Storytelling

The Seven Storytelling Sins of Worldbuilders

Some storytellers really like their worlds. You’ll know them when you find them: their stories feel like a transparent excuse to use the maps they created. That’s because they’re committing these storytelling sins.

1. Taking the REALLY Scenic Route

I hope you're comfortable in that tour bus, it's going to be a long ride. I hope you’re comfortable in that tour bus, it’s going to be a long ride. Fort Lauderdale Duck Tours by Smart Destinations used under CC BY-SA 2.0

The heroes need to defeat the villain or obtain an important item, but instead of simply accomplishing their objective, the worldbuilder creates excuses for them to wander the entire world first. Exactly one sight-seeing stop per kingdom, planet, or social faction provides just enough time to discuss the wacky ways of the denizens before moving on to the next stop. The story becomes weighed down by irrelevant excursions, and since there isn’t time to depict these places in depth, the audience only gets a superficial view of the world.

Sinner: Wheel of Time

wheel of time coverart

Rand: Wow, we have a lot of world to cover before I can save the day. And I have to conquer most of it.

Mat: Let’s split up! We’ll cover more ground that way.

Perrin: Great idea. That way it’ll only take two generations of writers to get to the end.

Penance

If you’re ready to repent, you have two options. First, you can cut out the tour. Satisfy your worldbuilding impulses by covering fewer locations in more depth. The second option is to rework your plot so travel actually fits in. You want a quest that’s open-ended – focused on the journey and not the results. A great example is Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer. Taran is on a quest to discover himself, and that could happen anywhere. When your plot has an objective that’s more specific, traveling feels like a delay in the story.

2. Collecting One of a Kind

butterfly-collection Those are bodies you’re collecting, you creep. Butterfly collection by net_efekt used under CC BY 2.0

While the heroes are acting like tourists, they gather important characters. Soon the party has exactly one person per kingdom – by complete coincidence, of course. There wasn’t time to get a nuanced view of any of the places in the tour, and since these characters are official representatives of each place, they aren’t treated with any depth, either. Each character in the collection is a poster child for all the stereotypes associated with their home planet. Among the heroes, wacky hi-jinks are used in place of character development.

Sinner: The Belgariad

belgariad book 2 coverGarian: I’m tired of traveling. When are we going back to the farm?

Polgara: We can’t go back yet, we still need a specimen from the knight kingdom and the dryad forest, at least.

Garian: As you wish, Aunt Pol – wait, a specimen?

Polgara: Silence! I am powerful and mysterious, and I know what’s best for you!

Penance

A diverse group of protagonists can yield many benefits. But avoid making any protagonist into a stereotype with contrived and superficial personality traits. Every society has diversity and disagreements. Ask yourself how characters differ from others in their society and in what ways they accept or reject the traditions they were given. Consider having two characters from the same culture; it will allow you to depict their customs in more depth. Then just make sure their participation in the story feels natural. Give them a strong, plot-related reason for joining the heroes.

3. Telling Dozens of Unrelated Tales

Sure, you can add more clubs to the air, but we're not capable of watching them all at the same time. If you keep putting more plotlines up in the air, sooner or later someone will get hurt. Christoph and Manuel Mitasch passing 11 clubs by Cmitasch used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Many worldbuilders know better than to contort their plot to loop through every country. They’re aware that three countries max is the limit. To fit their 30 countries into the story, they’ll need 10 plots! Each plot opens with a hero in their own corner of the globe, dealing with their own problems. Since the heroes are barely interacting with each other (if at all), the narration can only follow one hero at a time. In any given scene, nine out of ten storylines are suspended so just one can inch forward. Of course, the heroes will slowly come together, forming an epic finish – someday, maybe.

Sinner: Game of Thrones

game of thrones characters

Robert: Ned, help me keep the Iron Throne.

Ned: I’ll do my best.

Daenerys: You’ll fail. As a Targaryen, the throne is mine! I happen to be overseas right now, but I’m on my way… sort of.

Theon: Just you wait, the Iron Islanders are taking the throne! Or a throne, anyway. We have absolutely no chance of making a dent, but we can dream, and you can read all about our dream for some reason.

Tyrion: Maybe we should get back to Robert and Ned.

