I love it, I really do. Inventing worlds, creating monsters, and portraying the fantastic. These things are pure joy.
That said, it’s a freakin trap!
What do I mean?
Well, it’s seductive. It’s much easier to write background material than to actually write a story. After all, the only audience is you so why the hell waste time on polish, presentation, or coherence when you can just type away? These documents are your personal notes so it doesn’t really matter. That’s why there’s a certain comfort in creating encyclopedic write-ups on obscure and “super cool” things that you’ve come up with.
Hours, days, months, even years can be spent down this rabbit hole of invention all before you get the first paragraph of a real story penned.
That’s when the true horror of the trap reveals itself. You can spend so much time exploring your fascinating invention that you have no more stories to tell. You wrote all this background history where crazy awesome things happened but you resolved the conflicts before your story started. Or, perhaps worse, you were so in love with exploration that you didn’t write inherent conflicts and story hooks that would create an actual narrative.
By the time you feel you’re “ready” to start your actual story there’s nothing left in the tank.
So if that’s the danger, why bother with world building at all? Why not seat of the pants the whole setting while you tell your story? Why not boldly plumb the depths of your imagination while in the grips of your daring tale?
Some people do that very thing and it CAN work for them. However that creates a couple of different potential traps that, in my experience, are a just as deadly. You can write yourself into a story ending corner or you can be paralyzed out of a flow state because you can’t think of what’s around the next bend when the characters are doing their natural thing.
The truth is that you will always need to invent stuff for your world and it will burn mental cycles. It’s part of the whole telling a story thing. Given my focus on trying to stay in a flow state I’d much rather burn those cycles when I don’t have to stay in the moment. I’d rather know how the nanites in the protagonist’s blood work before the bad guy hacks them. However that leaves me vulnerable to the trap and that cannot stand.
The solution, like for most things, is probably in following a middle of the road approach. For a specific idea I’ll do a small amount of world building or world refining along with structure work before starting the actual story. However I start writing the story when I’m only 20-50% through the building bit. That way I can work on tone, mood, and voice without falling into the endless building trap and actually generate content in the process.
I just can’t do a seat of the pants story to completion. I’ve tried. Anything more than say 500 words needs some outlining and building before I can get it into a reliably complete-able state.
Silver lining though if you have fallen into the world building trap: All that stuff you built? You can strip mine the hell out of it to make other stories so the effort isn’t totally lost.