How Much is too Much in Describing a Fictional Universe?

Writers need to know a great deal about their characters and the worlds in which they reside — whether it’s a fantasy setting built from the ground up or a small town the antagonist has lived in all of his or her life.

World building is the phrase used in fantasy and science fiction to describe the mythical or other universe an author creates. But I think all stories and novels build their own worlds; we call it the setting. 

However, the reader probably doesn’t need to know everything about a place or environment. For earth-based fiction, does the reader need to know, for example, when a town was founded? Not necessarily. However, if a character is the descendant of a founder and wields influence in town politics, then it could be important.

Marlon James, a Booker Prize winning author, put it this way. “I think what sometimes goes wrong with world-building is that people spend too much time on it. Build to the point of where it’s of use to the character, otherwise you fall into exposition.”

It’s easy to fall into excessive description. The writer can see the room a character enters perfectly, and it can seem important to get it all into the first draft. But it doesn’t have to stay in the final. 

If a character describes a room down to the fabric the curtains are made of or a tool shed down to the lawnmower brand, what does that level of detail add to the reader’s enjoyment? If the answer is, “Not much,” those could become the paragraphs readers skim. 

I recently read a wonderful review of a memoir in Publisher’s Weekly. Yet, this was the last sentence: the [memoir] “would not lose any of its charm for losing a third of its length.” Yikes! A good reminder of why an author needs to be ferocious in paring unneeded text.

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