Worldbuilders Disease

For a writer, constructing the background material can be so much fun that it's mistaken for writing. Fantasy writers have a penchant for working up histories of imaginary empires that can run to hundreds of pages, full of maps and chronologies and genealogical trees a yard long. It's a common phenomenon: C. S. Lewis, in childhood, chronicled the doings of "Animal Land"; as adolescents, the Brontes produced long histories of an imaginary kingdom called "Angria." The whole of The Silmirillion and those long, long appendices are background information Tolkien wisely excluded from his huge trilogy, The Lord ofthe Rings—and certainly not for lack of space.

Similarly, science fiction writers can fall in love with their hardware and want to show it off, like a neighbor's interminable discussion of the gastric workings of his new car. George Lucas has commented that some sf movies are particularly guilty of this—their directors figure they've spent so much on a special effect that they use vital screen (storytelling) time giving a boring guided tour of some particularly elaborate model, relegating plot and character to the background shadows. Seen Star Trek: the Movie, with its seemingly interminable shots of the Enterprise? Writers can do precisely the same thing on paper.

Or sometimes sf writers can become so immersed in the sociology of the alien race they've invented that they offer glossaries translating native terms, folklore, sayings, and histories stretching back for millennia, in place of a story. Seen any of Ursula Le Guin's recent work, particularly Always Coming Home, which comes complete with an audio tape of folk songs?

Mystery writers can spend so much time working out alibis, with lists of suspects, timetables, maps with calculations on how long it would take to go by foot, bicycle, car or even helicopter to the scene of the crime, and the other logistics of detection, that they can't resist reusing these working notes in their stories. Dorothy L. Sayers' The Five Red Herrings is (among many excellent things) an exercise in timetable management; so is her Have His Carcase.

I call this phenomenon "World-Builders' disease." In its more extreme forms, it's narrative cancer: the unchecked and malignant growth of something that was harmless, even beneficial and necessary, in itself. In all genres, it involves becoming infatuated with the process of invention for its own sake. Exposi tion, essentially static and undramatic, isn't subordinated to plot and takes over. The story stops dead.


Every writer is Pygmalion, falling in love with his handiwork and wanting it to come alive. And sometimes, that love can be blind, as in the case of Pygmalion's dark counterpart, Dr. Frankenstein.

Writers blinded by the delights of concocting elaborate background material can forget that their primaryjob is to tell a story, not merely to invent.

Inventing is relatively easy—you take your expertise, whatever it may be, and project it on the universe. Tolkien, a medieval scholar and linguist, invented elaborate languages for dwarves, two races of elves, and several races of men. One of the human languages bore a striking resemblance to Old English, Tolkien's particular area of expertise. A plumber could invent a world full of plumbing, complete with detailed discussions of conduits, fittings, gravity-feed, and so on. A surgeon ... no, that doesn't even bear thinking on.

As any bored spouse of a card player or a dedicated jogger knows, what's fun for one person to do isn't necessarily fun for another person to watch. Short of a tournament, chessjust isn't a good spectator sport. Neither is working out exposition. Don't rent a stadium and expect crowds to flock in.

Don't assume your enjoyment in doing the invention is automatically going to mean the reader is going to enjoy the final product. Inventing is easy—it's storytelling that's hard. And it's storytelling the reader has a right to expect.

Give Your Reader a Piece of Your Mind—Not All ofIt

Rightly used, working background notes—what's sometimes called "doing your homework"—is the iceberg, and the story is the proverbial tip. The story is supported, sustained, given solidity and substance by a great mass of information the writer needs to know but the reader doesn't—and shouldn't.

The character charts some writing books advise you to make, calling for everything from a character's childhood nickname to his/her taste in furniture, can be useful. They can flesh out characters for you and let you start getting to know them preparatory to writing about them. Such charts are getting-ready exercises, not the race itself. A character in a story should be a character in action, not a walking mass of background data. Don't give in to the temptation to include in your story such working notes, however long, elaborate, and inventive they may be. The iceberg should stay out of sight to anchor the whole, not be on view to weight it down.

