it-all jerks who love to hear the sound of their own voices, jerks we either tune out or smite and banish.
The second commandment is like unto the first: Don’t Get Carried Away. Most people want to know the whys and wherefores of an issue or event --- try actually listening next time you’re engaged in a conversation with someone, and hopefully you’ll realize this --- but they don’t necessarily need or want Every. Last. Freaking. Detail. So, yeah, contrary to what some authors and editors maintain, backstories are important, and allowing some details of those backstories to seep into the narrative’s thread can be important, too… just not usually a character’s (or culture’s) complete life history and curriculum vitae.
One good way to weave world-building into your tale is to include a character who’s an outsider i.e. someone from a different country or culture. They can legitimately ask questions on behalf of themselves and the reader which other characters likely already know the answers to, but the explanations are a legitimate didactic device. The main thing to keep in mind is, any information the author provides which falls into the world-building category should be presented as a natural, logical part of the tale, not as some omniscient, pedantic, thundering Voice From On High. That bogs down the narrative’s pace… not to mention in this sad era filled with attention-deficit-plagued readers, it’ll lose you the ‘LOTR-lite’ crowd quicker than an elf can skewer an orc.
So build on, world-builders! You’ve nothing to lose but your vapid, chrome-less storylines.