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I am a fiction writer, and I'm designing several worlds for my various novels. As it so happens, I really like designing worlds. I seem to like it so much, that I'm beginning to wonder if I'm carrying the worldbuilding too far.

Since I'm designing all this for novels, there comes a point where I have to stop making everything so different, and start focusing on what is the same. If absolutely everything is different, the reader won't have a clue what is going on, unless I include exhaustive information and backstory - things that are just going to bore the reader. How do I know when world development has gone too far?

For example, today I found myself occupied trying to find new names for the months of my fantasy world. I'd love to have these, because mentioning times such as 'October' and 'July' just don't sound right next to 'elves' and 'magic.' And yet, changing the month names would confuse the reader as to when things are going on, unless I tell him in the beginning (aka, info dump). Not to mention the fact that naming the months really has nothing whatsoever to do with my story.

I want my world to seem as real as possible, but at the same time, I want to know where to draw the line. How can I do this?

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    $\begingroup$ Did you considered to don't explain them at all? For example Skyrim as a game have new names for months even days of the week and it didn't explain anything. It is part of the world as it is. I would use "suspension of disbelief" in this example. Just make a world with all propriates and make it believable for yourself. $\endgroup$ – Ernedar Nov 2 '15 at 7:46
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    $\begingroup$ Your alien worlds don't speak English, either. It's no more or less of a dissonance to use the English word "March" when a character refers to the third month of the year than it is to use the English word "hand" when a character refers to the manipulating appendage at the end of their arm. In both cases it's understood that the character actually said something completely different in an alien language, and the writer has translated it for the English-speaking audience. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Nov 2 '15 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeScott, I agree with you entirely, but to play Devil's Advocate, that would mean this fictional planet must have the exact same number of months as Earth (and weeks and days etc depending on how deep you go). Personally, I'm with you here, and do the same for my own work. I file it neatly under Willing Suspension of Disbelief, but the issue is there if one chooses to look it in the face. $\endgroup$ – Mac Cooper Nov 2 '15 at 10:02
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    $\begingroup$ "Your story isn't complete when there's nothing left to add, it's complete when there's nothing left to take away." $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Nov 2 '15 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeScott: If you're going to have a different number of months, I'd say you definitely shouldn't use Earth-month names. Otherwise you give the reader incorrect assumptions. If you say the month of Blerble follows the month of Fleeb, nobody will think twice - it's fiction, you can make stuff up all day long. But if you say that January comes right after October, you're just going to confuse people. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Nov 2 '15 at 21:17

11 Answers 11

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Building a world and writing a story are two entirely separate things. In practice there will be a feedback between the two where you fudge the story to match the setting and the setting to better serve the story, but even there you should only be in one mode at a time.

When you are building the world be a world builder to the max and immerse yourself in the pleasure of creation without worrying too much if it is actually useful. Such prediction is difficult, time consuming and unreliable, it is better to just go with the flow.

When you write the story, then write the story and nothing but the story. Do not care that you spent weeks making this totally cool detail to the setting, if it doesn't serve the needs of the story, it has no place in the story. If it distracts from the story, cut it out. If it doesn't, feel free to mention it without elaboration.

As a writer your job is to make sure the readers understand the story, the setting, the background, and the characters... understanding is not necessary unless it also helps understanding the story. Unless the details of the calendar are relevant, do not distract the reader by explaining it. If all that is relevant for the story are the order and separation of events, those are all you need to explain. And all you should mention.

With naming the simple heuristic is to check if there is a (reasonably) simple plain English alternative to the "in setting" name. If there is, you should just use it. Exotic naming should be saved for unique concepts or things that readers never need to translate to English equivalent due to nothing equivalent existing in common usage.

A mental trick might be to think of the setting as a side character and such explanations as giving that side character dialogue. Then you can usually detect if you are inserting the character into scenes it has no business being in or letting it overshadow the main characters. It is also possible that you are not developing the setting fully as a character or are letting it get overshadowed in scenes where it should be in focus. Remembering that the considerations in letting the setting have focus and letting a character have focus are similar helps if you already are confident in managing characters.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Alternative to the"? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 2 '15 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz If I found the correct spot it seemed to be correct. Edited anyway, to make parsing the sentence correctly easier. (I hope.) Since English is not my native language my sentences get somewhat... incomprehensible sometimes. Same in every language, really. But I am better at correcting it in Finnish... $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 2 '15 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ Exotic naming should be saved for unique concepts or things that readers never need to translate to English equivalent due to nothing equivalent existing in common usage: (very) relevant xkcd comic $\endgroup$ – Sanchises Nov 2 '15 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ "if it doesn't serve the needs of the story, it has no place in the story," but it may have a place in companion technical manuals or books on history and lore. ;) Or in side stories or extended universe stories. $\endgroup$ – jpmc26 Nov 3 '15 at 0:32
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    $\begingroup$ @jpmc26 Exactly, I almost wrote something like that in the answer. A professional writer should always be thinking about using work done for this project in future projects. Volume of work does matter if you want to make a living of it. Bit cynical, which is why it isn't in the answer... $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 3 '15 at 8:37
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There are some good answers here already but I'd like to weigh in with my view on the subject as well, with a little more applied advice.