Little Finger: Too late, they were killed seasons ago.

Penance

You can fix an overwhelming number of separate plotlines by either integrating or separating them. If you choose to keep them together, important choices by one viewpoint character should impact the others. Anything less, and you’re still condemning your plot to constant pausing. Otherwise separate the heroes into their own stories, or just delete some of the viewpoints. If your semi-conjoined plot threads aren’t good enough to carry their own story, they aren’t doing your overarching work any favors by staying.

4. Describing Every Shrub in Every Kingdom

The next place we're going has grass. Grasses, or more technically graminoids, are monocotyledonous, usually herbaceous plants with narrow leaves growing from the base. They became widespread toward the end of the Cretaceous period. In some places, particularly in suburban areas, the maintenance of a grass lawn is a sign of a homeowner's responsibility to the overall appearance of their neighborhood. It's good you know all that; now let us never speak of grass again. The next place we’re going has grass. This plant covers the ground in leaves that are thin, green, and flat. That is, until the plant has grown. Then it can be up to a person’s thigh, with a bundle of thin golden seeds at the end. The citizens of this new place plant this grass on every spot of ground they can find. They love it almost as much as they despise the tall height and seeds it has at maturity. So after they plant it everywhere, they relentlessly trim this grass day by day, suffering social penalties if they miss a week. Aren’t you glad you know all about grass now? It will never come up in the story, so there won’t be another chance for you to learn this essential information. Tall green grass in an open field by Horia Varlan used under CC BY 2.0

Whether by traveling all over the place, or simply starting all over the place, the heroes end up on a dozen different planets. But being in all these diverse locations isn’t a goal in itself; it’s an excuse to describe everything there. Cue the page or more of description every time the protagonist walks down the street of Novelty Colony #9. Once the initial description of the street view is done, their trip will feature inconsequential visits to a teashop, florist, and theater that are depicted as full scenes despite their low importance. As for the actual plot of the story, they’ll get to that… eventually.

Sinner: Lord of the Rings

fellowship of the ring coverartMerry: Before we go to the new place, I will describe every bit of gossip I have heard about it.

Frodo: Then we will spend a page and a half in song!

Sam: Could we just get the detailed narration about our uneventful afternoon over with? We already sang ten songs.

Merry: But those songs were for other portions of our journey. This song is about the next five pages.

Penance

Your audience will need some description of the world, especially if it’s unique. But they don’t need more than passing mentions for most details. If you want to describe your world in depth, the best thing you can do is make it matter to your plot and characters. Then you’ll have a reason to dwell on it without taking a detour. Otherwise, summarize scenes that don’t matter to the entire narrative. Take out the long snippets that aren’t important, and post them on a website to reward fans for finding you online. In the story itself, cut down to the points that are the most interesting and relevant.

5. Giving Endless Lectures

textbooks If I want to read a textbook, I’ll go pay too much money for one.Textbooks in the Curriculum Collection by University of Illinois Library used under CC BY 2.0

The heroes are in a novel location that is described in incredible depth. But some details can’t be seen by a protagonist. The kingdom the heroes are visiting has a long and nuanced history, secret codes of honor, and delicate machinery that works silently below the cobblestones. If the story just moves forward, the worldbuilder won’t get to talk about them. Without information on every single thing, the audience could get confused. Or at least, the worldbuilder hopes so.

Sinner: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice Cover ArtBreq: So I’m on this remote planet trying to get this – wait, you can’t possibly understand the powerful artifact until I give you some backstory.

Breq: So way back when, I was watching my favorite – wait, before we listen to this conversation you have to know the social customs of this culture.

Breq: So the thing about this culture is that they never say what they – wait, you can’t understand the nuances of this culture until you know the intrigue taking place on this planet.

Breq: So there’s this dominant group and this – wait, first you need to know how we came to conquer this place.

Breq: So we’re this race of…

Penance

Extraneous information should be conveyed on a need-to-know basis, just enough for the audience to understand what’s happening. The exception is foreshadowing; you can provide some extra information to set up for later events. But in that case, going on for too long will make your foreshadowing sound obvious and contrived. If you feel flashbacks are essential, consider starting your story there, instead of interrupting present events.

