The Art of World-Building

When the hobbit walked through Mirkwood, we all walked with him. We knew exactly how the trees looked, how the wind moved their branches, what the ground felt like as one fur-soled foot pressed down. We could smell the rotting leaves and…We were there as the master welcomed us into Middle Earth, his world. We were his honored guests and when we returned to this world, we felt a sense of loss.

No one, in my humble and uneducated opinion, has ever created a world in the rich way of J.R.R. Tolkien, and perhaps no one ever will. There are some among our younger readers who skip or skim the long descriptions. Do I need to know what every tree in the forest looks like?

And yet these same young people marveled over the world of Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar. I am closing in on finishing the third of the Wycaan Master novels and will then begin another edit of the first book before passing it on to more professional hands.

One of the aspects that I want to focus on is how well have I described the land in which the story transpires. There is a lot of traveling and many different climates and natural wonders, as well as villages and cities, which are described. When I wrote the first book, it was in close collaboration with my then 11-year-old son. I was very conscious of maintaining a fast pace. The second and third books were more my own work, with my son reading and giving me feedback. I believe these two novels involved considerably more world-building.

Why do we need to show such detail in epic fantasy? It seems obvious for the Sci-fi writers to put so much emphasis on creating worlds and I understand why those who write in modern earth need not focus so much because we can see the world we live in. 

Do you enjoy the detail of a new world or are you content to receive hints and imagine it for yourself? How important is world-building to you becoming a loyal reader of a fantasy series? Finally, if you write fantasy yourself, do you have any best practices or tips? Do share in the comments below.

Appreciate your feedback. Have a great weekend and a happy 4th.



Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at on Twitter (@elfwriter).

21 comments on “The Art of World-Building

  1. NC Pendergast says:

    I wish more people would build as detailed worlds as JRRT did. And by build I mean NOT copy the guy or throw random bits and pieces from D&D together as some folks apparently do in the mistaken assumption they could make the world appear to have more depth that way (hint: it totally shows and it’s really lame).

    World-building is important. When last I looked, fantasy – and epic fantasy in particular – brought with it a sense of wonder that I’m missing lately. (I know, I know, nitty-gritty realism is in at the moment. My bad.)

    Tips – hmm. In a living, breathing world nothing exists in isolation. There are always connections to something, somewhere else. More as soon as I have time to think that through.

  2. E.K. Carmel says:

    Worldbuilding is something I can easily get lost in for days, weeks, at a time. It’s the original spark that got me started with my WIP, but I had to haul myself back or else I’d have no story. I’m really looking forward to the point in revision where I can play with the worldbuilding again.

    I’m a fantasy writer (not yet published) and a reader of fantasy. As much as I love JRRT and still read novels based on that type of worldbuilding, these days I’m always looking for worldbuilding based on different cultures.

    Personally, I like to get hints of worldbuilding in a novel rather than paragraphs of description. The exception to this, for me, is JRRT. I’m one of the few people I know who actually enjoyed the beginning of Fellowship. His big blocks of description flow so well and there’s a personality, a humor – I guess I just like his voice. But I do skip over longer passages once I’ve gotten into the meat of the story.

    Have a wonderful 4th!

  3. kford2007 says:

    I write YA fantasy, which is a whole different can of worms. Seems YAs don’t want long, drawn out details. They want action. My beta readers don’t like the drawn out details, either. They say it bogs down the story, and these are fantasy/sci fi readers. I personally love descriptions. I love having my characters interact with their surroundings. I feel the readers need to wallow in every one of the five senses to truly understand the character’s journey. After several rejections, however, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I guess epic YA fantasy is not a hot seller.

    • Elf Writer says:

      Great point. There is definitely a difference when writing for a younger audience. Having said that, the one time I feel I really did dwell on the place, my son (my main fodder!) enjoyed it because it was so different – ont another mountain or forest.

      Are we selling the youngsters short, however, by doing this, I wonder?

      Thanks for your comment. Much appreciated,

  4. Graeme Ing says:

    I also agree that detailed world building is a necessary skill for fantasy and sci-fi writers. I find it more immersive to have the author walk me through what the world looks like, how it tastes, smells, etc. But you can go overboard IMHO (Robert Jordan, cough). It is actually surprising how much you can convey with very select and carefully chosen descriptions. I think you CAN combine fast-moving genres like YA with world building – it just requires more subtle crafting of the world. Writers need to bring the setting into the action and the plot, rather than it being just a backdrop. Rowling did this superbly for YA.

    I’m also a sucker for (believable) language and names for objects and places. A good smattering of alien language, if done well, can bring the world to life, and I don’t mean replace every noun with a madeup word – you have to ground the reader somehow. Context can go a long way to prevent the need to explain your language.

  5. Martin says:

    I’m all for details, though I prefer a few very vivid ones to a complete description down to the last little grain of sand. William Gibson does this really well, in my opinion.

    Worldbuilding starts much sooner. The details don’t matter if the broader strokes make no sense.

    I went to a panel at ReaderCon last year about building believable cities. I have read novels and games set in a wide range of worlds where the geographical location, physical layout and even purpose of a city is incomprehensible. Yes, it’s fantasy and you can get away with a lot, but if there is a river mouth 100 miles down from your city on the coast, the city would be at that river mouth, end of story. And your city can’t be built out of sandstone if there is no way to quarry and transport it. Cities is just one example.

    Yes, this is, as NC Penderghast point out above, in many ways nitty-gritty realism. However, you can always use elements of the fantastical to get around this. And I don’t need to see those elements described in detail, I just need to get a feeling that the author knows. That the author is in control of the world.

