I was able to gain some insight already thanks to How much detail is too much?, but I still need a more precise answer, because my details aren't bound to a particular scene.

I was searching for some information on tidally locked planets (my setting for the story) and while looking at the questions over at World Building SE I noticed that people had chosen specifical temperatures, days per year, etc, whereas I never even thought about building the world so precisely. I did think about the key elements of such a place (wind, no day-night, temperature), but I didn't choose a year cicle being 33 days long or something.

My story is a fantasy, with magic and weird creatures, so it doesn't have to be completely scientific, but I still want a world that is believable. I thought it didn't really add anything of value to the story if a place is -25°C or -30°C, it should be clear that it's pretty cold, that's it.

Am I mistaking? Is it better to explain a setting meticulously or stick to the main elements to make the setting more believable?

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    This is not really about fictional worlds, it's about the story. Suppose you have a real world story about some village in the winter. Would your character say "It's -25C today!" or would he say "It's pretty cold today!" ? – Alexander Oct 9 '17 at 17:18
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    I am very lazy when it comes to worldbuilding, but I have to admit it's fundamental. Don't mistake "fantasy" for "not realistic": even a fantasy words needs laws of coherence and consistency - it's not a free for all. – FraEnrico Oct 10 '17 at 9:23
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    Also, note that @Alexander 's question isn't rhetorical - After living in Canada for 5 years, I promise you I've heard every variation of "some weather today, eh?" including exact temp, comparison to yesterday's temp, the likelihood that the local weatherman will miss his guaranteed high by more than 3 degrees, and how strange it is that the high and low today are fibbinoci numbers. In a fantasy world, I'd expect an alchemist to talk in precise terms (although, he probably wouldn't use Celsius) while I expect a peasant to use the simplest terms possible. – corsiKa Oct 10 '17 at 14:44
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    @corsiKa - for a high tech society (or Star Trek-style explorers) I would totally expect to use degrees. For a medieval-style society, it's hard to expect that dependable temperature scale exist, even among alchemists. – Alexander Oct 10 '17 at 17:12
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    oh this is a fun exercise tho - - - An alchemist might say it is cold enough to solidify mercury, e.g. :-) – DPT Oct 10 '17 at 21:46
up vote 40 down vote accepted

You have made a common mistake about world-building: believing that it all has to go on the page. World-building is for you, the author, to help you craft a story in a setting that feels real and unique, even though fictional. The actual details that make it to the page are only what the characters and reader need to know.

Knowing details like the actual length of the year or exact average temperature might help you avoid committing jarring inconsistencies, or writing descriptions that are so vague they feel insubstantial. So it's important work that helps the story eventually. But you absolutely don't need to shoehorn it into the narrative.

Some writers, like Murakami, or Diana Wynne Jones, get away with making up their worlds as they go along, at the price of a certain insubstantial, dreamlike quality to their settings. Of course, even if you're J.K. Rowling, who is known as the archetypal "planner," you can still end up leaving the occasional detail feeling wrong, inconsistent or poorly thought out. But in general, world-building helps your fantasy world feel more substantial, even (or especially!) if you keep the details to yourself.

  • Some of Rowlings issues, not all, was that she chose earth. On another planet some (not all) of those issues would be less problematic. – DPT Oct 10 '17 at 21:48
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    @DPT It's not meant as a dig at Rowling --she's just known as the ultimate planner, and I wanted to show that even if you plan everything you can still miss something. – Chris Sunami Oct 11 '17 at 2:26

Only add details that are relevant. If the temperature point of -25c will play a factor for later when it warms up to say 10c, then ya specific temperatures may be needed. However if you only want to create the image of it being a cold place, you don't need to specify temperature.

I have read some Sci-Fi books where they had a back matters that placed a lot of this sort of information for anyone who was curious. That way the details are still a part of the book for the more avid science fan, while keeping the actual novel fiction/fantasy friendly.

Also you don't want to go into too much detail. Part of the fun as a reader is being able to visualize the story. If you start adding in so much detail, so much description, that I have to sit there and think about your list of details to the point it takes away from the reading flow, you have too much.