When it comes to worldbuilding, unless you're working on a deadline or have some other concrete goal then there really is no such thing as too much. You can build to your heart's content if it's on your own time. If you enjoy it, by all means go nuts. Many very successful authors have built incredibly detailed worlds for their stories that go way beyond just renaming the months.

The key to everything is knowing what to leave out of the story itself. You can rename all the months, but unless it's crucial that the reader understand your whole calendar, there's no need to explicitly define it for them. As long as they get the gist of what you're trying to communicate, that's all you need. If you try this minimal approach and find it's too confusing to people, abstract it a bit. For example, instead of naming the months in the story (whether or not you named them in the WB process) just refer to the passage of time in terms of seasons, or some other abstract concept that the reader will be familiar with. Here's an example:

Before: "Bob knew the process would take until Carlvember, which was still three months distant." - Not bad, but it's a little awkward. Do you really think like that in real life? The characters probably implicitly know that Carlvember is three months away so they don't need to think it so explicitly.

After: "Bob knew the process would take well into the harvest season to complete, at least until Carlvember." - If you've already established somewhere else that it's currently late Summer, this is a more abstract way to describe the timeline that doesn't require the reader to get distracted thinking about your fantasy calendar. Readers can already relate to the seasonal changes (unless you changed that too) so it's easy to imply an amount of time more naturally than counting it.

Does that mean you shouldn't rename everything? No, you can do that all you want, and even reference the names in the story. The key is just to find ways like the one above to avoid exhaustive or unnatural explanations that will distract the reader from the story itself. Plenty of authors construct whole languages for their worlds, but they don't spend tons of time explaining them in the actual story, they just throw in phrases here and there for flavor. You can always release a compendium in addition to the story that has all your fun details in it. Some people really enjoy reading that (myself included), but it shouldn't be forced on the average reader unless necessary.

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I think you mix different concepts in your question:

  1. How much should I develop my world?
  2. How do I convey my alien world to my readers?

World Development

For the first point, I would say you need to have your world coherent, and satisfying. You might want to look at the general explanations provided by @James, on the general process of world creation. In short words, you can use different methods to do so. Two extremes approaches are

  • Top-down: you build the whole world from scatch. Creation of the world, geography, culture, languages, etc. Everything is placed there by the God that you are (for that world). It tends to be consistent, but possibly overdoing.
  • Bottom-up: you start from your characters/story and expand the world around them progressively as the needs arise. You only develop what you need, but there might be inconsistencies.

With the top-down people tends to overdo their world creation, puting aside the reason they were building the world in the first place. This is quite common with usual users around here.

Suspension of Disbelief

For the second point, it is more a question for Writers.SE. You might be interested in reading @ArtOfCode's blog post about suspension of disbelief. The point is that you can change anything you want. But the trick is then, as you correctly pointed out, to convey the relevant information to the reader, without spending some chapters on explaining everything. I think that is also a typical problem with people overdoing their world creation. But in itself, it is not inherently bad. You just need to be careful. If people gather that Thermidor is the equivalent of a Summer month, then it should be alright. But do you need to mention it in the story? I mean, if you say, "we'll meet in some month from now", then who cares what was the month called. But then again, I'd suggest to have a look around Writers.SE, there are quite some discussions about similar points.

Conclusion

There are no line which generally tells you when to stop. If your aim is to be a writer, then you need to make sure you have enough consistency in your world to feel at ease, watching the story evolve around. When do you feel at ease, only depends on you. But bear in mind that you want to tell a story later on. So depending on your writing style and skills, you should be careful not to spend too much time explaining everything within the story. That's what World Description books are made for. After the story.

But you can see that Tolkien spent more than a decade developing his world, before he felt well enough to actually write up his story.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that Tolkein worked bottom-up: he created a language family, then developed a world for it to live in. $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 2 '15 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark, If you consider the language as the central element of the story yes. Otherwise creating a language without knowing much about a story it more the top-down approach. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Nov 2 '15 at 9:55
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    $\begingroup$ Obligatory up-vote for linking my article :) $\endgroup$ – James Nov 2 '15 at 14:50
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How do I know when world development has gone too far?

