Science fiction – how much world building?

Bow fell

I suppose when it comes to world building converting a book to the big (or small) screen is the ultimate, in that someone has done all the work for you.  However, I sometimes think rendering a book into film can spoil the reading.  It’s hard then not to visualise the places and characters as those that you’ve seen.  Also, if you’ve read the books first then those places and characters might to match what you had imagined.

However, back to the writing and how far do you go in describing those worlds, how much do you leave to the reader’s imagination?  For my first two books I paid for the editorial advice of a published author in my genre.  The advice for the first book was very valuable is showing me some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ and some of the pitfalls for the new writer.  The second time around was less valuable for various reasons.  However, the bit of advice that has always troubles me most is “If it doesn’t move the story along take it out”.

For my first book I did just that and guess what? I didn’t like it, I’d gone too far.  Books should have rythym, they should ebb and flow, it can’t be wall to wall action all the time.  You need time to take a breath, to appreciate the calm before the storm.  Also, in doing that I had stripped out much of what I would term ‘world building’, giving those descriptions that suggest the worlds that I see my characters living in.  That doesn’t mean going to endless detail.  I once read three pages on how the electrical system worked on a Mars base (I didn’t read much more of the book).

KephaloniaIt’s all a question of balance.  As a reader I want to have an idea of what the writer is seeing.  It can be small mundane everyday things or visions of epic, mind blowing scale.  The former links me to the characters, the latter, well that’s one of the reasons I enjoy science fiction.  So yes I want to imagine the worlds myself, but I also want the author to give me enough to build that view on.  I also want a few originally described details that help me believe in those worlds and then let me fill in the rest for myself.

So yes, for me, balance is the key.  You don’t want to bore the reader with how clever you are, how you’ve spent weeks plotting the finest details of the worlds your characters inhabit.  However, you do need to guide the reader and provide that framework for their imagination to build on.  Oh, and treat with caution that advice, “If it doesn’t move the story along take it out”.

As always opinion and comments are welcome.

Ian Martyn

You can make your mind up on my world building in Project Noah and Bleak – The story of a shapeshifter.  Or see My books for the first few chapters.

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

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