Worldbuilding: Leaving It Out — J. Kathleen Cheney


51sFA3mtzkL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_   Most writers who write fantasy do a lot of worldbuilding; they try to understand everything about the world in which they write.  This often includes the world’s geography, cultures, economics, and history. In order to write a cohesive book in their setting, they have to know all those things.  The same goes for other media like games and TV/movies.

If the creator doesn’t do that, it will show up in their writing as mistakes and inconsistencies. Readers or viewers will pick up on that (and a certain percentage will email in about it!)

But the other side of the coin also exists.

First, it’s true that a writer can do <em>too much</em> worldbuilding.  Some people spend all their time creating their world, a quest to make it perfect. But if you spend all your time doing that, you never get around to writing. (In her book <strong>Plot,</strong>, Ansen Dibell calls this “WorldBuilder’s Disease”). 

Even if a writer doesn’t go overboard there, it’s easy to go overboard in the manuscript.  Generally, the writer ends up leaving out a veritable ton of information about their world. There’s simply no way to insert it where it will fit smoothly into the flow of the narrative.  Some writers throw it in anyway, resulting in the dreaded <em>infodump</em>. 

Can you think of an instance when you wondered why the author was putting in all that…stuff? When the inclusion of information didn’t make sense? Or when you just started skimming ahead, seeking something more interesting?

Infodumps bore most readers, so the advice usually given to authors is this: if it doesn’t advance the plot, leave it out.  That’s a lot harder to do than it sounds.  We writers love our worlds. We want to hold them and cuddle them and show them off to our friends…

And sometimes it’s hard for us to tell. We put in that paragraph about the sex life of selkies, hoping it will fit.  And yes, most of the time we end up going back and removing it in the editing stage. If we’re not sure it’s excess, an editor will usually catch whether it is or not. (As writers, we <em>try</em> to catch it ourselves, but a good editor is invaluable in this kind of situation. They have a different perspective on our work.)

So when our book finally comes out, there are probably a thousand cool little things we’d <em>love</em> to tell you, things that we just had to leave out. That’s the kind of thing an author enjoys the chance to talk about.

Want to ask me about the sex-life of selkies? The social structure of the sereia culture? Whether or not the different peoples can interbreed?  That’s the kind of thing that will never make it to the pages of the book….but as an author I have to know it in order to be consistent.

But seriously, if you want to know something about the backdrop of your favorite novel, I’d be willing to bet that most authors wouldn’t mind answering that question.  That’s why you see those handy-dandy AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions popping up over on Reddit, why authors let you post questions to them via their websites, on Tumblr, or via other venues.

397820_462385903841844_861599594_n So go ahead…ask your favorite author that question that’s been burning in the back of your brain. If they have time (which depends greatly on where they are in relation to their deadlines), they’re probably more than willing to answer it!    


J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist.  Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist.  Her novel, “The Golden City” is a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). 


The sequel, “The Seat of Magic” will be out July 1, 2014.

Social Media Links:
Twitter: @jkcheney 

The Seat of Magic (buy links) 

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BLURB  for The Seat of Magic

Magical beings have been banned from the Golden City for decades, though many live there in secret. Now humans and nonhumans alike are in danger as evil stalks the streets, growing more powerful with every kill….

It’s been two weeks since Oriana Paredes was banished from the Golden City. Police consultant Duilio Ferreira, who himself has a talent he must keep secret, can’t escape the feeling that, though she’s supposedly returned home to her people, Oriana is in danger.

Adding to Duilio’s concerns is a string of recent murders in the city. Three victims have already been found, each without a mark upon her body. When a selkie under his brother’s protection goes missing, Duilio fears the killer is also targeting nonhuman prey.

To protect Oriana and uncover the truth, Duilio will have to risk revealing his own identity, put his trust in some unlikely allies, and consult a rare and malevolent text known as The Seat of Magic….




8 comments to Worldbuilding: Leaving It Out — J. Kathleen Cheney

  • […] Today I’m talking about the things that the author has to leave out of their books: Leaving it Out […]

  • I loved the Terry Brooks Shannara series, but the one thing that always got me were the blocks of explanatory text by Allanon. Many of them were sort of infodumps, and I learned that they’re not bad, if you break it up with other characters interjecting and making it more of a back and forth conversation. More like a movie. Like Star Wars IV. They’re talking about destroying the Death Star and Luke starts talking about how it’s much like shooting wamp rats with his T-16 back home. It not only gives information about how to destroy the Death Star, but also gives you more information about the character and where he comes from. It blends the worldbuilding into a cohesive mix when you can mesh some of that all together without using the, “well, as you know, Bob…”

    I like to have characters interject, because, is anyone going to just sit and listen to a huge diatribe, or are they going to say stuff like, “Wait, WHAT? Slow down.” Or perhaps, “Is this going to be a stand up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?”

  • Andrea

    Thanks for your post, Kathleen!
    It confirms what I’ve been thinking (but hadn’t quite put into words yet), while the world in my book(s) is starting to ‘grow’ and develop a history. More and more, I find myself thinking “This is something for the website, but not for the book” 🙂

    @Daniel: Thanks for the advice.

  • J. Kathleen Cheney


    Yes, a lot of infodumps are carefully included in books, often described in conversation. That’s one of the reasons so many books have a junior character or a sidekick…so that things can be explained to them without it seeming overly intrusive. I’m mainly considering here information that doesn’t -have- to be included to solve the crime or otherwise advance the plot. That can get really weighty after a while!


    Exactly ;o) Thanks!

  • I’ve always felt that research for historical novels and worldbuilding for alternate world fantasies are really two sides of the same coin, and I know that I would LOVE to include all the cool stuff I find researching the Thieftaker books. It takes a good deal of will power not to do that. Nice post, Kathleen. Welcome to Magical Words.

  • J. Kathleen Cheney

    I know what you mean…it would be awesome if only we could find a -good- way to do it!

  • quillet

    Hey, I have that book by Ansen Dibell! 🙂 And heck yes, it can be so tricky including enough of the world-building that everything makes sense, but not hitting readers over the head with it. Your rule of thumb, “if it doesn’t advance the plot, leave it out,” is really good. *takes notes* I think that’ll help me decide not only if to give information, but also when.

    I remember a particularly egregious example of WorldBuilder’s Disease in a historical fiction book. It was set in the Middle Ages, and the entire story ground to a halt while the main character thought about the making of soap. That’s right, soap. I can’t remember why (was he going to make some? or watch other people make some? or buy some?) but he thought about the whole process, how it was made and with what ingredients. Clearly, the author was super-proud of his research and just desperate to share it, but oh my, it utterly halted the plot.

  • J. Kathleen Cheney


    That’s EXACTLY the sort of thing that we all have to learn to avoid! Perfect example ;o)

    (And I will say that there are probably readers out there who LOVED that section about soap. They read and re-read that section over and over. I suspect that each writer finds readers who are comfortable with their level of exposition, although that niche seems likely to be small.)