When worldbuilding conflicts with your aim, by which I mean whatever caused you to start building your world in the first place.

Is your aim to have fulfilled your ambition to complete the story you've had in your head since whenever? Do you never write the story because spend all your time fiddling with the trade routes between Risingpower and Decliningempire? Stop worldbuilding and start writing.

Is your aim to get your novel published? Has a publisher rejected it because it went into boring levels of detail? Has it never even got as far as a publisher's slush pile because even your mother found it difficult to test-read your magnum opus? Stop worldbuilding and start editing.

Is your aim to experience delight in building a detailed world? Then rejoice that you can find happiness in a way that harms nobody, costs next to nothing and is only moderately addictive.

If you still quite like the idea of someone else reading it even though getting an audience and royalty payments isn't your driving aim, in these days of self-publishing in electronic form it is quite feasible to publish a book aimed at a niche market of people who really, really like detailed worlds. You will probably never make back your costs, but so what? Compare it to the cost of other non-necessities people drop money on, like fancy cars, holidays, hi-fi systems, or designer clothes. Or just publish it on the internet using free software, so that the only cost is your time. On this model going "too far" in worldbuilding only happens when you get bored.


Regarding months, making up new month names is not remotely going too far. Our month names are tied to our history. Unless your planet also had in its history by some amazing coincidence two guys called Julius and Augustus powerful enough to get astronomical phenomena named after them it shouldn't have months called July and August. Anyway, unless your planet has a large, visible single moon with an orbital period that can be measured by observing its waxing and waning, its inhabitants won't have any reason to measure time in "months". (Though if it doesn't have a moon at all, the days are likely to be very short, among other fairly drastic differences to earth.)

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Why do things have funny names if the prose and dialog is all translated into English? Someone already gave an xkcd reference, but this version explains and the added "discussion" sheds insight as well.

If the world (or universe or culture) is different than the concepts are different enough to not use the English word. If they don't have days, time periods relating to shifts and feeding might not be called "days". Someone mentioned month names, and that might relate to cultural references. But most people consider them to be abstract labels without the connotation of where they got the names. Now if there were 24 months it might not make sence to use our names.

More generally: if you can't understand it without boring backstory, it's too far. If things are not needed for the story, you should streamline it. If a character kicks back with an idle activity for a few minutes, it is not necessary to make the reader understand that activity and why he finds it enjoyable etc. You can set the mood and get across the important stuff without getting into it. Or, change "it" to get rid of the sticky point.

A certain portion of the writing covers details. A series can have more detail because it is fleshed out and carried over, and assumed from the beginning of an episode. So when Riker is eating with the Klingon crew, we smile and know his ability to eat anything and recall how he learned the "proper" way to eat gagh. But it takes no time from the current story, even if there is a line like, «"Yes, I've had gagh before" he noted with a fond far-away smile.» and it doesn't detract for someone who doesn't get the reference.

What if nobody got it, because it's in your bible and backstory notes, but not actually written? Well, it still provides the appearance of richness, and helps ensure that such references will have continuity and match the experiences that went into shaping the character.

Another example is in the movie The Incredibles, where the babysitter's story was aluded to but not shown. A short was made later. That could have been shown, but would interfere with the pacing of the action plot and add 10 minutes overall. But just having it (without going into detail) added to the richness and characterization of the family's situation.

Let's look at the question again: how much is too much to have, or to explicitly mention in the novel? Having too much doesn't bother the use or bog down the story, if it can be used "lightly" as indicated above. It just means you are not writing the story.

So think of it like a software project: only write what is needed, plan bigger, make notes. Use a spiral approach to cover the broad strokes, and add detail in subsequent passes, where needed. It is "needed" if it comes up in the overt story, or when you need a better handle on how that shaped the character/society/plot. Consider the rule book for Quiddage: was it necessary to know that before the game was featured? No, only some rough ideas about it and more on the team dynamics and not the specifics of the teams' long histories but the impression that it has a long history.

Remember I said "a portion". Of all the words that are put down, some of them need to be about the actual plot, characters, etc. If you do that, why do you add more that don't?

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    $\begingroup$ "If things are not needed for the story, you should streamline it.", yes, this. It's why, in Sisters, I refer to week-ish periods as "ten-days" rather than making up a word ("week" seemed too familiar for my setting), and why, if I need to refer to months, I'll call them "first month", "tenth month", etc (but I'll prefer seasonal references). My goofy names for things would impede the story, and the point is to tell the story. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Nov 2 '15 at 23:42
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About time

In most sedentary cultures on earth, I think, time is divided in years.

