The Gearheart – A Free Audiobook

The Gearbox: Worldbuilding with Jess Hartley, Pt.2

by on Aug.27, 2009, under The Gearbox

Today, we tackle the second question posed to Jess Hartley, game developer extraordinaire! To read the first interview question, click here.

Worldbuilding can be an attractive facet of writing. To a certain extent, all sci-fi and fantasy stories contain a world that almost takes on a main character role, but don’t be fooled. There is such a thing as too much worldbuilding. This trap was the purpose of today’s question.

Alex: How much worldbuilding is too much worldbuilding? Where does the exposition end and the story begin?

Jess: There are two dangers involved in extensive world building. The first is that the act of worldbuilding inherently takes time and creative energy. If you spend too little time and energy in creating a realistic world for your story to take place, you risk running into challenges as the stories you tell in that world play out into areas and topics that you hadn’t yet contemplated. For the most part, these issues can be dealt with through either improvisation or continued world-building (depending on whether the problem crops up during an interactive situation, like in the middle of a game session, or at a time when you can give it more thought and time, like while writing a story or adventure, or between game sessions.) There is, of course the risk of running into seemingly insurmountable contradictions, but most situations can be made to fit with enough effort and creativity.

If, on the other hand, you spend too much time and energy on the world building, you may never actually get to the story you wanted to tell. Compare this, for example, to an artist who spends so long preparing his canvas that he no longer has time or energy to paint the picture. The worlds we build, whether it is for gaming or fiction, are not the stories themselves. They are merely the settings in which the stories happen, and if we become too focused on world building, it can get in the way of actually creating the stories.

The other potential risk of extensive world building is that it tends to spawn exposition. Once our grand and comprehensive world is created, we (quite naturally) want to show it off. Both in fiction and in game-creating, this leads to exposition, as we find ourselves going into long written (or spoken) descriptions so that we can be sure our readers (or players) are appropriately impressed with the extensive work we’ve put into building our world. While understandable, this kind of exposition can be deadly to a story, as it pulls the all progress to a complete halt while viewers are forced to stop and examine your landscape.

Remember: Exposition is showing. Story is telling. Worldbuilding really isn’t either of them, but it can spawn exposition rather than story, if you’re not careful.

Thanks again to Jess Hartley (of for her incredible insight into this difficult but fun aspect of creative writing! For more advice, including professional ethics, game etiquette and more, check out her website! And, of course, tune in regularly for more episodes of The Gearheart!

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