Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.51: A Farewell to Worldbuilding

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

We’ve spent all year focusing on worldbuilding, and it’s time to move on.


In this episode we try to cover some points we may have missed, we talk about what we’ve learned, and discuss some of our favorite recent examples of worldbuilding.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: No homework!

Thing of the week: Sakura: Intellectual Property, by Zachary Hill, with Patrick Tracy and Paul Genesse.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Wrapping up the year of worldbuilding, what are some good examples? Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Annihilation. Amberlough. The One Ring role-playing game. Larry Niven’s Known Space. Elder Scrolls Online Lore Master, Lawrence Schick, and lore from an unreliable narrator. What about pet peeves? Star Trek: Discovery breaking the worldbuilding with new technology without thinking about ramifications. People who have pet peeves about worldbuilding about the wrong things. Let the worldbuilding flow from the story, don’t hit us over the head with it. People who don’t think about interconnectedness and ramifications. Big mistakes in worldbuilding? Forgetting bicycles! Seven lady astronauts, but only six names.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 51. 

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, A Farewell to Worldbuilding.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] It is the end of another year. You are all done worldbuilding, and never have to do it again.


[Ha ha ha]

[Dan] It’s about time.


[Brandon] No, this is the episode… we’re just kind of wrap things up with a bow on it and talk about anything we think we might have missed. My first question, though, to you will be, “What are your favorite examples of worldbuilding through all pieces of media?” Is there just anything that you really love? Something you saw or read recently that you thought had fantastic worldbuilding? I’ll go ahead and start. We’re about a year out from it now, but when we were recording, we were recording this quite ahead of time. A few months ago, I saw the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I loved it. It is one of my favorite movies of all time already. Part of it was the just fantastic use of worldbuilding. You would think a cross-dimension plot where you have to deal with the fact that there are alternate realities… I’ve tried to write these, they’re very hard… Would be difficult. You would think that introducing multiple brand-new characters would be difficult. They just knocked it out of the park. They used the things that visual mediums can use that really make me annoyed and mad, because I can’t do it.


[Brandon] To have a really distinctive… Yeah, I’m looking at Howard. A really distinctive visual style that accentuates your worldbuilding in interesting ways. If you haven’t seen the movie…

[Howard] Having the opportunity to say this where I can actually go on the record and say this… To this point, pre-Spider-Verse, Marvel and many other companies have shown us what a super hero movie could be. Marvel finally came around and showed us what a comic book movie could be.

[Brandon] Yeah.

[Howard] They used tools that we’ve seen them touch on before.

[Brandon] The old Ang Lee Hulk tried to do it.

[Howard] Ang Lee Hulk tried to do it. The… 24 actually flirted with it a little bit. The fact that the gradients around a flashlight used halftone beads to suggest that the flashlight was itself shining on a cob…

[Brandon] Yeah.

[Howard] I got chills all the way through.

[Brandon] It was amazing.


[Brandon] The way they used sound effects with the visual… Writing out the words, which you would think would be cheesy. You would think it would be like the old Batman TV show. It wasn’t at any moment cheesy. It accentuated the story in really fascinating ways. Great worldbuilding.

[Dan] That’s awesome. One of my favorites from this year was the movie Annihilation. I’ve not read the VanderMeer book that it’s based on. But what really struck for me, what really hit home and clicked, was the way that the worldbuilding of the Shimmer… The premise is that there is this weird alien effect called the Shimmer. People go into it and they get lost. So this group of women scientists go in, and they… The world they encounter is so unique and complete unto itself, yet also perfectly engineered to expose and challenge all of the problems that they have as characters. I have never seen such a brilliant marriage of character arc and world as in the movie Annihilation. It’s really just so well done.

[Mary Robinette] I talk about this book a fair bit, which is Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough. The worldbuilding that she’s done in that, it just… It feels like a real historical place. It’s small details. Like, the stuff that she does with gender, there are young women who dress in suits and they’re called Razors. They’re called Razors because they shave their heads. The cigarettes are… They’re not called fags, they’re called straights. Just small touches. It’s so good. She swears she didn’t do that one on purpose. I’m like, “You’re lying to me.”


[Mary Robinette] It’s just small things all the way through. A marriage of three people is called an old marriage. Because it’s in an older style. It… These lovely things. Because it also normalizes it in a different way. It’s just… Oh, it’s such graceful details kind of all the way through. Multiple cultures with… She uses language and sentence structure to communicate that. It’s so good.

