It’s a Small, Small World

"Fire on the Street" © 2010 by M. V. Jantzen

"Fire on the Street" © 2010 by M. V. Jantzen

I subscribe to Holly Lisle’s email newsletter. Ms. Lisle is the author of what I think can politely be called a cubic assload of books (Is that too technical a term?). She also has a number of courses on how to write—and not just the mechanics of writing (commas, semi-colons, paragraphs, scene structure), but plotting and character development and more. (All of which she sells on her web site.)

She recently sent out a newsletter with advice that really hit home for me and underscored something I’ve been struggling with in my own writing.

She said that instead of building a huge world and then showing it to your readers in every sentence, we should build big . . . but only give the reader as much as they need to know to tell the story we want to tell. With her permission, I’m quoting a little bit of her newsletter here because this is the part that really struck me.

We humans do not live in the world. We live in whatever three square feet of space we’re occupying at the moment, and in order to care about the things going on in the larger world, first the world has to reach into our three square feet of space and touch us.

Think about some of the books you have read and enjoyed that had huge world-building. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit spring to mind easily. Tolkien had built an astounding world, rich with mythology, with a history, races of people, languages, and a gigantic, overarching arc of the world itself.

Yet, when he wrote The Hobbit, virtually none of this mountain of world-building was seen. He told a lovely story about a single, unimportant man (well, a Hobbit) who had adventure thrust upon him. The world did, indeed, reach into his space and touch him.

LotR begins the same way, focused on a small band of seemingly unimportant people who have the world impose itself into their lives. It’s only over the larger arc of the story that we learn what’s going on in the outside world. And even though there was a pile of other information Tolkien developed, he left it out of the story, because it would have been too much. That, of course, later became The Silmarillion, which took me years to get through. Probably precisely because it wasn’t about people but Peoples (elves, men, dwarves, orcs, ainur, etc.)

But even though he didn’t tell us all about Eru and the creation of the Ainur and of all the mythology, he knew it, and it informed everything he wrote. And so when the elves sang A Elbereth Gilthoniel, you caught a glimpse of something much deeper.

The Chronicles of Narnia has much the same feel. So much else was woven through these stories than I was even capable of realizing at age thirteen when I first read them and fell in love with them. But virtually none of it was there in those first couple of books. Later, of course, he wove in some of the universe(s) he developed.

Another that jumped quickly to mind was Babylon 5. The TV show. If you’ve never heard of it, go to NetFlix and watch them. All. The series’ creator, Joe Michael Straczynzski (JMS to fans) created a million-year history of the Universe and set the show into a particularly interesting five-year part. Hints of the whole history were dribbled and drabbled to us over the five-year run of the show, until we knew enough to glimpse the depth of his world-building. But he only revealed that which we needed to know to tell the story.

But when I look at the books that are being published, today . . . <sigh> It feels one of two ways, a lot.

Sometimes, it feels as though the writer has gone through all the pain and suffering of developing a world for his characters to inhabit, and he will by God tell you every word of that pile of world-building. Some people call these “map-quest” or “map exploration” stories. You know, ones where the author gives you a map of his world, and you end up exploring every square centimeter of it.

Other times, it feels as though there simply is no more there than the writer has chosen to show you. As though they simply made stuff up as they went along, or added something because it seemed like a good idea at the time. And I suppose if you’re writing a short story or a stand-alone novel, that’s okay. But if you want to sell more in that universe, you should probably have, you know . . . a universe. :)

I know of one author who pretty much did just that. I was reading her books and very much enjoying them, and I wrote her an email to tell her that, and asked how she came up with one of the most intriguing aspects of the world she had built. In her reply, she admitted to me with a winking smily that she had only tossed it in there because it seemed like a neat kind of thing to add, and then later had to go back and come up with a backstory to explain it.

Another couple of authors that do this kind of thing very well (in my humble opinion) are Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files series) and Terry Goodkind (The Sword of Truth series). The worlds they have developed are deep and wide, and full of rich histories and interesting people(s). Goodkind’s first book, Wizard’s First Rule, gave almost nothing of the depth of the world that he had created, focusing only on Richard and the immediate problems presented to him. Likewise, in Butcher’s first book, Storm Front, there are only glimpses of the huge amount of information that he will gradually give us over the course of the next dozen or so books.

This is one of the problem I have. I have done a decent amount of world-building, but I tend to want to sprinkle a bit too much of it into the story. Because I think it’s fascinating, I figure you will, as well. You want to know about the inner workings of time travel, right? Or how the tentacled alien species discovered space travel? Right?

And then I think of The Silmarillion and my ten-year struggle to read it. :)

So that’s what I’m struggling with right now. What to say and what not to say. How much detail to give, and how much to withhold. Ms. Lisle concluded her newsletter thusly, and it will be what I try to keep in mind as I am writing.

All the world you give your reader when you start your story is one moment. One place. And something that matters to pull us in.

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3 Responses to “It’s a Small, Small World”
  1. StoryChuck says:


    That’s an interesting perspective I’ve never thought of before, that the world only exists in the three foot square around the character. The truth in that statement is self-evident. Holly Lisle is a wonderful teacher. I’ve taken several of her courses.

    Unfortunately, I’ve been on both sides of the coin: too thin, just making it up as I go along and too thick, laying it on to the detriment of the story because, well, it’s just so dang cool (to me anyway). Funny, ’cause with world building, your backstory has backstory has backstory.

    But it does occur to me, why not throw everything in during the first draft? Or at least not worry about it too much. Explain everything, as much or as little as you want? Then, when editing, cut every piece of explanation that isn’t needed. To have the critical thought “is this truly needed?” when editing.

    Anyway, just a thought. I haven’t tried this in a conscious way, but may.

    • That’s pretty much what I did with Killing Time, Chuck. I threw it all in there. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ll let it simmer for a couple of months, then get it out and start reading and rewriting.

      • wordsmith101 says:

        I guess I mostly do it sort of backwards…throw stuff in as I’m writing, then go back and sort it all out and fill in the gaps later. I haven’t always done world-building that way, but it’s what seems to work for me now. The problem, of course, is that sometimes making it all fit together later is damned hard work. :)

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