    “In a living, breathing world nothing exists in isolation”. Awesome, awesome point. Plot, characters, building the bigger world, adding the details, all this has to be done in unison. If it doesn’t drive the story, invokes sense of wonder or immerses the reader in the story, don’t do it.

    Apart from Tolkien, who does worldbuilding well? Worldbuilding as in both the basic building blocks and the details. I haven’t found a fantasy author that does it well in a long time. It’s easier to find in sf. Alastair Reynolds, for example, does it very well. Even though Chasm City isn’t one of his better novels, in my opinion, it does paint a very vivid picture of the city.

  6. Steve says:

    Great post. What a difficult, arduous process it would be to create and sustain a world! I don’t think I fancy tackling it anytime soon.

  7. Grace says:

    Great post. I pretty much agree with the content and the comments.

    I think it’s important to find a good balance between elaborate descriptions that might go on too long and not enough description. Even though I do find Tolkien’s worldbuilding to be a tad tedious when there are pages and pages of exposition, I also love it. One of the things that I loved so much about the movies that Peter Jackson made of Lord of the Rings was that everything looked almost exactly as I’d imagined it would–because Tolkien’s descriptions were so rich and so specific that it left no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what the world looked like.

    Keeping worldbuilding to a manageable amount–and working it into dialogue and action, instead of just long description–is something I sometime struggle with in the fantasy stories I’m writing. Even though Tolkien is my idol (isn’t he everyone’s?), I know that most readers probably don’t want to wade through that much description, even if it’s as well-written as Tolkien’s. Since I know I will never be close to the master that he was, if I’m going to emulate him in some way, I don’t want to try to emulate his worldbuilding to that degree.

    But the worldbuilding is part of what makes fantasy fantasy, right? That’s why I write it, and why I read it–so I don’t think leaving everything up to the reader’s imagination is the best way to go, at least not for me.

    Thanks again for this post, and thanks to everyone who’s commented. I learn a lot from blogs like this. 🙂

  8. KC Herbel says:

    Detail is great as long as it doesn’t bog down the story. Some stories are in essence about the new world/land and that’s fine to spend a lot of time on descirption if this is the case. I prefer to hit the highlights that will best lend themselves to the mood I’m trying to create – atmosphere. In that regard I am more the minimalist camp. I also like to help my readers use their imagination. I’ll give them a few edges of the puzzle and a few key center pieces, but it’s up to them to solve the puzzle with their own mind. It is my belief that in doing so, I involve them in the story more and they become co-story tellers with me.

  9. kcherbel says:

    Details are fine as long as they don’t bog down the story. If the story is about the new world/land then spending some time describing the wonders works. I prefer to provide just the details that best lend themselves to creating the mood I’m trying to creat – atmosphere. I provide the edge pieces and a few key center pieces of the puzzle, but the reader has to finish it. I believe by doing so, I am better engaging the readers imagination and they become co-story tellers with me.

  10. Evelyne says:

    After reading fantasy books for over a decade, I can honestly say that the books I continiously reread are those that contain a real world. It has a history, it contains people that continue to life their lives even when the main characters aren’t around, cities the reader may only hear of but never visit in the books and … well basically details matter.
    And I believe it’s important that at least the author knows these details even though he doesn’t have to mention everything in his/her writings, but it does give characters a solid world to have adventures in.
    Like above mentioned there needs to be a balance between story development and describing the world.
    Which is probably easier said than done. Graeme Ing for example seems to think that Robert Jordan overdid it with his descriptions (and my mother agrees, she mostly skips them), but I immenesly enjoy the fact when I’m reading about the characters adventures in Tar Valon, I can see it happening with background and everything. It’s like a movie playing in my head.

    • Elf Writer says:

      Thank you, Evelyne. I love that you wrote: “And I believe it’s important that at least the author knows these details even though he doesn’t have to mention everything in his/her writings, but it does give characters a solid world to have adventures in.”

      This will, I believe help writers (myself included) to build the world in my head (and notes), even if I leave some of it for the reader to imagine. If I have a firmer grasp, so will they.

      Thank you for your comment.

  11. […] rock cairn. Now this might lose me credibility with readers, but after being complimented for my world-building by an editor at an established publishing house, I was asked from where I derive my inspiration […]

  12. Chrissi Barr says:

    I agree, Tolkien is the master of World Building and I believe that he took us into Middle Earth as he was discovering it himself. He saw the worlds he was traversing and he had the decency to describe what he saw to his audience. What a gift, being so present that he described each part of the journey as he arrived. I remember reading that Tolkien had no idea who Strider was until “he saw” him sitting in the corner of the inn. How amazing that Strider became the King of Men.

  13. […] The river was beautiful and clear, the rocks underneath and protruding were smooth and colorful. Majestic redwoods surrounded us and a noble mountain peak loomed above me. Wisps of fog hugged the tops of the trees […]

  14. Brandon Sanderson has done an excellent job building worlds – not exceptionally deep or huge backstories – but he plans his books and series out amazingly. His magic systems are all fun and unique and one of the best things about his books. Highly recommended.

    A point to consider with back story is that an author can get lost for months/years creating too much (as JRRT did) and most of it never see the light of day or even be relevant. I know I have spent far longer building my worlds than doing actual writing.

    A good thing to consider around creating actual depth vs. a good approximation: an apple is about 85% water and yet it has a solid outside and juicy inside. Geodes also have a solid outside but one that can be difficult to penetrate and many never see the gemstones inside. Find the balance in your world building.

  15. […] second question regards world building, something we have touched on before at elfwriter. A lot of the scenery description has been edited out. The editor, like many in the writing world, […]

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