Today I have invented a new word: worldsetting. (I can’t prove I invented it, but it didn’t turn up in a Google search so I am taking credit.)

I invented it to solve a problem I’ve had for a while now, when talking about writing: worldbuilding. This element is not unique to speculative fiction, but it’s at the forefront of most books in the genre.

Speculative fiction takes place somewhere other than the “real world.” This requires developing a consistent world. It might be a starship or an alternative planet; it might be a “second world” or a fantastical version of a historical or contemporary world. Whatever it is, any aspect of life that will have an impact on the story have to be worked out, at least to a minimal level. Politics, economics, geography, social mores, etiquette, transportation, healing, clothing, food all require thought. The writer needs to know how these things work so they can avoid inconsistencies. Working out these elements is called worldbuilding.

Once the world is “built-out,” the writer needs to make sure the key details enter the story, preferably soon enough that they function as a safety net for the story. For instance, if your protagonist works in a salt mine, it would help readers if they knew pretty early that salt is a form of currency (or, alternately, very rare and expensive). Making sure these elements appear in the story as they need to, in a way that feels natural, is also called worldbuilding.

This leads to difficulties for me, both in reviewing works and commenting in workshops, because often I know the writer’s worldbuilding in the first sense is excellent… but getting the needed data into the work in the right amount needs work. Or, the precise details are beautiful, but inconsistent, because while the second meaning of worldbuilding is excellent, they still need work on the first meaning.

So, I’m inventing a new word for the second meaning. Worldbuilding is the interior development the writer does. Worldsetting is how they communicate it in the book.

What do you think?

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5 Responses to Worldsetting

  1. Mark Schynert says:

    I can see the distinction. What it suggests to me is that worldbuilding is better left out of explicit narrative in the story, allowing the worldsetting to carry the weight, and imply elements of the built world. As a practical matter, though, some of the former needs to sneak in when an expression of the setting would otherwise seem wildly out of context without the explicit anchor. Foreshadowing would be preferable, but that’s not always going to work.

  2. Brian Fies says:

    I like it. “Worldsetting” implies to me that the world already exists, fully formed, and your story just happens to take place there.

    The biggest mistake I see writers (esp. young ones) make in worldbuilding is wanting to show all their work. They might have spent years inventing languages and religions and histories and maps, and by God they’re going to make sure you know it. But they’re not Tolkien and their book isn’t the Silmarillion, and nobody cares. Worldbuilding must serve the story, not vice versa. My approach is to build the world, internalize it–live in it a while–then forget about it. Explain what the reader needs to know with the confidence it all fits together in your head. Verisimilitude. Worldsetting.

    I’m just now reminded of something Gene Roddenberry said about writing for Star Trek. Writers would come in and fill their scripts with science-fictional jargon about steering a spaceship by dampening the flux oscillators to the antimatter flow, and Roddenberry would cross that all out and substitute, “Turn to starboard.” Because that’s what people would really say in that world. Gotta keep it real.

  3. Max Pearl says:

    That makes tons of sense. I like that!

  4. Marion says:

    Yes! Too much of the “building” showing up in the story is a common problem.

  5. Marion says:

    That’s the challenge, right? How much to slip in ahead of time, and when.

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