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Worldbuilding is a tireless art; that's what our brother site Worldbuilding-SE is for, and why as a writer you can actually catch the infamous Worldbuilder's disease.

A lot has been said on the topic. Brandon Sanderson, in the podcast Writing Excuses and in his lessons (here, example) suggests focusing only on three-to-five aspects of the worldbuilding of a given novel, unless one is willing to spend 30 years in crafting the next Lord of the Rings series. His advice is, roughly speaking: choose a subset of your world and characterize it well. For a novel, one could focus on weaponry, architecture and fauna; while working on flora, religion and politics in the next one.

Moving on, Herbert's Dune (the first of the saga) could be seen as an extreme example of the aforementioned idea. While there are a lot of details in the book, I'd argue that the most worldbuilding revolves around the sandworms. Everything - from the native colture and religion, to major plot point in the book - falls in the sandworms extremely detailed and imaginative ecosystem.

From what I've gathered, it's either:

  • Detail almost everything, Tolkien style, even if this delays enormously the publication of your novel;
  • Focus on three-to-five subsets of the worldbuilding and gloss over the rest;
  • Find a really cool idea and build around it until you've squeezed all the potential from it.

Of course this is nor a complete, nor a correct list; but it resumes differnt opionions on the matter.

thus said:

How many elements can you focus on during worldbuilding?

  • It sounds like your question is a poll? the number of elements depends on the world building. A fire world would have fire weapons and fire people. Like your sandworm idea. – DPT Mar 3 at 18:15
  • Hm, I didn't intend it to be a poll; the three options are meant to be summarized version of the possibilities I have gathered, but my assumptions are not necessarily correct. I'm editing to try and make it clearer. – Liquid Mar 3 at 18:26
  • I'm voting to close this as opinion based. While I appreciate the point of the question and think it could be a good discussion topic I see no way there could be a 'correct' answer to fit the stack model. Elements of worldbuilding vary from book to book even by the same author. Let alone the vast difference between authors. – linksassin Mar 3 at 22:57
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    I'm voting to keep open. OP questions the "common knowledge" that worldbuilding should only ask the reader to accept "1 buy", and faces that against existing literature that doesn't appear to follow the rule. Perhaps the question could be rephrased a bit, but it's intent is not a poll, nor an open discussion. It's understanding the "one buy" thing and how/whether to apply it. (I was going to ask this question myself, but Liquid beat me to it.) – Galastel Mar 3 at 23:45
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    @Liquid "How many elements can you focus on?" is opinion based. I do like the question but I just feel that for me the answer is "many" while for others the answer is "only one or two" and there is no objective way to separate these. Maybe if the question focused on how to choose the number of elements? – linksassin Mar 4 at 22:40
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How many elements can you focus on during worldbuilding?

From what I've gathered, it's either:

  • Detail almost everything, Tolkien style, even if this delays enormously the publication of your novel;
  • Focus on three-to-five subsets of the worldbuilding and gloss over the rest;
  • Find a really cool idea and build around it until you've squeezed all the potential from it.

The number of elements will depend on two points:

  1. As the author, do you want to flesh out the whole world because you love worldbuilding and writing a novel in a half-crafted world feels wrong to you? Go the Tolkien way and have fun.

  2. As the author, your aim is a well-crafted story in a world that makes sense. You don't need to create every little detail, only the important things. You just have to decide what is important.

I suggest you start with a long list of points that a full-fledged world-builder might follow, then categorise those points into unnecessary, necessary and fundamental.

Let's check some examples. Say the story involves the hero travelling to a different kingdom to find their long lost sibling. What points must be developed?

  • Politics: unnecessary in kingdom A, necessary for one town in kingdom B. Decide the town political hierarchy. Maybe write down the name of the king.

  • Fashion: fundamental. The hero is a clothes salesperson (hence easily travelling around) so make sure you know what kind of fabrics they have, and what type of fashion folks are after. Maybe you could devise typical headdressers that differentiate regions and the hero is so savvy that he gains notoriety by knowing where folks are from with a glance.

This approach usually means that you have to know your basic plot in advance, but it's not manadatory. You can choose new points to ignore, mention and develop as the story progressed and you decide something needs attention.

In the end it's not about a set number of points, it's about what is relevant for the story you're telling. It could be two points, it could be twenty, all fleshed out at different levels. Look at the story you want to tell and let it show you which points are important.

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The question might be mixing apples and oranges.

Worldbuilding is locations, cultures, history, politics...

The elements you need the reader to "buy" is not the general scenery, costumes, and language details of every exotic location – that's just worldbuilding. This is what Sanderson describes as an iceberg that is partly visible but mostly inferred.

"All the monks in this town wear blue stockings."
"The farmer who grows the largest cabbage becomes king for a year."
"The mountain people speak a different dialect than the river people."

Some of these are deliberately quirky or exotic. Maybe they will be worked into the plot for wonder or conflict, but for the most part this type of worldbuilding is about setting which is largely going to be dictated by the genre.

The caution against over-worldbuilding with this sort of background detail is that it can't possibly all be important to the plot, or work as a conflict to the characters. Worldbuilding disease is when these descriptions become infodumps because there is no subtle way to integrate all these details. At some point the scenery and culture is competing against the story and characters for "screen time" (or reader attention).

Stories which support extensive genre worldbuilding, often use simplified characters: hero archetypes, villains with uncomplicated motives, stock enemies and townsfolk, and familiar story structure like the Hero's Journey.

The "buy" is something so major it should be world-breaking.

Sanderson does not describe this very well, but he warns against "something ridiculous appearing on page 400". His examples in the video (around 26:00) is that Jedi is a funny word or the killer's mask is made of plastic – these are not buys (imho), but he emphasizes the problem is that the buy is so major that it will knock the reader out of their suspension of disbelief if it hasn't been supported by the narrative.

Writing Excuses discuss the 'buy" with more depth, so rather than say it is a "rule to be broken" it would be better to listen to the topic podcast How Weird is too Weird. They begin similar to Sanderson, saying if a buy is introduced too late in the story it can be rejected by the reader. The example is a story where dragons are the buy, and suddenly a sword you've had all along is magical – this feels a lot like deus ex machina, it's world-breaking without a story that builds to it.

Later they describe the buy in terms of supporting too many world-breaking elements:

"Women have bugs for heads" AND "gravity doesn't work the way you think it does".
"A POV warrior in a sci-fi battle turns out to be a giant 6-legged ferret, which isn't mentioned until much later in the novel."

They also suggest that the number of buys the reader will accept depends on the length of the story (1 buy for TV episodes and short stories, maybe more in longer stories), and genre – including a "new weird" genre.

Again the emphasis is that the reader will accept 1 big buy as the premise, but too many become arbitrary and the reader has no terra firma on which to stand. The problem is not too many competing elements or overloading the reader with details, but knocking them out of the story by abusing their suspension of disbelief.

Worldbuild-y details are fine (in moderation), but the reader will only accept a limited number of major world-breaking concepts in your premise.

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