Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Worldbuilding #5

And so, after about a week and four different posts, we come to the end of the Fantasy segment of the worldbuilding articles. I mentioned fine detail to some extent in Part 3, but this post is dedicated solely to it. First and foremost, that bit I mentioned earlier about innocuous little details. It may have occurred to you at the time that there’s a whole lot of room for this to spin out of control. Let’s delve into that, shall we?

There is a certain point at which your readers will say, “So, writer-dude, your description of the splinters on this swordsmith’s market stand where a prospective customer got a little flamboyant and took off the corner are a neat touch, don’t get me wrong, but where are you going with all this?” At this point, your answer should not be, “The smith’s beige shirt was stained black in places by the same dark paste he used to refine the polish of his blades. A single crusted brown spot marked some past accident during sharpening, never washed out.” Your answer should, in fact, never get to this point. As much as worldbuilding should be able to flow without the thoughts of the characters, it still takes place from their perspective. There are very few characters observant enough to take in and analyze as many details as I just listed the first time they talk to someone. At the most basic level, the details your characters notice should be constrained by what a person of your character’s mindset will focus on.

In order to help crystallize this balance between pleasant specificity and detail so surgical your readers feel they’re being operated on, I’m going to write a couple of scenes here and use them as examples. Prose is good, yes?


Mori examined the longsword. Its edge was chipped almost half an inch deep in several places where Ryugiri bit into it, and tapping it with his nail made no ring along its blade. He frowned.
“This is not a Graufelder longsword.” To prove his point, he stuck the sword’s point in the ground, drew his O-katana and clove the longsword’s blade at the guard. He felt only the briefest jolt.
“The blazes are you talking about, man?” Captain Hughs asked. “It’s in their style! Smooth distal taper, diamond cross-section, parry rings on the guard, even has their bloody lion-clutching-a-skull emblems.” Hughs looked at the handguard, lying two feet away. “It was in their style,” he amended.
“And yet my sword cut through it,” Mori answered. “It’s not Graufelder quality.”
“That’s no test,” Hughs said. “I’ve heard the same stories as everyone else.”
“The stories are mostly myth,” Mori said. “We have plenty of pure iron, and a few more exotic metals. A well-tempered blade should not break so easily. And it did break,” he continued. He stepped to the longsword’s blade where it bobbed in the ground. He crouched next to it and eyed it. Sure enough, there was a ridge of jagged metal on one side of the breaking point. He indicated it to Captain Hughs.
“I have fought the men of Graufeld for many years, and they rely on sturdy blades just as much as we do,” Mori finished. “Most soldiers turn to their swords when their spears are broken or lost. A weapon of last resort might be many things, but easily broken it is not.”
“Might be a starter piece?” Hughs offered. “Maybe the lad wanted to work his way to a better one.”
“That is absolutely out of the question. It’s a longsword, but if it were from Graufeld it would be nigh unbreakable.” Mori eyed the sword’s former bearer more closely, noting the boy’s pale, soft skin and fine hair. Not signs of a hard life, at odds with the dirt and grime in his fingernails. “It’s a warrior-aristocrat’s weapon, as is this.” He tapped the guard of his O-katana.  “And no nobleman would willingly go into battle with a sword that does that when strained.”
“And you’re thinking that means he wasn’t so willing?” Hughs asked.
“He was not of Graufeld, that is all I am certain of. Was he forced out here by others? Perhaps. Perhaps he was just out of options. Knights, Samurai… we like to think our lives are more certain than those of peasantry.” The boy’s blood dried slowly, mingled with the morning dew. “We like to lie to ourselves, in other words.”


 Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish here. I may have failed miserably, but that paragraph still works as an example. Mori and his companion, the mercernary Captain Hughs, have just killed a small group of bandits. Mori is Samurai, a class which functions similarly in this Fantasy world as it did in history. He pays attention to certain things, and it behooves him to give weaponry special attention. He knows his own weapon, and he knows how other weapons stand up to his. As a nobleman, albeit of indeterminate rank, he also knows that certain types or subtypes of weapon are exclusively for fighters of privilege. It makes sense for him to pick up on the longsword’s deficiencies, and the ensuing dialogue does a number of things.
1. Set a baseline for characteristics of weapons, or at least swords. Fantasy Faux-Germany can make swords that are at least roughly on-par with Fantasy faux-Japan.
2. Establish the role of swords on the battlefield, and to some lesser extent the way warfare functions. As I’m a history buff, I’ve taken the historical angle that spears are the main weapon, swords are a back-up.
3. Hint at the relationship between Graufeld (a Faux-German city) and whatever clan Mori hails from. He openly states that he’s fought them a great deal, but he also has great respect for the quality of their weapons.
4. Indicate that this is a world in which warriors become inured to death. Mori and Hughs stand over a sentient being they’ve just killed and discuss hypotheticals. This is actually quite a grim idea, and somewhat at odds with the way ‘honorable’ heroes are portrayed in much of Fantasy literature. Stating the obvious, this also indicates that Mori and Hughs have done their share of killing.
5. Sword-smithing jargon sets a baseline for attributes that define swords, makes the author feel clever, may hint to the reader this is the best time to flee from all the shop-talking.
6. This diatribe can (it doesn’t necessarily, but it can) have implications for the plot. Why is someone or something going out of her/his/its way to forge swords that look like Graufeld ones, but aren’t? This is the sort of dodgy behavior that can provoke wars, deliberately or otherwise. If it’s just a strange encounter, then it’s still served to establish the other things and thus it’s not an issue that it made no contributions to plot. Or at least, I don’t consider it an issue.

Now, suppose I decided to say everything that I possibly could about that longsword, laying out every conceivable detail. You might get something like:

 The longsword’s cutting edge was just over three feet, with a smooth but pronounced distal taper that took the blade from forty millimeters at the guard to less than a third of that halfway up its length. The blade was mirror-polished and folded, with patterns in the steel like fine wood grain. The handguard was forged from pure iron, twisted into spirals and angled out slightly away from the grip, which was wrapped in black leather and WHY ARE WE SPENDING SO MUCH TIME ON THIS SHITTY LONGSWORD?! you should be shrieking by now. I probably don’t need you to provide evidence that I can keep going like that, do I? Of course not.

This is a danger with all world-building, because worldbuilding is sometimes intertwined with scene-setting, and the attention to detail and descriptive prose which supports these will start to seep into other places if we’re not careful. I won’t make you suffer them, but during one session a couple of years ago I was able to spend three full paragraphs describing a single sword. Yes, it was the sword of a main character, but if I had to include all of those details it could’ve been done elsewhere. This same principle of finding the right balance applies to worldbuilding as well. When writing Fantasy, you’re using worldbuilding to bridge the gap between your inherent understanding of the world and your reader’s mental image of it. If you’ve answered a question in your mind as to why Group A isn’t allowed or able to perform Action B, but your readers ask why, that means you need to communicate that through Worldbuilding.

But your readers do not need you to rehash slight variations on ideas they already comprehend that have no relevance to the plot. They know what a castle is and what it does. Unless your castles function in a drastically different manner and you haven’t already spent a page explaining how a bunch of other stuff also works way differently from how it did in history, it’s better to let your readers draw on their own understanding there. Rich description can be enjoyable in places, but you need to keep things moving along. As a general rule of thumb, I try to avoid using more than two unbroken sentences of description at once. There are exceptions, and you’ll probably recognize when you see them, but in general worldbuilding should either support or work around the plot and character, not swamp them.

And here we are, the end of the Fantasy sections. As I predicted back in Part 1 of this series, it was a bit of a quest in its own right, but after 5000 words we’ve arrived. Up next, my other favorites: science fiction and science fantasy. And quite possibly some unholy hybrid of the two. You thought magic could produce abominations, but high technology can do things that are truly…

Out of this world.

I am so, so sorry. I couldn’t stop it.

(Part Four Here) (Part Six Forthcoming)

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