[Dan] I’m actually going to mention another one on a totally different angle here. This year, I encountered a role-playing game called The One Ring. Which is obviously based on Lord of the Rings. So it’s not that it created its world, but it translated Tolkien’s world, Tolkien’s Middle Earth into the mechanics of the game beautifully. Like, the way that Tolkien’s book… Your ability to have or instill hope is even more important than your ability to kill a monster. I’ve never seen that done in a game. The One Ring captures it just flawlessly.

[Howard] I’ve got two examples. One of them is Larry Niven’s Known Space. Which was my introduction to multi-book sci-fi worldbuilding. I’d read Lord of the Rings prior to that. But this was the first time I’d seen it in science fiction and the reason I love it is that it was used for short story after short story. It started to feel like home. Then, as an adult, I picked up a collection from Niven, and one of the things that was in there was an outline for a novel that totally destroys Known Space and says, “I’m done with it.” Because he, and I think, Jerry Pournelle had talked about how many holes there were in his worldbuilding, and he just wanted to burn the whole thing down. He had this outline and then came up with the idea for Ringworld and put Ringworld in Known Space. His publisher said, “Ringworld’s doing really well. You’re not allowed to burn anything down, my friend.”


[Howard] I love that. Because he took a thing which, yeah, the more I look at it, the more broken it is. It’s broken in a lot of ways. And yet… For telling the stories that he wanted to tell, it continues to work. The other example, Elder Scrolls Online has a… Had a lore master, Lawrence Schick, whose job it was to take all of the Bethesda games, all of the Bethesda Elder Scrolls games and have a consistent lore within this MMO. The first thing he discovered is you guys have not been consistent. So he made one ironclad rule, which is, every single piece of lore we present to players is presented from the perspective of someone in-world who is an unreliable narrator. That is the only possible out that we have for this mess. What’s fun is that as a writer, I can see this, as I consume the in-game lore and I love it. He just retired from doing Elder Scrolls Online. Which I assume means they have somebody waiting in the wings to do their lore. That is the sort of job which, if I were not currently making a living on my own IP, I would love.

[Brandon] Let’s stop and do a book of the week. Dan, you’re going to tell us about…

[Dan] Yeah. I want to tell you about Sakura: Intellectual Property. This… I’m going to talk a little bit more about the story behind this. I’m going to do it very quickly, don’t worry. A very good friend of mine named Zach Hill passed away a couple years ago. Out of the blue, he was about 35 years old. Had a heart attack at work, no one saw it coming. He’s a very good author. He was about halfway through this cyberpunk book called Sakura about a heavy metal rockstar android who gets hacked and turned into an assassin. So a couple of other local authors who are also good friends of his picked up the banner, finished that book, and it’s out now. You can read it. 100% of the proceeds go to Zack’s widow. None of it goes to the other people that helped finish the project and publish the book. It is a really cool cyberpunk. She is a heavy metal singer, and every chapter begins with a playlist where they will list three, four, five heavy metal songs that pertain in some emotional way to the chapter. It’s really fun and very cool, and like I said, for a good cause and a good guy.

[Brandon] All right. So, back side of this podcast. Any worldbuilding pet peeves you have? That we haven’t had a chance… Oh, Dan’s…

[Dan] [laughter] Let’s talk about Star Trek.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Dan] No.

[Mary Robinette] [laughter] And the angry letters begin immediately.

[Dan] Yeah. So. I mean, I don’t want to turn this into a gigantic rant about Star Trek: Discovery, but I’m going to turn it into a small rant about Star Trek: Discovery.


[Howard] I don’t want to, but…

[Dan] But I also very much want to.

[Mary Robinette] [chuckles]

[Dan] One of the issues that Star Trek started running into as soon as it was kind of resurrected by the Abrams movies and then again for Star Trek: Discovery is the current creators, the current bearers of the flag, are so obsessed with the idea of Star Trek’s past, and yet they continue to put in technologies that break the worldbuilding into a thousand billion pieces. There’s no way to fix those. Someone like JJ Abrams, that is not what he is concerned about. He is trying to tell a very cool story. Continuity is a secondary, if not tertiary, concern. But things like in Star Trek: Discovery, which is not Abrams at all, it’s CBS, they have a drive that will basically let a starship teleport across the galaxy. That breaks the world so hard. It’s very hard… I, even if you ignore the rest of the series and you’re looking only at Star Trek: Discovery by itself, that technology breaks everything. They do not consider it, and they do not deal with the ramifications. I would be fascinated by a story that took the I can teleport anywhere in the universe technology and actually treated it like a real thing. They just use it as an excuse to go wherever they want to go. So… [Aaargh!]