A year is a cycle. Each year the same event happens, around agriculture. Harvesting, blooming, and all that stuff.

Years are divided in parts that correspond to weathers and types of work. In Europe, there are usually 4 seasons, and to each season its weather and its events, and its works.

Then there are smaller divisions, that have historical and cultural reasons - months. In France 1792, the months were re-designed to have exactly 30 days, and to be named based on what was happening at the time. Ventôse (after Ventosus which is Latin for Windy) being a cold and windy month, i.e. March, while Frimaire from French frimas - frost, was December. It didn't stick, but you get the idea.

The smallest division before you start to actually measure time with a timepiece is the day, which is basically a day and usually a night.

Years, days and seasons are marked by natural events. You don't need to name then in a different way, assuming that your characters already speak your writing language.

Depending on your setting, there is a good chance that you can generally talk about those without having to explain what they are. (Now, if you are not on earth, where days have a very different length, then possibly, yeah)

Words that are based on those you can safely use: century (assuming the decimal system is vaguely used), fortnight...

More localized words, just avoid then altogether until you really need to set a date.

And even then, you can use for example the number of years/days of reign of whatever king there is.

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Worldbuilding goes too far when the world you've built detracts from the story to be told. Navigating those extremes between incredibly deep worlds and a story that reads can follow is tricky, at best.

Whether it's new names of months or a completely different economic system, a reader can only handle so many differences between the reality they know and the reality of the world you've written. When the cognitive load required for a reader to situate themselves in your story exceeds the audience's capacity, then you've done too much world building. The cognitive load capacity will depend on your audience, ie, three year-olds can handle far less detail than a well-educated adult.

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  1. Is a worldbuilding element necessary to distinguish your universe from the real one? If an element of plot, or the entire story, hinges on some critical difference from our own universe, the reader needs that knowledge sometime before the plot does.
    • If it is, proceed to the next question.
    • If not, consider removing this element from the story entirely. Language is something that often falls flat; coming up with new names for things in our universe, like day/night, seasons, etc often is more confusing than helpful in painting the world.
  2. Does the reader have to know any unique details about this element, or can you rely on the "trope"? You typically don't have to explain how antigravity works to the level of a doctoral particle physics thesis in order for your reader to suspend disbelief and accept antigravity exists in your universe. On the other hand, at least some backstory for how humanoid characters have superhuman abilities is typically required to break the "similar to me" bias of the reader and maintain disbelief.
    • If yes, skip the full explanation and either explain in context (narrating as if the user already knows and they'll get the idea) or explain some essentials and move on.
    • If no, proceed to the next question.
  3. Can the element be learned by context; that is, can you simply write as if the reader should already know this thing about your world, possibly with a clause of extra description or exposition in the description of something using your element? Good examples include things people already suspend disbelief of in other worlds, like the existence of magic, or the juxtaposition of different technological developments from different times in our history like steam engines in otherwise medieval times.
    • If yes, don't explain it, just run with it.
    • If no, proceed to the next question.
  4. Can the information be given to the reader from the narrator in a plausible way in two or three sentences (a paragraph or less)?
    • If yes, go ahead. Narration like this makes the reader feel like they're standing beside the narrator, watching the events unfold, and the narrator is quickly explaining something between dialogue.
    • If not, proceed to the next question.
  5. Can the information be broken into multiple smaller explanations? For instance, giving the reader the critical essentials in a couple of sentences in one place, then explaining more thoroughly as needed, without it sounding like you're changing the rules of the world to suit the plot?
    • If yes, then do so. A sentence three chapters ago explaining that most sections of the space station rotate to produce gravity can be supplemented by an additional sentence stating a particular section rotates at a different rate to produce differing artificial gravity.
    • If not, proceed to the next question.
  6. Can the information be given to the reader plausibly in the form of a teaching or questioning exposition between characters? The typical mechanism is a "Watson", a character that exists to ask the "audience questions". It's most believable to have a character that we can believe is benefiting from the explanation as well, like a "new guy" in the group learning the ropes, or one specialist explaining an obscure aspect of his own subject to the rest of a "tiger team" assembled to save the world.
    • If so, do that. Avoid cliched tropes like "As You Know" (beginning the explanation, as dialogue, with these three words to lampshade the fact the character is getting nothing new from the explanation) or the "Idiot Scientist" (exposition in the form of dialogue, but the audience question is asked by a character that should, given his credentials, already know the answer, like a particle physicist asking what a quark is).
    • If not, consider putting in footnotes, or an appendix. Many excellent works of fiction, especially in the fantasy genre but also in more realistic fiction, use an appendix to illustrate or define things that the reader might not be expected to know or pick up on, and that can't be explained inline without the reader losing the plot, but that are essential to understanding the story. Good examples include Tolkien's extensive appendices detailing elements of background information that are needed but never found their way into the plot. Historical fiction often includes maps of the area in question, or diagrams of elements of this past society that aren't commonplace today, like the anatomy of a tall sailing ship.
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Things You Cannot Mess With In Realistic World Building

1- Macro physics. Gravity, electricity, magnetism, nuclear fission/fusion etc.

