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Is it possible to make a story (with a plot and characters) that has no worldbuilding or explanations for events? Like whenever anything happened in the story there was no background or explanation behind it. It would be similar to things like "The Call of Cthulhu" or "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", except that not only would there be no explanation for many events, but there would also be a very obscure setting.

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    As an avid worldbuilder, I often pick apart fictional settings for my own amusement. Most readers, though, will be more concerned with the plot of your story than the fact an easterly wind is inconsistent with the regional weather patterns. – Kys Feb 20 '17 at 17:07
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    It seems to me less like you're asking whether you need to do thorough worldbuilding and more like you're asking whether it's possible to have a setting that, as one of its defining traits, doesn't seem to follow any consistent rules or logic. Here's a question on Worldbuilding.SE about that topic: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/13234/…. The most highly upvoted answer (which I wrote :P) says that you absolutely can do that! – Kevin Feb 20 '17 at 19:05
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    I just wanted to mention, that having no "worldbuilding explanations" in the story does not contradict doing the worldbuilding while in the process of writing the story. – dtldarek Feb 21 '17 at 15:57
  • I would like to point out there are many books on sale that are poorly written world-building-wise but have been sold to some extend anyway. Inaccurate historic fiction most of all. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't have an idea what you're writing about that extends knowledge obtained from the first site of Google results :) – SK19 Mar 20 '18 at 22:16

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"Possible?" sure... sort of. I mean, everything that happens in your story is building the world. The characters themselves are products of whatever that world is, and a lot can and will be inferred by the types of people that they are. I guess the answer depends on why you're asking this question.

If you're asking if you can get away with writing a story in a foreign setting without detailing what makes the setting unique beyond what the characters observe for themselves, then sure! That's easy enough, and the characters serve as an audience insert to exploring the world.

If you're asking if you can write a story where even you haven't considered why these things are happening the way they do... then yeah... but with the caveat that you'll need to pay more attention to the "rules" you're establishing as things do happen, otherwise you'll be in danger of distracting the reader when / if you start breaking those rules.

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One easy, cheap and workable approach to writing without worldbuilding is when the world is known.

Your story takes place at the White House, your protagonist is President Trump. Everyone knows all the rest. Just sketch out the events.

Another, harder - is to write apart from the setting. The events and conflicts are universal, essentially per Alexander's answer.

What you're trying to do though, is very hard to do right - and very easy to get wrong. When the world is just a minimal sketch of weirdness surrounding the characters, but definitely interacts with them, you're at constant risk of introducing Deus Ex Machina - a very bad tool, a total rock bottom when it comes to quality of prose.

Your deus ex machina may come as immediate solution, contrivance or problem that was not foreshadowed, is not understandable to the reader, serves no other purpose than to advance the plot, and in effect your story becomes either a pulp of cheapest kind or a starts resembling milder forms of Schizophasia.

It takes a very skilled writer to pull it off - have the world with unexplainable mysteries, but still compelling, the sudden revelations spicing the story up instead of watering it down. Considering you're even asking this question, I'd suggest you take a more conservative approach. Just knowing that it can be done doesn't put you much closer to knowing how to do it right.

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What you are proposing is very possible if your story is, actually, totally independent from its setting. What is important for it are characters, their dialogs and maybe their inner thoughts. Everything that is around is really irrelevant. The story can be set in a world with Lucy in the sky with diamonds, or on an empty stage - the surroundings are only a decoration.

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Not really. "Worldbuilding" is much broader term than the question or most answers seem to assume. I ass-u-me that what is actually intended is to avoid doing any explicit exposition on the setting, so that the setting is either discovered implicitly as the story progresses or left obscured.

That is of course always possible. Anything that is important to the story can be revealed without exposition and anything that is not can be left obscured. It can be even argued that it is better to not use exposition, not because exposition itself is bad, but because not using it makes it easier to avoid useless information. Useless information is basically noise that distracts the reader from the story so avoiding it is good.

