In the worlds of speculative fiction, world building and milieu development are an essential part of the storytelling process. Whenever you tell a story set in an environment drastically removed from the environment of your readers, you need to invest story time into the development of this different reality. Even when, as is often the case, the story is not about the world itself, the milieu plays an important role in the development and unfolding of your story, and your readers need to understand the world enough to appreciate its influence.
There was a time when world building and milieu development was dumped on the reader, taking up a large portion of the story, usually in the beginning, without actually furthering the narrative itself. I’ve heard tell that Frank Herbert’s Dune is an infamous example of this, which is why I’ve never tried to read Dune. I have, however, read many early pulp novels. Many of them suffered extensive dumping, which always bogged down the story. Others rose above that cop-out and told a great story with vivid details woven into the mix of character development, action, and narrative.
I’ve also read a lot of fantasy novels, both old and new, that struggle with balancing world building and milieu development with the telling of an actual story. Again, many suffer extensive dumping, while others find ways to mix setting development in with the other elements of storytelling.
From all the books I’ve read, in and outside of the dominant speculative fiction genres, I’ve discovered there are no hard-and-fast rules that work for every story. Each story has its own world in which it must be told. The further removed from that world we are, the more we need to know about the world to understand its people and events.
A good way to appreciate this is to read novels and plays written in times past. Even a hundred years distance can be enlightening, but the further you go back the more apparent the need for milieu development becomes. See, of these novels and plays, you’ll find some that are written so that, even now, we can follow along and understand the people, because the writer invested storytelling time in the creation of the world itself. Others require research just to figure out what the heck is going on! These stories were told as if everyone knows what’s what. Sometimes research itself is insufficient to make sense of it. I’m a reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-educated woman, but I still couldn’t make heads or tails of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the version I had was more footnotes than story. Compare that to Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, who are much more understandable, and you’ll see its not simply because they’re not so far removed from our time, but because they take the time and effort, through character and narrative, to explain the world the characters live in.
On the other hand, I love reading the McCaffrey’s Pern novels. I even have a book that is, in part, about the world building of Pern. As intricate and detailed as the world building is done across the many books of Pern, Anne McCaffrey obviously did a lot more that never made it into the books. And as interesting as those details undoubtedly are, the books are better for having never been burdened with them.
So, when it comes to world building, we need to exercise sound judgment. We need to remember what we’ve experienced as readers and temper our enthusiasm for building our worlds in favor of our enthusiasm for telling our stories. We need to tell enough about our worlds that our characters and plots make sense, and then stop. Even if it hurts, we need to stop.
If our books are successful, we can tell more about our world in many different ways—we can write more books, short stories, or even our own guides to our worlds. But if we overdo the world building in our books, our worlds will wither and die as our readers lose interest and move on to someone with a story to tell.