Julie Artz | author, editor, book coach, dragon

[Wyrd Words Weekly] Why I always ask why!

Published 8 months ago • 3 min read


I'm delighted to welcome everyone who joined my world-building talk this past week as part of ProWritingAid's Sci-Fi Week. I had such fun talking about one of my favorite topics and am so glad to see you here.

And since you're here, I wanted to talk a bit more about one of the questions that came in during the Q&A during my talk. A writer mentioned they'd received feedback that they told too much of their world-building rather than showing it and asked me how to fix that particular issue.

That's such a common concern and one that can be tricky to address, especially in early drafts when you're not only trying to tell a story to the reader, but trying to clarify a brand new world in your own mind as you craft a story around it.

To offer my answer, I'll share a photo from the bucket-list trip I took this month to beautiful Iceland. It's not every day that your mama turns 80, and we commemorated the event with a wonderful adventure. One of the highlights for me was seeing icebergs that had calved off Jokulsarlon glacier into an ever growing lagoon that eventually dumped them out to sea. Not only were the colors otherworldly, but there was a reverent sense of danger as we navigated the lagoon by boat. Because even though the icebergs seemed fairly far apart on the surface, a whole lot more ice lay in wait just underneath the surface.

Maybe you've heard the iceberg metaphor before when it comes to writing and world-building. If not, the gist is that the bulk of an iceberg's mass is underneath the water, with only a relatively small proportion poking above the surface. And world-building is just like that. You, the author, need to know everything about your story world--you hold the entire iceberg in your mind. But you only show the reader a tiny portion--the part above the surface of the water is the only bit that ends up on the page. And yet the sense of heft--of the depth of ice underneath the surface--is there in good world-building.

When I help writers craft their story worlds, the bulk of my feedback comes in the form of a single question: why. Why does the world work the way it does? Why do the characters react the way they do? What from their past influences those reactions? What political, cultural, and scientific power dynamics impact the events of the world?

But I ask WHY not because I expect the writer to interrupt the action of their scene and spell the answers out for me on the page. I ask to make sure they know the answer and can file it away into the enormous iceberg that is their world-building. Then only the most hauntingly beautiful, eery, bluest bits poke up through the surface of the water and make it into the story that the reader sees.

It's freeing, isn't it? That you can know all the things, deep dive into the science, the history, the culture, the magic system, the tech to your heart's content. But that you don't have to put every single thing you know on the page.

As you plan your world-building, imagine that, like J.R.R. Tolkien, you're writing your own Silmarillion for your story world. The mythology behind the action on the page. The history. The foundations of the story world. Then leave it all there, in your planning document. If you become as famous as Tolkien, perhaps one day you can publish the whole thing.

But in the pages of your story, particularly in the opening scenes, focus on only showing the reader the bare minimum they need to understand what's happening. It's OK to leave questions in their mind--that will keep them turning pages, searching for the answer, as long as you've piqued their curiosity with an engaging character who is moving through the world in an active scene.

If you find yourself writing more than a sentence or two in any given paragraph describing the underpinnings of your story world, you're probably working on the underbelly of that iceberg instead of the parts that belong above the surface. Simply move those extra words to your planning document and out of your scene.

That way, you know you haven't lost any of your hard work while at the same time ensuring that the reader isn't bogged down or pulled out of the scene with a lot of extra detail that only you need to know.

Have a wonderfully wyrd week!



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Julie Artz | author, editor, book coach, dragon

Julie Artz helps writers who dream of a life spent telling stories that matter slay their doubt demons so they can send their work out into the world with confidence. An active member of the writing community, she has volunteered for SCBWI, TeenPit, and Pitch Wars and is a member of EFA, the Authors Guild, and AWP. A social and environmental justice minded story geek, Julie lives in an enchanted forest outside of Seattle, Washington, with her husband, two strong-willed teenagers, and a couple of naughty furry familiars. Check out her weekly newsletter, Wyrd Words Weekly, and subscribe today.

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