14.35: What You Leave Out

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

The advice commonly given to writers is to worldbuild an iceberg, but only to show the reader the tip. This is still too much work. Icebergs are big.

In this episode we talk about worldbuilding the tip of the iceberg, and then worldbuilding as little as possible of the rest of the iceberg so that the tip behaves correctly.


Take a chapter of yours which has worldbuilding elements in it, and remove all of them. Set the worldbuilding slider to zero.

Stealing Worlds, by Karl Schroeder, narrated by Nancy Wu

7 thoughts on “14.35: What You Leave Out”

  1. And if you are thinking but wait, I want to create a giant iceberg.
    Don’t forget you can always tack on a few dozen pages of appendices to the end of your book that I’m sure most people totally won’t read, but will make you feel more Tolkien-esk.

  2. What You Leave Out has been a bit of a theme for me as I’m starting to understand the difference between important and relevant world building.

    I also agree with Brandon’s statement about too much explanation ruining suspension of disbelief. For me, explanation comes from trying to specify something. Therefore, over-explanation comes from trying to force a specific outcome, which in turn makes the chisle marks on the styrofoam iceberg a bit obvious. (Especially if you don’t know what you’re doing)

    Thanks for this amazing episode.

  3. The original foursome, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and unapologetic Howard, left something out… and talked about it for a while. Hollow icebergs, 20% oilrigs, a tree, a moon, and a wall? How do you build the tip of the iceberg, and make readers think the rest of it is there, too? What do you leave out, how do you design your sets? When do you throw away worldbuilding that you have done? What do you avoid? Lots to read about in the transcript available now in the archives.

  4. Oh wow. I have spent several years basically writing “genesis” for my world. How else will I know how they organized their society and why they build their cities that way? What I realized is that this part of the story is kind of boring or is that my writing style, lol? At least I hope that the stories I can now tell can believably grow out of that history even if the reader does not know where it all came from.

  5. There may be things that the author needs to know, that the reader doesn’t need to know, or at least know right now.

  6. I want to know how Disneyland works.

    When someone tells me that there was a Battle of the Seven Red Armies, I want to know what that was and when it happened.

    When I go digging into a setting from a work of fiction, and there’s nothing there… when a work of fiction starts showing the seams… when there are hints that these are just the front facades of the houses, that the water is only 3 feet deep and only the visible part of the rig has been built… that’s one of the biggest letdowns I ever experience.

    So when I’m working on my worldbuilding, I’m really trying to avoid doing that to anyone else.

    And then there’s simply the issue where I don’t want to paint myself into a corner… or contradict myself… realizing that I didn’t think through the implications and now something should be true that can’t be true without blowing up a bunch of other things.

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