Ben Crowder / Blog

Blog: #worldbuilding

In Robin Sloan’s week four POTO diary I came across three important-to-me ideas about writing.


First, he quotes M. John Harrison on worldbuilding:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

John’s full post is good, if you’re of a similar mind (which I am). Back to Robin:

I find this formulation both cautionary and invigorating. The message, as I receive it, is that the words are all there is. You cannot substitute exhaustive backstory for language that crackles and conjures. That’s the cautionary part: don’t try to compensate for your cruddy sentences with an intricate magic system.

The invigorating part is: the words are all there is! And if that’s true, then words are all you need, and, my gosh, what LEVERAGE.

Invigorating indeed, and beautiful, too, for a minimalist like me. The words are all there is.

In my own experience, worldbuilding is fun and it does help generate ideas, but I’ve learned that I’d rather put most of that time into writing the actual story instead. Because then I have a finished story at the end of it.

How does this play in to my recently expressed plan to do more prep work and outlining on my next novel? No idea. Still figuring that out.

This, then that

Later in the post, Robin talks about getting bogged down in “this, then that.” Guilty as charged, here. Being conscious of it now, though, will help, as I strive to avoid thudding monotony locked into a single temporal resolution (as he calls it) and instead try to write more time-elastic prose.

Ladder of abstraction

A second but similar axis he mentions is Roy Peter Clark’s ladder of abstraction idea. From Roy’s book Writing Tools:

Good writers move up and down a ladder of language. At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are words that reach for a higher meaning, words like freedom and literacy. Beware of the middle, the rungs of the ladder where bureaucracy and technocracy lurk. Halfway up, teachers are referred to as full-time equivalents and school lessons are called instructional units.

I’ve long been aware of the need to use concrete words (at the bottom of the ladder), but I hadn’t thought much about the bouncing back and forth between concrete and abstract words. An intriguing idea. As for the middle rungs, to be honest I’m not entirely sure yet how to tell the difference between them and the top of the ladder, other than that the middle seems to show itself as a vague, bland malaise that greys out the sentence. Something to watch out for.

Reply via email or office hours