Writing Excuses 9.23: World Building Without Breaking Viewpoint

Can you use a character with a limited viewpoint to introduce a reader to the fantastic elements of the world you’re building? Even if from that character’s point of view, those elements are not fantastic? In short, how do you get a fish to tell you about water?

This question came from a listener, and before we set about attempting to answer it, we need to establish that this is really difficult. It is one of the grand achievements of well-written genre fiction. There are lots of hacks we use to get around the problem, but what we try to do in this cast is answer the question without any of those tricks. Of course, we also want to cover the hacks, because we use them.


Come up with a really nifty, high-tech setting, and then present it using POV characters who have no idea how all these wonders work, and who take them for granted.

Extraordinary Zoology: Tales from the Monsternomicon, Vol. 1, by Howard Tayler, narrated by Scott Aiello

24 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.23: World Building Without Breaking Viewpoint”

  1. When will there be a box-set or something of all the seasons out? I am going to be doing a large amount of traveling and I’d like to load all I can onto an iPod so I can listen without the internet. I will buy seasons 1-5 if that’s all you’ll have available, but I’d love to just buy 1-8 or 1-9. Thanks guys. I love all of you. These are the perfect addition and supplement to my higher education in English Literature and Creative Writing.

  2. Mary, I hate to be the nitpicker, but Ice & Fire does have a moon. Drogo calls Dany ‘moon of my life.” One tale holds that the dragons came from one of the moons. Moon Boy the fool. The Moon Door in the Eyrie. Other than that, this was a good episode. Thanks.

  3. I am not the first apparently, but yes, Joe is right. There is a moon in that world. What is interesting is that since it seems to be one of the internal planets (where they are on the inside of the sphere instead of the outside) is where the moon actually is in the sky. Its very interesting, though being a fantasy girl, I tend to (as I think Brandon put it) just say, “That’s cool” and move on with the story.

  4. Yeah, I noticed this ASOIAF moon mistake once before. You guys first made the “no moon as subtle worldbuilding” claim on an old podcast, and it had been so long since I read the first book, that my mind was kind of blown. However, I went on to read the next 2 books after becoming addicted to writing excuses and found it was actually totally wrong. There were moon-related names everywhere- pretty much everything and some actual explicit references to the moon itself. I think it even went down to a really mundane level with a fertility-related substance called “moon tea.” The moon sounds like a normal part of their lives. If dark nights are occurring with unnatural frequency, then they’re just a GRRM equivalent of tugging braids.

    I wonder if accidental worldbuilding is something that’s common enough for us to worry about? Seems like there may be no solution there but to fix it after alpha or beta reads as we learn what assumptions people make.

    Thanks for the podcast, as always.

  5. This podcast episode made me think of Dara O’Briain and his comedy bit about explaining modern technology to people in the renaissance period.

  6. Glad to see Insults pointed out. that’s one of the strategies i’m using both as world building, and foreshadowing. The other way I’m kinda using it, is as a piece of historical information. A “Remember the Maine” style of comment.

    PS as far as the moon question from ASOIAF, since I haven’t read any of them, there are plenty of complicated things the moon could be doing, that doesn’t involve reflecting lots of like at night. It could be small, far away, have a low reflectivity (alpha), or be tidally locked in a position of inferiority when it comes to reflecting the sun to the planet. Just think, how much light do you really think Jupiter gets from it’s many moons on it’s night side?

  7. Interesting that we referred to Watson without ever mentioning that the mystery field has been busily hiding clues in plain sight for years. Which might provide some hints as to methods for the fantasy writer to use, although the climax probably wouldn’t include gathering all the suspects in a big room and having the detective reveal the truth…

    But while you’re waiting for the next clue (is that a red head knocking on your door?) here’s a transcript for the text oriented among us! That’s right, just the words.


    Also available in the archives!

  8. @Daniel

    “alpha” – you mean albedo? By the way, you mention “tidally locked in a position of inferiority” (which I assume means nearer the star) – that would mean the planet was orbiting very close to its star, or the moon was very far from the planet, to orbit so slowly – seems unlikely.

