Busy weekend. The worldbuilding course went well, and if you attended I would love to get feedback on how it worked for you.
We covered my main points: Every author, even mainstream authors, must do worldbuilding.
Avoid the infodump and pages of backstory. Watch out for the dreaded phrase, “As you know,…” as that often signals a clumsy halt to the story while you explain the essential elements.
Find your telling detail, the one that captures your characters, setting, background, and plot. Here we had a discussion of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (by the way, the link is to Pottermore), chapters 5 and 6, in which Chapter 6, where Harry catches the train to Hogwarts, is a beautiful example of telling detail.
I compared it to Chapter 5, Diagon Alley, which is an example of well-done accretive detail, in which information is piled up until the world is built by almost brute force. Great fun, but it doesn’t have the same power as Chapter 6.
Use a telling detail wisely. It’s possible to know a “fact” and throw it into your work in progress, but if it doesn’t impact the story or the characters, it doesn’t do the necessary heavy lifting. I used a different example in the workshop, but here’s a better one; in one of the best Star Trek novels of the 1980s (and of course I’m blanking on the title and author), Klingons are described as having the ability to see in the ultraviolet range. Awesome cool, right? Except that it wasn’t used for anything. It could have been such a cool plot detail, and instead, it was a missed opportunity. It was a fun novel though.
I didn’t go into research that much, and that’s because I feel that we focus too much on research when we think about worldbuilding. Research is imperative but I think we forget that the point of worldbuilding is to create something so cool that we want to share it with readers. I think too many writers approach research with a sort of grim death march approach. “I better get this right or readers will complain.” Yes, getting it right is all well and good, but approach it from joy, not fear.
We did talk about pre-research, in which you read everything you can before starting your work, situational research (I need to know this right now, might as well do a quick lookup), and fill in later research, in which your first draft is rife with notes to yourself about how such and such needs to work.