Give enough detail to allow the reader to understand the setting, while allowing the reader to fill in the gaps themselves. Think of it like a coloring book. You, as the writer provide the outlines and images while the reader colors in the image as they choose. A reader could color a pig green, or purple, or red. Totally different from the image you had while drawing the outline imaging it pink. But that's okay! As long as they know it's a pig, and as long as the skin doesn't need to be pink for story development, the color can be any color the reader wants.

  • Great answer about an appendix with background information for those who want it. Cf. Anne McCaffrey's "DragonDex" appendices in her Pern stories. – Robert Columbia Oct 10 '17 at 13:28
  • Nice analogy with the coloring book! – storbror Oct 11 '17 at 7:52

First off, I basically agree with Chris Sunami's answer; the worldbuilding is primarily for you as the author or storyteller, not for the reader.

However, and I know that this is repeating an old cliché; do the specifics truly matter? (Chekhov's gun applies.) Does it make a great deal of difference if the temperature is -20°C or -25°C? Really, show, don't tell!

Let me give you an example.

I have a story that I work on from time to time; basically, this is a hobby project for when the mood strikes. One scene that I really like in that one has the main, point-of-view character dealing with the cold, in a stiff wind and snowfall. The temperature is far below freezing even before you account for windchill. However, nowhere is the temperature explicitly stated. The POV character just has no way to know what the temperature is (only that it is cold). What is described is the effects that the character can observe. How their glasses fog over when going inside from having been outside. The crystals of frozen water vapor in their face from their breathing. The sound of the snow on the ground as they walk. That sort of things. If you've ever been in serious or even moderately cold weather, then you'll be able to put two and two together; if you haven't, then stating that the temperature is -25°C (or whatever) will be just a number anyway, and it won't add appreciably to the reader's experience of the story except perhaps to convey the notion that "okay, that's pretty cold".

Of course, if the specific temperature somehow does matter, or if it is relevant before the character can experience it directly, then it makes more sense to mention it. Maybe your character is looking at the outside thermometer and contemplating on how it is -25°C and hoping that the power doesn't go out just before the lights start to flicker; or just how glad they are to be able to stay indoors in such temperatures even if the sky is clear, the sun is shining, and the weather is calm, a moment before someone gets hit by a skidding car on the otherwise empty street before it takes off leaving your dear protagonist to rush out and take care of the pedestrian.

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    You should know if it's above or below the temperature at which "spit goes clink". – user3067860 Oct 10 '17 at 20:33

(As @ChrisSunami said, the author should know more than the reader does. I am writing about what to include in the text)

The question is reversed. The proper question is "What information about a fictional world is NECESSARY?"

And the answer depends on the length of the piece.

If you are writing short stories, the answer is "as little as you can possibly get away with." Every word counts.

If you are writing a novel, the basic rule is still to only include information that has a purpose, but you can have other purposes than just advancing the plot. Building an atmosphere is perfectly valid. Rounding out a character is perfectly valid. Just don't dump all the information on the reader in one big wall of text; sprinkle it lightly throughout the text.

Another important aspect is knowing who the narrator is. The reader doesn't necessarily need to know, but you as author must know who the narrator is! Keep the text consistent with what that narrator knows and cares about.

This question reminded me of a short story by Jack London, To Light a Fire. Here's the third paragraph:

But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

That's a lot of text, talking about the temperature, especially for a short story. But, it's not just talking about the temperature; it also establishes character, setting and theme. In this story, knowing the temperature is critical to the plot. In a different story, with a different theme, "very cold" would cover it.

It might make a difference whether it's -35°C or -40°C, because it will annoy some of your readers if you have a mercury thermometer read a temperature below the freezing point of mercury. It's easier to catch things like that if you know exactly what temperature it is, even if you don't mention it in the story. Likewise, if you have a wise old man falling into a frozen lake, it helps to know what temperature it is and what warning signs might have warned him; that can make a huge difference as to whether certain audiences seem him as wise but unlucky, or pompous and clueless.

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