  9. I love you guys and I loved this episode. Regarding the ASOIAF moon situation… I see the other comments affirming the existence of a moon, my own memory of the books affirms the existence of a moon, and here http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Moon is a westeros.org article with references to the existence of a moon. But the way Mary gave the example seemed personal, like she was remembering something that struck a chord with her. So I’m wondering if there is some other fantasy series Mary read that never has a description of a moon and “nothing lunar related at any point in the worldbuilding”. So… yeah… my question is for Mary: What book/author/series are you thinking of? I am really interested in that example and I would like to see it done.

  10. @Ed
    yea i meant albedo, not sure where alpha came from, but I’m use to only getting the first one or two letters correct anyways.

    as for tidal locking. I was partially playing off Mary’s example of noon time eclipse, but also for “inferiority” i was just thinking geometry triangles. For the light to reflect onto the night side of the planet vs the day side. This could be from the moon having a tendency to be on the sun side of the planet, a high inclination, or something else.

    Thinking of Mary’s example of a predictable noon eclipse. What just came to my mind is a body at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange could possibly pull off this feet. Since L1 is about twice as far away as the moons orbit, it would require twice the radius to still make the eclipse. That would make it about as big as Mars. Leading to it having about 8 times the mass of the moon, or 1/10 that of earth (never knew Mars was that small). Still, it would have twice the gravitational effect on earth if I am doing my Math right.

  11. I feel that answers my question quite well.

    Thank you very much.

    P.S. the last name is pronounced “BC”, but no one ever gets it right. ;-)

  12. I think you missed the point of the “bilgesnipe” line. It may have been used better in terms of world-building the bilgesnipe (or whatever) into the world. The full line is as follows:

    Thor: We on Asgard pretend that we are more advanced, but we, we come here battling like Bilgesnipe.
    Coulson: Like what?
    Thor: The Bilgesnipe, you know; huge, scaly, big antlers. You don’t have those?
    Coulson: Don’t think so.
    Thor: They are repulsive, and they trample everything in their path.

    When Thor describes them as trampling everything in their path, he slows down his delivery somewhat as he realizes just how perfect the metaphor is – every time Thor has been to earth to that point, Asgardian power politics have unleashed a rather intense level of destruction on a world that has nothing to do with them. On the surface, it’s just a basic joke; on a deeper level, it’s a way to show Thor having a moment of remorse about what kind of damage his people are doing to Earth. (He’s Thor; he can’t have a big emotional moment, he can’t go post traumatic like Stark did in Ironman 3, and him leaving Earth at that point saying “you’re better off without us” would have been the most absurdly stupid thing he could do…thus, a subtle cue.

    At least, that’s my interpretation of it. I like it a lot better than considering it a wasted opportunity in exchange for a quick joke.

    To add to the moon issue, a possible explanation for the unusually dark nights is that the books have taken us from the tail end of Summer into the start of Winter – I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to find autumn and winter have a lot more clouds than spring and summer. Admittedly, assuming Earthly weather patterns on that particular world is somewhat of a stretch, especially for people who aren’t climatologists and don’t really understand what, if any, astronomical situations would produce the lengthy and variable seasons involved, but the point remains that autumn and winter tend to evoke cloudy conditions. And if anybody’s never been out on a starless night, it’s maybe a hair or to brighter than the deepest chamber of a cave complex.

  13. Besides all the other mentions of the moon in ASoIaF that folks here have mentioned there is also moonblood. This is of course a reference to menstruation. I think it needed special emphasis as the ties between moon and period are based on their similar interval and regularity. I would posit that not only is there a moon, but that it has a cycle that’s regular and similar in length to the period’s cycle.

  14. How often are the stars mentioned? Could ASOIAF take place on a planet in a relatively low density of stars. While the night sky has billions of stars, only so many are of magnitude that humans can see them with the natural eye. but if there were only 1/2 or 1/3 the number of visible stars, then the sky would feel darker.

    This does raise the question, would it be unnaturally dark? or normal dark for those who live there? Full Circle

  15. Ditto on the GRRM nitpick as well! :) Martin has said in several interviews that the long winters are caused by magic and not anything to do with moons, comets, asteroids, orbiting planets or any other sort of astronomical anomaly. One interview he even joked saying something like, “everyone comes up with these elaborate theories, like it’s science fiction. It’s just magic!”

