How Much Worldbuilding Is Too Much?

Last weekend, I taught a class on Worldbuilding with Amanda Downum, and it went swimmingly.  Just excellent.  But one question came up, of which Amanda and I are of two different schools of thought.  Namely: how much worldbuilding is too much?  Amanda thinks if you’re just worldbuilding and not actually, you know, writing a story, that’s too much.  For me, the long worldbuilding process is part of finding the story.  And much of it is its own reward.

As much as I talk about Worldbuilding, when it comes to the actual writing of books, I don’t put too much on the surface.  Sometimes it’s out of fear of boring my potential audiences.*  Sometimes it’s out of presumption that the things I know about the world are just so screamingly obvious that I don’t have to actually explain them.

But most of the time, it’s because the worldbuilding details aren’t necessarily relevant to the story at hand. I’ve done a pretty full history of Druthal, but there’s no need to delve into it during normal life.  Just like you rarely talk in detail about the election of 1876 while driving on the highway.

Well, rarely.  I did do that the other day.

Heck, I could easily drop into any one of the Maradaine-set books a few thousand words on, say, the 7th Century disintegration of the Druth Kingdom, or the Mad Kings of the Cedidore Line in the 8th Century, or the coup against Queen Mara, complete with a stirring account of her fruitless last stand in her own throne room.***

But what would those have to do with the story at hand?

Not a whole lot.

What my underlying philosophy has been with translating worldbuilding into actual writing boils down to the Iceberg Principle: 90% is unseen under the surface.  One of the reasons I love using food as a worldbuilding reference point is it provides all sorts of under-the-surface information subconsciously.  If someone is eating sheep-kidney pie with parsnips and turnips it conjures a completely different cultural image than quails stuffed with dates and walnuts, or roasted goat and sweet potatoes, or mango chutney poured over broiled fish and brown rice.  Each of those dishes gave you a very distinct idea of the kind of person eating it, and what kind of culture they came from, yes?

Small, telling details.  That’s the key.

But how much is too much?  For me, there is no too much, unless it’s keeping me from making a deadline.  Then, it’s probably too much.

*- Who hasn’t been reading something by a, shall we say, less meticulously edited author, and reach a point where we go, “Oh, infodump” and just scan until something actually starts happening again.**
**- I can think of one example where an author/series lost me completely, in that an entire chapter was a huge infodump on the history of genetic enhancements– which didn’t play into the plot of the book at all– and all that happened in the chapter is a tertiary character walked across a spaceport terminal.
***- Come to think of it, any of those might make fun short stories or novelettes.  File that in the back of the brain.