Even a short piece of writing belongs in a world. It might not be this world, but it is a world with laws of its own. World building is the process of setting that all up in your head. Or on paper, if that’s how you need to do it. Most of the world you build has to stay off the pages of your writing. This is important to remember. A book that trickles in the laws, facts and ideas of the world as you read it is great. One that explains every aspect of the world as you go through it, isn’t. You’re reading the book for the story, not to get your head around a new set of laws.
All about the world (yawn)
I read the (unpublished) book of an aspiring fantasy author once. In the first 25 pages, the main character and his best friend mounted horses and started travelling. As they travelled, we found out about the genetic makeup of the people in the land, how they calculated weights and differences and the comparative value of their money. Nothing really happened, it was all exposition and explanation. It is really important that the author knows all of that stuff but the reader is seldom interested in it. It’s scaffolding and piping when what we really care about is the wallpaper and furniture.
I love the expression “world-building”. Shaun Tan used it (but did not coin it) at the Book Festival when talking about all the drawings that he does around characters and compositions. He talked about illustration but it applies equally to writing. The world we write about has to make sense, be logical and consistent. I have lots of material that sets up the world but will never make it into a story. When I create a character, they often (but not always) have a detailed back story that won’t make it into the main story.
My need to know is much greater than that of my readers.