Excess information can also make it harder maintain a sense of wonder or mystery about the setting, so in genres like fantasy or horror avoiding or minimizing exposition is doubly good. You can still give exposition about useless things, if you want to play mind games with the reader. But if you play mind games with the reader there really needs to be a good payback for the effort.

The downside is that not giving excess information makes it easier to forget to include something that the reader actually needs to understand the story. You probably should have some way to verify whether your story is comprehensible if you want to avoid exposition. But making sure that what you write can be understood is always good, so this isn't really an extra burden to avoid.

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I have written all of my stories and novels without any worldbuilding (or other planning or outlining) whatsoever. That is what "pantsers" or "discovery writers" do.

It is not true that the setting remains obscure if you don't build the world beforehand. You just discover it while you write. My worlds read just as rich and convincing as anything you are used to. The difference is that my worldbuilding comes naturally and evolves from the narrative.

Those writers who worldbuild before they write often find it difficult to integrate their worldbuilding into their narrative. When you discover the world in the course of discovering the story, the reading is an integrated experience because the writing was an integrated experience.

It is much more fun for you.


In reply to a comment by Lauren Ipsum below:

Now why and how does discovery writing lead to an integrated narrative?

The discovery writer uncovers the story and world that lie within him or her. The logic of the narrative they tell is the logic of their identity, and any narrative they tell reflects their being: who they are in the essence of the personality, the experiences that have shaped them, and how they are situated and behave in the world. The discovery writers, if you want, taps into their intuition and allows their unconscious to shape the world they are telling of.

And because the identity of (psychologically healthy) people is an integrated whole, the narrative of the discovery writer is an integrated whole.

If your experience with discovery writing is different – if you find that you have to, in Lauren's words, "stuff a skeleton" into your story –, then you are not a discovery writer and should better plot and worldbuild beforehand.

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    I have to add a YMMV caveat here. You may be a good discovery writer, but boy howdy have I read some bad ones. Just because some pantsers can create a balanced, coherent, sensible world on the fly doesn't mean all of them can, and the "integrated experience" of writing can deliver absolutely dreadful results if the writer doesn't know what s/he is doing. Your suggestion is not a dealbreaker; I just want to point out that it may not work for everyone. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 20 '17 at 12:49
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    Well, @LaurenIpsum, certainly both pantsers and plotters have to be good for the book to be good. But I think, and that's the argument I make, that world and story integrate more naturally for pantsers (while the plot will play out more coherently for plotters) – tendentially, and given both are reasonably good. The danger for pantsers is plot holes, and the danger for plotters (and worldbuilders) is a certain "constructedness", with too much background, too much world history, too much description. Because you have spent all that time inventing all that fascinating detail, and cannot let go. – user5645 Feb 20 '17 at 13:14
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    I think the OP is asking about not describing the world, not about not planning it beforehand. But ignoring that, I read you answer as equating worldbuilding with plotting. It strikes me that a lot of people are more interested in world building than storytelling. A storyteller figures out what story they want to tell and then figures out what setting will work best to tell it. Lewis did not set Out of the Silent Planet on Mars because he wanted to write sci fi, but to allow fallen and unfallen races to confront each other. I think you are identifying with the latter, not the worldbuilders? – user16226 Feb 20 '17 at 15:00
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    My issue is that if you don't have any world built before you start writing, you may just add details as necessary to make your story work. Then you have to go back and stuff a skeleton into all those cool details. In my view, that leans towards convenience and deii ex machinae — "I need X to happen, so I'm just going to create this part of the world this way so it happens like that," rather than working out how the world developed that way so that X can happen naturally. A plotter works out the world details before the story; a pantser works them out afterwards. YMMV. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 20 '17 at 15:24
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    @LaurenIpsum The complementary (and, I think, more insidious) problem is that the planner is driven to stick to plan, and the worldbuilder to get all the features of the world in, even if it means violating the emotional build of the story arc to do so. I'd suggest that the plotter/pantser dichotomy is not complete. There is also the visionary: the one who sees the story arc clearly in their head and fills in the details to form that arc. The pantser is searching for a story; the visionary sees the arc, but not the details. Both plotter and pantser can end up with darlings they cannot kill. – user16226 Feb 20 '17 at 17:34
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Such a story with no worldbuilding or little has made some of the great stories of our time.

