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Background

So I see a lot of questions on the site like this. They're all about deeply explaining worldbuilding and stuff, doing all of that explaining type of thing. Normally, I just skip that. For example:

My 'magic' system works by calling upon the power of the ancient tales and old gods.

That's literally all I've said about it. I didn't really want to waste words on going in-depth because there isn't that much to it.

Only details necessary to the story are mentioned.

Now I know this one is going to be particularly frowned upon, but I'm really big on not confusing the reader. I only mention things about the world when they have to be. Of course I have a big, sprawling worldbuilded idea in my head, but I don't want all of that to spill onto the page.

It seems different with a lot of people. Many questions asked on this site are about really in-depth, intense worldbuilding. It all seems so unnecessary to me. For this question I think I'd just have the thing work and mainly show the reader how it worked through dialogue (if I really had to).

Question

A few questions which tie into each other:

Is it necessary to include tons of worldbuilding details?

Will a reader just 'accept' that something works, or require an explanation?

For example, my magic system is a great example of that. There is no explanation for why you can draw upon the power of the ancients it just happens.

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    My answer to "How much detail is too much?" is oddly very relevant to this question as well. (I say "oddly" because the questions aren't the same at all and wouldn't apparently be answered by the same answer.) :) – Wildcard Feb 7 '17 at 0:21
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    There are lots of terrible books out there with wooden characters, a cliched plot, and tons of detailed worldbuilding. Don't spend time on worldbuilding to the detriment of your story. If your character is a wise wizard with a beard searching for five magic rocks to overcome a dark lord, I don't care how detailed the magic system he uses is. – tsleyson Feb 7 '17 at 0:25
  • There was actually similar question on world building: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/66229/… – user3644640 Feb 7 '17 at 14:34
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My only objection to It Just Happens is when you overload the suspension of disbelief.

You can draw on the power of the ancients for magic? great.

You can draw on said power for flight, telekinesis, telepathy, physical transmogrification, healing, fighting, blasting fireballs, warding off someone else's fireballs, wayfinding, animal telepathy, and mixing the perfect Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster... all at once? by the same person? without paying a price? Now I'm going to need an explanation.

So as long as you don't strain your minimalist explanation with maximalist results, you should be okay. Each person can do one thing at a time, or maybe each person can only tap one kind of magic: sure. That's reasonable. You don't need to go into details about how you contact the gods or which gods bestow which power etc. It's when It Just Happens becomes Dei Ex Machinae Happens that you need to prop up the Dei with worldbuilding.

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    So Sanderson's First Law, basically? – JAB Feb 6 '17 at 22:23
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    @JAB That's brilliant! I wasn't familiar with that, but it's absolutely perfect. Yes, that. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 6 '17 at 22:42
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    This is good advice - followed with the caveat of don't tell too much. Sanderson's first law is worth reading, but he also has a tendency to over-explain. So far so that a lot of his exposition on magic systems in universe is done (deliberately) as a lecture. And it's boring. The "guides" he's put in the back of the Mistborn series are ok, and "optional" but the in-story explanations are dry and formulaic. – Thomo Feb 7 '17 at 0:50
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    You can't really do any of that. The magic does some cool effect (usually a shield or augmentation of a weapon) then goes away. It's rarely used, after all, because the people believe it's disrespectful to the Old Gods if you use a miracle. Also, this answer is great. @LaurenIpsum – Daniel Cann Feb 7 '17 at 6:20
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    I have no problem with people who have all encompassing power... If it is presented where the skills are acquired over time to show character growth or that if they use all their super awesome skills at once, they are fatigued and unable to continue on in that scene and pass out or something. Plus many anime have characters that have a wide variety of skills and fatigue is one of the best ways to limit. – ggiaquin16 Feb 8 '17 at 23:09
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Well obviously there is a subjective element, but I would say:

Is it necessary to include tons of world-building details?

No.

Will a reader just 'accept' that something works, or require an explanation?

No.

