Against Worldbuilding
Lincoln Michel

When writing a story set in the contemporary world a writer doesn’t give the history of the New World before arriving at the point where Sally picks up her cup of coffee. You create the material the reader needs to set up a frame and the specific items/details needed to tell the story. The rest the reader fills in. That’s obvious. What doesn’t seem obvious to some writers who think world building is an end in itself is that too much world building takes away one of the primary joys of reading: the opportunity for reader participation. As Samuel R. Delaney once noted about re-reading an old, beloved SF novel, when a book is in your memory that recording of it is yours — the interior of the castle looks like the castle interior YOU came up with.

This is one reason I have not gotten through a new fantasy novel in decades. Paragraphs of descriptions of Stuff aren’t why I read fiction. I want to know what she said, what she did, what was going in her head in contrast with what was going on outside it. All the other stuff can be suggested, it can be sketched, or it can be forced on the reader. Delaney also notes that a simple phrase out of Heinlein “The door irised open” evokes a world without describing it.

Maybe it’s an age thing, and readers who grew up with so many visual entertainments like and expect it. Maybe it’s about imagination and originality.

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