"No Exit" a French play by Jean-Paul Sartre is a great example of that. In a room with closed and locked doors and a cast of different characters, provides us with one thing about their world - wherever it is, they are trapped.

Does it make any difference if they are locked in a closet or jail cell? Or on a spaceship? That depends on the story. If the characters and plot make no reference to where they are, only about who they are and how they can get out, you have to do little to no world building.

Another example is the American play "A Walk In The Woods." I'm talking about the 1988 play by Lee Blessing about an American and Russian arms negotiator where their physical world is a park bench. Does it matter to the story whether they are sitting on a park bench or seated next to each other on an airplane? Or in a movie theater?

Again, you have a very limited world that plays no part in the story. I've seen this play done where the two characters sat on two chairs on an empty stage, devoid of anything else but two spot lights on them so we can see them.

If the story on its own is powerful enough to keep an audience captivated, who cares where it is?

Ask someone who has seen "No Exit" and "A Walk In The Woods" and ask them about the physical setting of the world they were in. Most will not remember.

However, the world the was created by the character's dialog will be remembered, but that world did not exist except in the minds of the characters, and in both plays, each character viewed the world differently.

This shows that sometimes, the world they are in is less important or not important at all to the story being told. And the story does not even have to define a world. A state of being, a state of existence is all that is required to write a gripping story.

Plays, which I have written several, are more about the character and the drama between them. The world is just another prop for the story, and props can change or not exist at all.

EDITED 2/21/2017: Since I don't have enough points to make comments on others' I read a comment about how writers are more interested in plot than worldbuildng. And this the key. While elements of the world the characters live in is part of the plot, you can take any story and put it in any world and it will work.

"Romeo & Juliet" is a great example of this. The plot works well during Shakesphere's time, and it surely worked for Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as well as for Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld.

Even in the modern city of Los Angeles, DeCaprio and Dane's speaking the King's English didn't violate what we associate with the modern world.

When plot and characterization are done right, the world matters not.

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    "...an American and Russian arms negotiator where their physical world is a park bench..." A park bench is not a world. It's a setting. The world is where the Russians and Americans and arms to negotiate exist, and it is very well built. – Lew Feb 21 '17 at 15:47
  • @Lew Right, the bench is only a setting. And the world that you say both characters exist are only fragmented throught the process of character exposition. Worldbuilding means all the politics, economics, law and order and geographic location are well defined. You don't get that in either example. And if I go through all the plays I've seen (>100) and written myself (5), acted in (1, "The Foreigner"), or photographed (17), none built a complete world, with a few exceptions (Cats, Les Miserable, Phantom). and from Prodsky and Waterston performance, you do not see their complete worlds either. – George McGinn Feb 21 '17 at 21:27
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If your question is, can you set a story in an imaginary place without telling the reader that you have done so, the answer is yes, but the reader will not know that you have done so. The problem is, if any of the features of that imaginary place are necessary to the plot, then the plot will not make sense to the reader.

So, if your question is, can you write a story in which the plot does not make sense to the reader because the reader does not have enough information about the setting to understand the plot, the answer is yes, but your readership is apt to be small.

If your question is, having done all this worldbuilding, do I need to include all of in my story, then the answer is no. You should regard worldbuilding as a hobby entirely separate from storytelling. Story does not need worldbuilding, it needs setting. Setting performs a particular function in a story. It creates the stage in which the conflicts that drive the story make sense, and it provides the grittiness, the sense of reality, that makes the story seem real. You don't need or want any worldbuilding details that do not fulfil those purposes.