The question you quoted has some very good points, include world-building details to either "give sensual pleasure in its own right" or "support the story". To the first point, "supporting the story" and "including tons of world-building details" are very different. It almost sounds like you see world-building details as laborious, you use the term "waste words". This is not the case at all, the world-building details are a transportation mechanism. To take the reader out of his/her own life into your world. The world-building details are the vehicle. This isn't a text book, this is an assist, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the elements that fire the imagination. Also, having the world in your head is meaningless unless you can find a way to build your world on the page.

So no, it is not necessary to "include tons of world-building details", especially boring text book descriptions, but it is necessary to include the correct details that will transport your reader into your world.

To the second point, will the reader just accept? Unlikely.

My 'magic' system works by calling upon the power of the ancient tales and old gods.

If I read this with no explanation then I would dismiss it as trivial, there is no punch to the statement, it is meaningless. If it is a "magic system" then a system implies "a set of things working together", what things? How does the system call upon old stories? and if I called upon old stories then how does that help me? What do you mean old gods? Like gods with zimmer frames? None of it makes any sense.

There are several ways forward, either don't try to explain it, if detail is unnecessary then leave it out, simply say "she has magic" or "she has the same flavour of magic as her mother before her". If it is necessary to explain it then take the time to think it through, were the "old gods" her ancestors? Did the old tales inspire her?

If readers wanted shallow face-value statements then they read magazines or newspapers, if they want some escapism then they need to be immersed in the world and understand the origin or nature of their powers.

  • I have had it happen to me with not one but two book series that in the first book, Magic Just Happens, but in books 2 and 3 the source of the magic and the worldbuilding is explained. In both series (the Rai-Kirah from Carol Berg and Daughter of Smoke and Bone), the answer and the worldbuilding are depressing and totally dissipated the spell of the original book. I stopped the second DOSOB book and sold them both, and I'll only reread Transformation and I got rid of the other two Rai-Kirah books. Sometimes the origin is not better. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 6 '17 at 19:45
  • I'd disagree, in most novels magic doesn't 'just happen', there is often some back story or depth. There is rarely a scientific explanation, I mean what explanation is there for magic? It is after all magic. However, the best novels have some form of "explanation" such as 'the magic only works when they pass into a magical realm' or 'the magic manifests during teen angst' or 'the magic is amplified by a coven'. Even the novels that seemingly have no explanation have some depth, like a wishbone necklace or a family history of magic. – Bella Pines Feb 6 '17 at 21:18
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    In DOSOB, I believe the magic for spells came from "beads," which were in the second book revealed to be extracted human teeth (because the magic for a spell was powered by excruciating pain). In the Rai-Kirah books, the magic was revealed in the second book to come from a confusing, guilt-choked, genocidal sundering of two joined species, and the hero had to re-absorb his counterpart to the point of annihilating him. Yes, there were explanations. My point is that those two larger explanations were dreadful, and I'm sorry I read them. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 6 '17 at 21:25
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    You don't really 'have magic'. You more 'use magic'. It's not something which is spammed out every five seconds, because I hate that. I want blood and gore and not a wizard battle, which is why my magic system isn't in-depth. It's just when you're losing the battle, you have to use something to help you. @LaurenIpsum I agree, I've read a few books where the system is ruined by a dreadful explanation. It's important to be careful of that. – Daniel Cann Feb 7 '17 at 6:24
  • I haven't read Rai-Kirah but have to say that "a confusing, guilt-choked, genocidal sundering of two joined species" does sound interesting! Maybe it's just the way you say it. I do agree you don't have magic, you use magic. Or rather you do something special and use the word "magic" to explain it, the definition being "the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces". – Bella Pines Feb 8 '17 at 9:52
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Worldbuilding is not directly for the benefit of the reader

Building a world which makes sense is not primarily done so that you can explain this world to your reader but so that you can build stories in it that are internally coherent. If you understand how magic works underneath you can present it in a consistent fashion and write stories involving it that make internal sense. Some of this worldbuilding will be explained in your story to the reader but most of it will simply inform your writing and is revealed to your reader only in the consistency and coherency of the overall plot.