[Brandon] So, my pet peeve is kind of along similar lines in that I feel like people who have pet peeves about worldbuilding have pet peeves about the wrong things.


[Brandon] You have a pet peeve about the right sort of thing.

[Dan] Oh, thank you. Thank you for that caveat.

[Brandon] When people complain about worldbuilding that was done intentionally and is in service of the story. My big example from this season is World of Hats. It is a legit complaint that taking a planet and making it a monoculture is, in some ways, bad worldbuilding. But it was good worldbuilding for the stories they wanted to tell in the given episodes of Star Trek that that trope came from. Obviously, there are things to consider about this and stuff like that. But when someone complains about Star Wars and says, “Oh, it has a nice planet in the desert planet and a this planet… That’s obviously just terrible worldbuilding.” I say, “That is really good worldbuilding for Star Wars. That is what they’re trying to do.”

[Dan] It fulfilled the purpose that they are trying to get across.

[Brandon] It’s not lazy, it’s not bad, it is simply the type of storytelling that they want to do. Anytime we start saying… Giving a value judgment that this type of worldbuilding is great, and this type of worldbuilding should never be used… I mean, all you’re doing is locking cool tools in a closet and saying, “No, you can’t touch these. You can’t use that circular saw anymore. Because we’ve decided that that one is good for no project whatsoever.” So, that’s my pet peeve.

[Mary Robinette] [garbled]

[Howard] That circular saw is in the closet because of the number of fingers it’s maimed. It has nothing to do with its use. Well. It has everything to do with how people use it…


[Howard] It has nothing to do with how useful it is.

[Howard] Boy, pet peeves?

[Brandon] You aren’t required to have one. You can just be…

[Dan] I can just keep talking about Star Trek if you want.

[Howard] We’ve gathered that.


[Howard] Fundamentally, for me, I want the worldbuilding to flow from the story. A movie trailer that begins with, “In a world…” That’s okay. Because you’ve got two minutes to tell me… Movie trailer. But when your movie begins, “In a world…” I’m sad. I just let it… Let me discover it. Let me discover it. I think part of this is that Hollywood hadn’t figured it out yet. They’ve got better. They’ve realized that people who come to these movies want to have that experience. But it’s still… Every time it happens, it just makes me so sad.

[Brandon] You know what I think it is? This is just me guessing, but I think a lot of the stories that start with these things in the movies, it’s because some studio exec got the movie and said, “I don’t understand this,” or “The audience will not understand this. Add a voiceover at the beginning that explains the entire story and maybe a little animatic or something like this in order to explain what our movie is, because everyone’s going to be lost.” Almost always those ruin it.

[Howard] So, in translating my pet peeve… You’re mapping my pet peeve onto rich dude missing clues ruins things for other people. You’re not wrong.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. No, that is a… I have a pet peeve about that just outside of stories. So, for me, it’s when people don’t think about the interconnectedness of stuff. I get so annoyed when there is a piece of technology that shows up in one place and has no ramifications on anything else. Or when a character has knowledge… Like Hunger Games. This is not technology, but it was… I just couldn’t get past it. The… So, first of all, there’s the economics of Hunger Games which makes no sense at all. But the other thing was that she has all of this knowledge of botanical things and plants and things. Then she gets transported across the country, and all of it applies to this entirely new ecosystem. I’m like, “No, that’s not how that works. That’s not how that works, and also, blackberries don’t grow on bushes, they grow on brambles.” But I’m fine…


[Mary Robinette] I totally have no problems.

[Brandon] There’s an old cover from the silver age of comic books where it’s a young Batman and young Superman as kids…

[Oh, my gosh. Laughter.]

[Brandon] Looking at Batman’s… Superman’s Time Machine thing, where he’s showing and saying, “Hey, look in the future, I’ll become Superman and you’ll become Batman and we’ll be best friends.” Every person who looks at that cover says, “You know what would be a good use for being able to look in the future at your friend’s future is to tell him his parents get murdered in a little while in an alleyway. Maybe you could use it to solve crimes, Superman. Instead of saying look, we’re going to be best buddies.”

