January 2, 2011

World-building, for the developmental editor

I think world-building is great fun.

Speculative fiction writers take world-building seriously. By the time an SF manuscript comes to a developmental editor, the author has already worked on world-building consciously and extensively. And then the editor gets to play too!

I see world-building as a way to strengthen a manuscript at two levels: sentence and story.

sentences: beats and word choice

On first read of a manuscript, I take note of the characters’ humdrum, everyday actions. Although the writer will have thought carefully about important scenes, beats about drinking coffee or taking out the trash may have remained under the radar. How exactly does one “take out the trash” in the given environment? Some of my initial questions may be answered by the time I finish reading the manuscript. Those that remain, I can point out how revisions to those inconsequential actions can support total immersion in the story.

Several years ago I read an early draft of Kat Falls’s Dark Life, which was published last spring (2010). Kat had done an absolutely splendid job of naming people, places, and things in her near-future world. For example, her teen protagonist travels beneath the ocean on a manta-board. No need to describe the board’s length, width, or technological specifications—we can get on with the story. Kat also did a fabulous job with word choice in her characters’ dialogue. It’s a joy to read a manuscript that already works with words this well. For manuscripts in which word choice has not been developed to this extent, editors can point writers to places where more active word choice can improve the manuscript, among other things by making “info-dumps” obsolete.

story: character and conflict

At the story level, world-building becomes even more fun.

Character should fit (or contest) their environment. SF lets us imagine what people might be like in very different environments and under extreme conditions. (In that, I think there’s some similarity with other genre novels that put the protagonist through extreme trials, such as adventure and suspense novels, thrillers, and some mysteries.)

I particularly like reading novels in which both characters (beliefs, values, understandings) and their relationships with each other (based on age, race, gender, social power) illuminate the imagined world that shaped them. So it’s fun for me as an editor to do some extrapolation in my own head, to ask myself, How would X affect the protagonist? Is it clear why she would have been brought up to believe Y? If I can’t tell how differing socioeconomic status affects two characters’ interactions with each other, I’ll probably ask.  

World-building should extend far beyond the characters and settings on the manuscript page. Sometimes what initially seems to be a problem with characterization or a lack of plot tension or conflict is addressed well through world-building.

Say I think the conflict between protagonist and antagonist could heat up more. Lots of fiction-writing advice centers on “raising the stakes.” When editing SF, I might instead see it as grounding the stakes: Is the wider world (the empire, the world government, the weather police, the council of kings or corporations or vampires)—the world that doesn’t want the protagonist to rock the boat or upend tradition or cause change in the fabric of that world—suggested clearly enough to add weight to the conflict at the center of the story?


This post is just to open the door: I’d love to hear how other editors think about these things. Certainly the ability to present and connect character and setting is important whether the world is “real” or not. At Book View Cafe, you can read writers’ discussions about how to present historical worlds to contemporary readers (here and here). Writers who present a real world setting unfamiliar to the presumed reading audience (travel writing?) may know the “facts” themselves, but still need to present those facts carefully. How have you approached character, setting, and world-building in your editing?

In the meantime, here’s a short list of resources on world-building in SF:

Have fun!


  1. World-building is such an important topic for this genre. Thanks especially for sharing your insightful comment on grounding the stakes.

  2. For anyone who's interested, I found a spectacular post relevant to this topic: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/01/sf-reading-protocols.

    This is a post by Jo Walton at Tor.com about the reading skill set that SF readers develop, which may be different from that used by those who read exclusively literary fiction. Oh and then the discussion in the comments (agreeing, disagreeing, expanding) is also spectacular.

    Apropos to the last paragraph of the post above, Comment #18 includes this: "To the average western reader, modern-day India, China or South Africa might be just as alien as Trantor, and require just as much exposition."

    Thanks to fellow freelancer Helen Schinske for alerting me to Jo Walton's blogging.