6. Introducing a Crap Ton of Characters

Like an awkward family reunion, except at least I'm not expected to remember everyone's names. Wait, I am? Like an awkward family reunion, except I’m not expected to remember everyone’s names. Am I?

Sometimes worldbuilders turn their fervent passion towards creating character pantheons rather than loads of places. Most of these characters aren’t the heroes, because there’s just too darn many for all of them to be protagonists. Instead they’ll form an elaborate family tree, sordid organizational history, or factions in a power struggle. And since their interests are related, naturally they have to be introduced all at once, with their name, relationships, and reputation described immediately. The audience won’t get the chance to see many of them in action, but they’ll know each character’s middle name and favorite ice cream flavor. That is, for the two seconds before they forget.

Sinner: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I will be invincible coverFatale: I’m glad I joined the superhero team. Otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered my true passion: looking through the archives of all the previous superheroes!

Blackwolf: We should stick to the mission at hand.

Fatale: Sure, just as soon as I finish cross comparing the old generation to the current set of heroes. I might need more sources for that, I’ll just have to visit a few retirees and interview them.

Dr. Impossible: Hellllooo, I’m a threat here!

Fatale: Yes yes, later.

Penance

Start by removing all description or introductions of minor characters. Then look for the first scene where any of these characters influence the plot. In most cases, that’s where their introduction should go. You don’t need to introduce their aunties, uncles, and bankers along with them. If they are part of an important group, just say they have family or team members with them, and move on. If you get to the end of the story without finding a scene where a character makes a difference, leave them unsung. To handle your characters well, you may also need to adjust their roles or combine a few together.

7. Succumbing to Fatal Uncontrolled Series Inflation

Thunder from Big Trouble in Little China demonstrates what happens to novel series that give into inflation. This is what it looks like in the advanced stages. (RIP Thunder, you were a cool demigod.)

As the story progresses, many worldbuilders drown it deeper and deeper in supplementary information. A story that’s sunbathing gets wet feet as protagonists split up and more viewpoints appear. It becomes submerged as each viewpoint character travels to a different kingdom and tackles their own trivial side plot. Soon the original plot and characters can barely come up for breath. Instead of becoming more gripping and tense as it progresses, the story gets slower and duller. But hey, the audience got hooked on the story while it was still trim, so the worldbuilder can force them to read any amount of random material before finishing what they promised in the beginning.

Sinner: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn “Trilogy”

Bindings of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, showing the third book has been split into two books, each of which is longer than the first or second in the series.Simon: I’m getting my own trilogy! I have mysterious parentage and everything.

Joshua: As the good prince and rebel leader, I would also like viewpoint scenes, if you don’t mind.

Simon: Sure, why not?

Miriamele: I’m the love interest, so I get viewpoint status too, right?

Simon: Umm… okay.

Utuk’ku: I’m the last of the Gardenborn.

Jiriki: I’ll teach you elf chess.

Simon: Wait, wait. There won’t be room for me anymore!

Joshua: Don’t worry, we’ll just make the third book big enough to fit everyone.

Penance

Additional viewpoints and plot threads will probably take more space than you think they will. When planning, scale down ambitions for the end of your story. Then make it clear how scenes with new characters will impact the characters you started with. If your central character will gain or lose depending on what happens during other viewpoints, your audience will have a reason to care what happens. Your new interludes must also keep up the pace. Don’t leave the most central character in the midst of a dangerous situation just to depict side characters doing nothing particularly exciting.


Altogether, enthusiastic worldbuilders often take on too much, and in the process lose sight of the story they’re telling. In fact, sometimes it feels like they don’t want to tell a story at all. But if you’re an avid storyteller who’s been laughing at them this whole time, you’d better stop now. Your sins are up next week.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Qondomon

    WOW! This post really hurts (but in a good way, I hope). I have sins to confess: 1. Taking the REALLY Scenic Route and 6. Introducing a Crap Ton of Characters!
    Yeah, this one opened my eyes Thanks!

    • Chris Winkle

      I’m impressed, most people can’t take criticism so well. That says great things about you as a storyteller, to refine our skills we all have to accept painful criticism now and then.

  2. Matt Black

    David Weber – The Honor Harrington Series commits every. single. sin. It’s still awesome, provided you have good skimming skills.

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