[Brandon] All right. We have ranted enough. Last question. Any big mistakes you’ve made in worldbuilding in a story that you would do differently now if you could change it.

[Dan] Okay. So. In the Partials universe, I wrote the entire thing and I did all this stuff. How are they going to get electricity to power their stuff? Are they going to be able to use cars? What are they going to have to do? The… one time that I really need them to get a generator started after the gas has already gelled… After the book was published, and I’d come up with all these different transportation workarounds, somebody said, “Why don’t they ever ride bikes?”


[Dan] So, yeah, I kind of forgot the really easy, ever present transportation system that does not require animal power or electricity or gas.

[Brandon] I told you before that I put bikes into the last Steelheart book specifically because you had had that frustration when you had published. I’m like, “Oh, I could put them in.”

[Dan] I can do it now. [Garbled]

[Howard] This bike rider’s for you, Dan.

[Brandon] There’s a scene where they ride bicycles specifically because I heard you complaining that you hadn’t managed to do that. I’m like, “Wow, thanks for failing, Dan, so that I won’t.” Anything else you guys got?

[Mary Robinette I can tell you a continuity error.

[Brandon] Oh, let’s hear it.

[Mary Robinette] I told you about this before.

[Brandon] Oh, yeah. It’s great.

[Mary Robinette] This is… So, this is one of those things where you do all of the re… You think it through and still you manage to make a mistake. It gets past your editor, your proofreaders, your beta readers. It gets past apparently all of my fans up to this point. Welcome to my world.


[Mary Robinette] In the Lady Astronaut book, I talk about the seven original astronauts. The Artemis Seven. I thought about that. There’s seven men, and then we have the seven women astronauts to match the seven men. So I’m working on the new book, and I needed to have all seven women there. I’m writing down the names, and I can only come up with six of them.


[Mary Robinette] There are only six women.

[Brandon] Somehow we all missed it. I hadn’t…

[Mary Robinette] [garbled] completely.

[Dan] Oh, wow.

[Brandon] They’re  called… You mentioned seven women in the room, but you only named six of them. Repeatedly.

[Mary Robinette] Yup.

[Brandon] Yeah.

[Dan] Oh, that’s so great.

[Brandon] Someone…

[Dan] It’s because they left an extra plate at the table for when Isaiah shows up.

[Howard] Someone’s bad at math, which is unfortunate.


[Mary Robinette] Right. They’re saying that they’re all being hired as computers, but my main character’s forte is math. She’s like, “There are four American women, and three…” I’m like, “Nope. There’s three American women.”

[Dan [Well, clearly, there’s another one who’s just very quiet.

[Mary Robinette] And she has the same name as one of the other characters. That’s why sometimes one of them… Sometimes it’s Betty, and sometimes it’s Renée. It’s two different people they’re talking about the entire time.

[Dan] That makes perfect sense.


[Mary Robinette] I sat there and I stared at it. I can’t… There’s no fix.

[Brandon] That’s the best one I’ve…

[Mary Robinette] There’s no fix at all.

[Brandon] Ever heard of. I… We all do this…

[Dan] That’s so great.

[Brandon] But that’s the most amazing one.

[Dan] What you do now is you run like a campaign. “Who is the seventh Lady astronaut?”

[Howard] Actually, the Artemis Sven.


[Mary Robinette] It’s a typo!


[Brandon] All right.

[Dan] This is clearly six lady astronauts are worth seven male astronauts.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. Yes, exactly.

[Brandon] I’m going to wrap this up. Thank you, everyone, for listening. There will be an episode next week. It will be a wildcard. So we are done with the topic of worldbuilding. Next year, we’re actually going to come back with a new… Slightly new format that we’re going to do for a few years. Because we’ve done a good job these last five years of really kind of tackling our kind of master class on writing.

[Howard] We all think we’ve done a good job, anyway.

[Brandon] We like to think we’ve done a good job. Starting with Write a Novel, then the Elemental Genres, then we’ve done Plot, Setting, and Character. So we’re going to take a different approach on it next year, so… Show up in two weeks and we will tell you how were going to do that. For now, we’re giving you no homework. Because, enjoy the holidays, and enjoy the end of the year. Get some writing done, or just relax.

[Mary Robinette] Or, if you want to buy a gift for someone, I’ll just point out that the Writing Excuses Cruise is open for registration.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go have a nice holiday.