  16. “The most conspicuous aspect of the world of Westeros in The Song of Ice and Fire is the nature of the seasons, the long and random nature of the seasons. I have gotten a number of fan letters over the years from readers who are trying to figure out the reason for why the seasons are the way they are. They develop lengthy theories: perhaps it’s a multiple-star system, and what the axial tilt is, but I have to say, “Nice try, guys, but you’re thinking in the wrong direction.” This is a fantasy series. I am going to explain it all eventually, but it’s going to be a fantasy explanation. It’s not going to be a science-fiction explanation.” – GRRM, 2007 interview with Weird Tales


  17. One example which is kind of surprising to me that wasn’t mentioned is children.
    “I walked into the room and was alarmed to see a boy no more than four hanging precariously over the macguffin. Racing to grab him before he could fall to his untimely demise I passed to close to comfort to the ravenous maw of the macguffin.
    “Boy, don’t you know how dangerous macguffins are? If you slipped and fell it would have chopped you up into finely diced pieces of little boy just like it does to the scrap metal left over from some random thing. Your mother wouldn’t even know what happened to you after your chopped bits were thrown into the waiting flames of macguffin attachment”

    Or a related alternative, something like the mentioned daily eclipse, children are often curious why and have to be taught the rituals of culture, or scolded when they don’t conform with societal norms.

    Aside from children, toiling through the day and looking forward to the respite of the eclipse for a break from the hot sun, or if it is a cold planet, dreading the chill from the sun passing behind the moon. Complaining about stuff like that is easy to relate to because people do complain about mundane things.
    “How was your flight?”
    “I can’t believe how long we’re just sitting on the runway. You’d think with all the technology they have they’d be able to schedule things out better. It was 45 minutes before we took off and when we finally reached cruising altitude, there was turbulence etc etc etc”

  18. One more reference to the Moon is in this season’s episode where Sam and John are to sit watch atop the Wall “until the Full Moon”. I can’t remember if that appeared in the book text but it was in the HBO broadcast a few weeks ago.

  19. I know that others have pointed out the existence of the moon but I figured I would present another example.
    “A half-moon rose.” is stated about halfway through the prologue. There are also a couple of other examples of moonlight being referenced later on in the book. One explanation that was given was that their moon is smaller than our own, so that though visible, it doesn’t effect the world’s tilt and thus the seasons like our own does.

  20. Thanks for the recommendation of Extraordinary Zoology! I loved seeing this side of Howard! And I would like to see more from this world…. when you find the time, that is. :)

  21. Hey guys! I’m working on this writing prompt right now and had to stop to ask my questions because they’re really pressing. Not to get greedy, but I have two!

    This prompt is going well for me in the sense that it’s inspired a new idea for a novel. Only problem is, I have other novels that need working on… one in progress, and one that needs HEAVY revising!

    I know in the past you’ve said it’s important to work on what makes you excited in the moment, so what do you think about these questions:

    1) When you get a new idea, should you pursue it while it’s fresh, or continue working on your current piece and put it off for later? I think both sides of this have pros and cons… I know you guys think that new writers need to learn to finish something before starting something new (I agree) but you’ve also said it’s important to work on what has you excited, so I’m not sure what to do here! I guess if the story idea is really workable, you’ll still be excited about it later?

    and 2) How do you typically develop your ideas: small-scale or large-scale? For example, do you begin with a grand idea that is the general plot/theme/idea of the story (large-scale), or do you get inspired by a snippet of dialog or a small scene or image and expand from there (small-scale)? I’m curious because I’m usually very much inspired by the second, and that can cause problems when I’m so excited to write a small little vignette and then have to figure out how to expand it into a full story.

    Thanks, and looking forward to the next podcast! :)

  22. While no moon is ever described, they do mention often that there is a moon and they have knowledge of it. Samwel Tarly’s face is described by Jon as being”round like the moon.” Also, I can’t remember if it was in the first book, but in the first season Dany is told a myth about how “there was two moons but now there is only one because the first crashed into the sun.” So, even if it is never described, there’s indeed a moon since the characters talk about there being one.

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