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    I find that the main reason to build more world than you need is that as you continue in your story, small details may be affected by this backstory you cooked up. The versimilitude of having a lived-in, thought-out world gives flavor and spice to your story. You can add the details afterward, but it's nice when you work with an existing structure. You don't have to write The Silmarillion, but some basic history/culture isn't a bad idea. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 20 '17 at 16:26
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    @LaurenIpsum.I don't disagree. I don't write fantasy. I write historical. I do more research than ends up in the story for much the same reasons. But I only put in those details that turn out to perform a story function. I don't empty the notebook into the MS. I think this is perhaps more obvious for a historical novelist because it is research, not invention. There must be a temptation for the worldbuilder to express all they have invented. But I suspect fantasy authors would benefit from regrading worldbuilding as "imaginary research" rather than any species of storytelling. – user16226 Feb 20 '17 at 16:37
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    I think "imaginary research" is an excellent way of expressing that kind of worldbuilding. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 20 '17 at 17:12
  • "Imaginary research" is an excellent expression indeed, and the temptation to express is very real. – storbror Feb 22 '17 at 10:00
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Yes. Definitely.

Six word stories do it all the time.

My favorite, famous one:

"For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never used."

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"How feasible is it to write a story without any worldbuilding?"

Very. As far as I can tell, world building in works of fiction is a modern phenomenon. Alternate history stories are a great example of a genre that absolutely requires world building, but that genre was basically invented mid-20th century (The Man in the High Castle by PKD). Lord of the Rings dates back to around that time, and is also an exemplary story full of world building. But again, Tolkein is widely recognized as a pioneer in this regard.

Most fiction takes place in our own world, and therefore requires little to no world building, as the world already exists, no need to be built.

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I'd say it depends. The Jabberwocky used fictional objects, words, and creatures with no introduction and was a successful story.

I'm not a professional, but I'd say typically stories have different strengths and weaknesses. Some books, like LotR, are dry, with massive world building, known as "High Fantasy." The immersion is what makes them interesting. On the other hand, writing skill is what makes otherwise mundane books about everyday life interesting. Some books, as aforementioned, don't even need to build the world their in if they aren't in our world due to an interesting writing style, though this could be difficult to read.

The point is to get the message across that you wish to convey, and if you can do that in fewer words, I think people would enjoy this more.

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You might take a look at the book "The Fractal Prince" by Hannu Rajaniemi. It's the second book of a sci-fi trilogy... I happened to read it first, and found that it was really engaging in significant part because he never went out of his way to explain the workings of the world. Things were described as if we already knew what they meant, and we had to infer their meanings from context. Now, I'm sure not everyone would like that setup, but in that case I really did.

  • The fact that the workings of the world are not explained, doesn't mean they are not developed. It is the author choice how to present his world to the reader, but the world needs to be built, else the story will collapse. – Lew Feb 21 '17 at 16:48
  • For sure, I would agree that the world needs to be developed by the author if they are to have any coherency, significance, or sense to them. (Certainly I can imagine a story set in a world where, for example, the bizarreness and nonsensicalness of the world would be an ongoing joke, and the world would practically speaking not be developed much beyond that. The story would then not have much to do with the world itself.) I got the impression @Snowshard was asking about in-text worldbuilding. But thank you for making that important point explicit. – Bemisawa Feb 21 '17 at 19:54
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The question needs to be rephrased. Of course it is possible to write a story without any world-building. Here are some examples: War and Peace. Pride and Prejudice. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Almost everything Agatha Christie ever wrote.

Those books assume that the reader has the necessary cultural background because they were written for a readership of the time and place.

So, the question should not refer to a "story" (or novel), but specifically to a story set in a time and place that the reader would not immediately understand. Even so, we do understand concepts such as force, territory, empires, travel, hunger, competition, and many other concepts that do not require much elaboration.

If you have access to them, have a look at the original StarTrek TV episodes form the 1960s, and note how the appearance of the characters, their interpersonal relationships, and their reactions to events are very 1960s. You can give the hippies a haircut and a uniform, and put them in a spaceship, but they're still hippies.

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Sure. This is totally possible. But I'm not sure what you mean by whether if it's feasible or not. A previous comment on the thread mentioned that it would work if the world 'is already known'. I totally agree with that. As a matter of fact I do believe that this method works both ways, ie, even if your story doesn't exuberate the vigor of character but there is rich depth in the world and its surroundings that result in events of its own it's possible to create a story of its own.

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