Now, of course, some people can write stories which appear to make sense and be internally coherent without doing this kind of worldbuilding but many writers find that it helps them write.

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    This actually almost completely answers a question that I've been going over regarding the explanations of the "science" in my science-fiction world. My personal issue (which is maybe not so personal?) is that I'm quite proud of how science-based the entire thing has become. When people hear about the story and the world, they are unsure of what is actually fiction, which I love, but of course there is a difference between telling something about your world and the story and a person actually reading the details. "luckily" I've yet to reach the point in the story where I MIGHT explain... – storbror Feb 7 '17 at 11:53
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Great question, Daniel. Two things:

1.

Superstitions in real life aren't usually motivated through an explanation of how they work.

The red haired girl is a witch not because red hair has some kind of magic power – which of course it doesn't – but because red hair is rare (in continental Europe) and marks the girl as different. The principle here is unfamiliarity. The horn of the rhinoceros doesn't heal impotence because it contains a substance that causes erection – which it doesn't – but because it looks like an erect penis. The principle here is analogy.

Pseudo-scientific explanations for magical superstitions have been attempted during the proto-scientific transition phase from superstition to science (e.g. alchemy and astrology), especially in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and proven to be wrong.

If a novel is set in the Renaissance, then providing such a pseudo-scientific "system" of magic is fitting. An example are the Æegypt novels of John Crowley. But if your novel doesn't deal with proto-science, but "real" magic, then any explanation of magic would contradict the basic principle of magic, namely that it is "magical". Scientific thinking on the part of the author contradicts magical thinking on the part of the characters and makes them unbelievable.

A reader may be willing to believe that a sorcerer can call down lightning (without explanation), because that is what sorcerers can do, but once you start to elaborate on how adepts spend years training the electrical impulses in their axons until those are strong enough to create lightning, then many readers will stop reading in exasperation.

To take this even further, most people have no idea how a computer works, and yet they can use it. To the majority, medication works because the doctor says it does. Cooking makes stuff edible because it does. Foreigners are terrorists because they look like they must be. People have no idea how the world works but take it at face value. Why in heaven's name would you provide explanations in a novel that people aren't interested in in their real lives?!?

People that are interested in explanations read non-fiction.

2.

If your focus is on the story, the question of how much description to include never arises.

That doesn't mean that there mustn't be any description in narrative fiction. And it also doesn't mean that all description must serve the plot. Some stories, for example those that are read for taking the reader to exotic or alien places, rely on sometimes extensive description.

What my statement means is that you should know what story you write and whether place is a protagonist in that narrative – or not.

  • Those are really good points. For me, elaboration ruins many books because I feel like I'm wasting my time reading something when I'd rather just enjoy imagining the spells. – Daniel Cann Feb 7 '17 at 6:28
  • @what, do you believe that explaining the rules of how magic works falls under the same rubric? For example, in Mercedes Lackey's books, magic is a force generated by all living things, it runs like water to ley-lines which are like rivers, mages can tap the rivers to use magic. You can run out of magic. Mages are born with the capacity to handle magic, to a pre-determined strength. A mage must learn to center and ground to handle magic safely. etc. Would learning these rules detract from your enjoyment? To me, these rules prevent dei ex machinae, which is good. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 7 '17 at 11:06
  • She never says where magic "comes from" or what it actually is, and magic is not a cure-all or an ultimate weapon or defense. Many of her hero/ines are not mages. But her magical system is thorough and well-thought-out, and has rules which aren't broken. It's not scientific, but it is logical and consistent. I'm curious what your opinion is. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 7 '17 at 11:08
  • @LaurenIpsum As I understand them, superstitions (including superstitions about magic) have rules as well. For example, you have to collect one herb during a full moon, you must not give your name to the devil, certain places are powerful (similar to the ley lines), and so on. Also, the magic practitioners of real cultures, such as shamans and priests, had to undergo training. – This contradicts my argument in a way. There are rules and explanations in traditional magic, but they work differently than the rules and explanations of science. [contd.] – user5645 Feb 7 '17 at 11:18
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    I think Mercedes Lackey has created a beautiful magic. I read some of her books and found her magic in tune with what I felt and knew about magical beliefs as they are expressed in folklore. I like it, because it does not contradict "real" magic and only adds the perspective of those powerful enough to "see" magic. – user5645 Feb 7 '17 at 11:27
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The audience that actually cares about worldbuilding is pretty small. Most people who read LOTR, for example, don't care a fig about the whole legendarium. They only care about the story.