2- Biological functions. Breathing, eating, senses etc.

Things You Can Mess With In Realistic World Building

1- Naming. Any and all names are acceptable. So whatever month names you choose, are ok.

2- Properties of organisms. Sixth sense, sonar, echolocation etc.

3- Distances between celestial bodies, as long as they can be sustained under physical laws.

How To Keep The Reader With The Weird Naming?

1- At several places in the story, hint at what the names mean. For example, let us assume two elves are conversing and you want to mention different month names, and yet want to make them understandable. Here is how:

Mantr looked quizzically at Sobn and thought for a moment.

"Elgon will probably die in Geng. Even if he does survive then, he cannot live past Yvest."

Considering that it was 19th date of Elbo and it was the second month of the year, waiting for Elgon to die in Geng would be to wait 3 months. And if he survived Geng, he would live during Von, Sim and Hon before Yvest came and he died. Sobn was not going to wait for so long!

See, how we have dropped hints about the month names and times of year without having to drill them explicitly in the reader's mind in the start of the novel. You can use this approach multiple times in your work until your readers get a hang of what you are saying.

Although it is fine to use your own month and weekday names, I would suggest that you refrain from that practice. You can use your own naming system but try to refer to times by temporal difference more often than their names. For example, in above case:

"Elgon will probably die in Geng. Even if he does survive then, he cannot live past Yvest."

is more confusing for the reader to understand. Instead of that, consider the following statement:

"Elgon will probably die after 3 months. Even if he does survive then, he cannot live past 6 months anyway."

See. Here you haven't mentioned any names, and still the message is clear and simple. Or you can use a mixed approach as:

"Elgon will probably die after 3 months. Even if he does survive then, he cannot live more than 6 months and would succumb in Yvest."

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    $\begingroup$ "Things You Cannot Mess With" unless you are Greg Egan, Isaac Asimov, ... for #2, include Hal Clement, Stephen Baxter, and many others. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 2 '15 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ I guess OP is none of these. So ... $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Nov 2 '15 at 16:38
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I'm actually planning on writing a post on this on the WorldBuilding.SE blog in the coming months. So I'll go into more detail then.

The correct line is very much based on your personality and your writing style, so nobody can give you a line to hold. What we can do is recommend ways we have identified the line for ourselves in the past, and hopefully one or two of those approaches will be useful for you too.

What I have found is that the more detail you put into the background, the more rigid it appears. Real world are very fluid. Victorian architecture was not used because one day they decided the Victorian style would be best, it developed over time, as the world shaped it. Skilled writers can put these details in and get the flow right the first time; people like me instead have to make worlds which will flex a little, and let the story tell me which architecture is ideal. Maybe I really need a bad guy to have a certain flavor, and I just can't find anywhere else to tie that flavor into the world. BAM! Now the architecture and the bad guy define each-other.

If this resonates with you, then you may develop worlds similarly to me. If so, one thing I am constantly looking out for is a "stale" feeling or an unexpected metallic feel/taste to the world. These, for me, are indicators that I've reached out and tried to put to many details into the world. Instead of trying to build a livable world that enriches the characters, I'm building a static world devoid of life. Then I get to back off on the details, and start making things more flexible, even mushy, until I start to think the world demands too much suspension of disbelief. Then I go back to the details, back and forth.

If you can, allow the world to develop while writing the story, rather than forcing yourself to build the world first. Realistic worlds are much easier if you allow the characters to interact with the world, rather than just being fit into the world like cookie cutter characters in front of a cheesy matte.

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As a world builder you basically need to design a general framework for your world before you get into details. This will provide a guide for you in the future as you flesh out the details when writing stories which originate in your world.

The first thing you should think of is what the basis of the world will be. Is the world completely different from our world, including physics, lifeforms, etc? Or, is it a world with some kind of basis in reality such as an alternate history, or a tale that takes place in the distant past or far into the future?

Once you have that figured out, then you will have some clue on how to proceed. One of the pitfalls in world building is trying to make things different than reality on Earth because it is different for no reason instead of the fact that there is a practical reason why it is different.

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