Killing your darlings applies to worldbuilding as it does to most elements of a novel. This post will give three quick tips on how to decide what elements of worldbuilding are needed in your novel and what may have to stay out of the final piece.
Make it Unusual
Legally Blonde cuts in with a U-Haul and a dressed-to-the-nines Elle Woods pulling into Harvard’s Wyeth House. It’s unusual. It’s clear. It’s not fantasy, but it shows the significance. It plays contrast with what Harvard is depicted to be without her. If your characters see flying deer every day, they won’t bother to point it out or describe it, and if it’s as common of an occurrence, it may not be that important. But a mythical flying octopus? That will catch a character’s eye.
It’s difficult to describe something that doesn’t matter to the character, so build your world through things that matter. The mundane will find itself in how your character travels or what they do for a living, and as long as you’re not throwing fantasy words around, you’ll be fine. The unusual, however? The elements fantastic enough to make seasoned dwellers do a double-take? They’re a different story.
They’re what’s going to change your character’s world, they are what you can get away with describing in detail (as long as they are important), and they’re what you should be describing.
Make it Important
It’s easy for writers to go in the opposite direction, to try so hard to not info dump, they hold back on the information. Worldbuilding is a fantastic tool for foreshadowing, so linger on details that will matter. If your world has random talking rocks that aren’t going to utter a prophecy anytime soon, it won’t matter why they talk.
In Harry Potter, Rowling does a fantastic job of making everything matter over seven years. Gringotts, a dip into this magical world in book one and a regular location through the series, becomes integral to the plot of book seven. Holding that significance makes it special, makes it worth spending a scene describing and fleshing out. It gives us a payout for all the information we’ve collected about it.
I like to think about worldbuilding like writing an essay: every detail has to tie itself to an overarching plot, the same way evidence or details in an academic work support a thesis or a finding.
Use the Plot & the Characters
Lord of The Rings took decades of worldbuilding, and the books feel just as much a channel to the world as they do to the plot and characters. I remember more of this world than I do the rest.
In more recent fantasy, however, the world is a channel for the plot; for example, the fantasy elements in Spin the Dawn. The book’s — Spin the Dawn’s, that is — magic system, which the reader doesn’t fully know about, teaches us what we need to alongside the character: when she has to retrieve the cosmos, we see that. When she has to deal with demons, we learn about demons. This is where the previous tip is used, with Maia being thrown into a world that reeks of unusual for her, and therefore, for us.
If you’re interested, I suggest you check out How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card because it has elements that will aid greatly in striking this delicate balance. Also, this lecture by Brandon Sanderson is a lifesaver for worldbuilding (and actually goes into LoTR’s infamous, vivid worldbuilding as well as why it's that detailed), and JUVEN has so many posts on how to create your world too.
is a high school freshman in New Jersey. She likes (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and is always up to learn something new! Find her on Instagram at @writing_stoot.