Most stories with magic in them are very indefinite about how the magic works and what the limits of a character's magical abilities are. And, in fact, the same could be said of physical abilities. One sees this particularly with superheroes, whose abilities seem to be adjusted to the crisis of the moment rather than being consistent across a movie or series. But it is often true of ordinary human abilities in stories that depend on physical feats.

If this is true, why does it not all seem like cheating? Why is the suspension of disbelief (or, to use Tolkien's phrase, the reader's acceptance of the sub-created world) not violated by these inconsistencies and the general lack of definition of capabilities? Because, in the end, stories are moral. They are not about solving technical problems, they are about facing moral dilemmas, about seeing how much the protagonist is willing the bleed in pursuit of their goal. They are about moral transformation or moral revelation.

The question as the heart of every story, therefore, is not, how will they get out of this, but, what are they willing to give up to get out of this. We want to see the price paid. We do not feel cheated by the use of powers otherwise unsuspected or unexplained, as long as the moral order of the story is not violated.

But if new or unexplained powers are used to get the character out of a moral dilemma, that is a very different matter. That is a cheat. That is deus ex machina.

You don't have to explain things, therefore, unless they create a moral question in the story, and you don't have to worry about things that just happen as long as they do not violate the moral order of the story.

There may, of course, be other reason why you may want to explain them anyway, and they may or may not change the audience for your story, but your obligation is to the moral consistency of your story, not the mechanical consistency of your invented world.

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    A really good answer. My price paid is that they're destroying the world each time they cast a 'miracle' (as they're called), they just don't know it. – Daniel Cann Feb 7 '17 at 6:25
  • @DanielCann that's your plot for books 2 and 3, then. :) – Lauren Ipsum Feb 7 '17 at 11:08
  • @DanielCann if they don't know it, that is a consequence but not a price paid. You can't make a moral choice if you don't know the consequence of it, and the price paid must be something the character consciously gives up, not damage they do that they don't know or care about. – user16226 Feb 7 '17 at 13:12
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Is it necessary to include tons of worldbuilding details?

It's never necessary to include details. But details are everything in a story, so they are necessary in a general sense. That is, it's necessary to have some details, but it doesn't matter what kind of details they are as long as they keep the reader interested.

Will a reader just 'accept' that something works, or require an explanation?

The reader will accept anything that looks like it moves your story forward. If it isn't clearly connected to the plot, readers will wonder why they are reading it.

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I always enjoyed the works of Fritz Leiber, especially Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. He filled his world with the usual assortment of Medieval things and magic relics but focused primarily on his wonderful characters and their interaction with the denizens of his mythical land of Nehwon. His stories were hilarious and continue to inspire others including Terry Pratchett https://wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/Weasel

Their misdeeds and ribald revelry are just as engaging today as they were in my youth. I would suggest your picking up a copy to see how they basically assume magic exists then abuse the hell out of it and others in their search for fun and adventure. And I must say they are long overdue for a great movie. http://observationdeck.kinja.com/why-fafhrd-and-the-gray-mouser-should-be-the-next-game-1773752445

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/FafhrdAndTheGrayMouser

https://www.reddit.com/r/scifi/comments/3sg842/lean_times_in_lankhmar_fritz_leibers_fafhrd_and/

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