But Which Darlings? – World Building Edition

By this point, I think everyone’s familiar with the Quiller-Couch1 advice of “Kill your darlings.” It doesn’t matter how much you love that passage or that word, you need to get rid of it to make your story better. Unless you have a good reason to keep something, you should probably cut it.

I went through a very extensive high fantasy phase in my reading in high school,2 followed by a space-related science fiction one. If there’s one area where people like to throw this advice right out the window, it’s with world building in these two genres. In order to get their point across, these authors often feel the need to explain everything about their universe so that the reader can understand.

Now, there should be a lot more world building in these sorts of stories. You have to. There’s a whole world you’re plunging the reader into that they are going to need to understand in order to follow along with the story. There’s a lot they need to know, and there’s a lot you need to get across. I’m just suggesting that maybe it’s not all relevant information.

For example, I distinctly remember a fantasy story that explained that they had a system to empty chamber pots so that they weren’t dumped out the window and into the streets. At no point in the story did a character ever use a chamber pot. I don’t think they even had to urinate once in the entire narrative. They didn’t even spend much time in towns or cities where this would be relevant information and, say, they would want to stay in the middle of the road to avoid unfortunate accidents.

Universe elements are like everything else in the story. Feel free to include them all you want in the first draft, but when you’re editing, really think about whether or not that information is actually doing anything for the story. I know how tempting it is to include every single thing about the universe and how it all feels important so that the readers know exactly what they’re dealing with in terms of the universe, but it’s probably not all necessary.

When you’re looking over those parts of your story, keep the same thing in mind as you have with the rest of the story:3 Is this actually important to the narrative? Does it further the plot? Does it add to the characters? Does it help the ambiance? Does this element ever come back into play again later?4 If it doesn’t, make it do one of those things somehow. If not, consider cutting it to help keep the story moving at a good pace.

I know I’ve had to do a lot of it with After Destiny. I’ll tell you about some of the world building-related cuts from that later.

  1. Or Faulkner. Or Wilde. Or any number of other people this quote is attributed to. I really don’t know anymore. []
  2. And Game of Thrones recently []
  3. Or the thing I always think of when I’m rewriting/editing. []
  4. Yes, red herrings are a thing, but I don’t tend to use them as often as I should. []

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