Keeping Exposition Under Control: Tolkien and Adams

To stop the story for long-winded explanations or descriptions is deadly, particularly at the beginning and most especially in the popular genres, where a strong, direct plot that moves along fairly briskly is an absolute necessity.

Follow Tolkien's example. He included the romance of Aragorn and Arwen Evenstar only as an appendix. That's because Tolkien was a storyteller to his very bones. He knew it didn't belong and would, however charming a tale in itself, have been a distraction, an impediment to the ongoing narrative.

Or follow Richard Adams' example. In WatershipDown, the epic adventures of a group of rabbits setting out to found a new nation, Adams includes several tales of the rabbit folk hero, El-ahrairah. But he compensates. He gets his story well underway first and establishes his main characters before moving to the first tale. He makes sure each tale is brief, fairly simple (as folk tales generally are), and full of action, so it's dramatic rather than static. And he only departs from the main plot at a quiet moment, a lull between crises.

Moreover, each tale is connected by theme, mood, or actual content with the developments of the main plot. For instance, in one of the stories, El-ahrairah imitates the voice of a dog and, by guile, persuades a hostile animal to become his accomplice in stealing food. That's what gives the novel's protagonist, Hazel, the inspiration to lure a dog, as a dangerous but crucial ally, into a battle with invading rabbits, resolving the book's final crisis.

These folk tales are always kept carefully subordinate to the main plot and are never allowed to take over. Handling such an alternation is tricky in the extreme, but Adams brings it off successfully.

(You can see signs of impending world-builders' disease, though, in the fact that Adams includes, as an appendix, a glossary of rabbit language. A glossary, put afterward, when you've already struggled through the book without it, is always a dead give-away that the temptation to worse was there, even though successfully resisted.)

If you can't utterly put away your working notes, make them appendices—or wait until you're dead to issue them in book form, as is the case with The Silmirillion. Or keep the interruptions brief and full of action, and build in strong connections with the story proper to compensate.

Put your charts, glossaries, maps, and period newspapers in your sock drawer. Put them anywhere—except, undigested and unsubordinated, into your story.

The Story Comes First: Everything Else Is a Slow Second

The first, most important part of handling exposition is realizing that it's going to need handling. Once you're aware of that, you won't be as easily tempted to break off in the middle of an opening or a crisis to treat the reader to a completely unnecessary lecture on how the protagonist was frightened by a big dog in childhood or on the history of the building where the murder happened to take place.

Second, readers are only interested in explanation after their curiosity has already been aroused by something in need of explaining. In the beginning of a story, in particular, drop the people out of the plane and then say how they got there in the first place. Introduce your character, let him act and show himself and engage the reader's sympathies and curiosity. Then tell his background, if you need to.

In the middle of a story, exposition can serve as preparation for something that won't happen until later. But in its immediate context, it should seem called for by what's happenedjust before that point in the story. Otherwise, the exposition will just seem like a digression with no present relevance, or even like heavy-handed foreshadowing: nudging the reader and hinting obviously about what's coming, which none of the characters know— only the author. That's one form of authorial intrusion and something to be avoided, as I'll discuss further in a few minutes. Don'tjoin the "Little did he/she know" school of writers. Make your hints fit in, inconspicuously, so they'll stay hints, not offensive authorial nudges.

Don't assume your responsibility as a writer automatically includes detailing every trauma, illness, or relationship a character had since birth. Neither does it require you to spell out every detail of sociology of the characters' social milieu or the history of the setting. Only important things, important to understand this story, right now, should be explained.

Important things. Not everything!

Be tough with exposition. Make each piece justify its inclusion—at all, and at that particular point of the story. It shouldn't be any longer than it has to be to do its essential work. Then get back to the plot again, as soon as possible.

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  • charles engstrom
    How to write a short story about a disease?
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