World Building in Literature

How many ways can an author attempt to build a world within a books plot? The simplest way could be to just let the story begin within the context of the real world. Let the setting start within that of the actual world and edit from there. Some authors choose to write entirely new worlds, new time lines, or even alternative physics like those found in the Star Wars franchise. Regardless of how different this world’s history is from our own, authors must address their world in a way that allows readers to adjust to the new setting and understand enough of how that world works so that they can follow the plot. However, not everything one reads may seem like it was necessary to further the plot of the story.

Recently, I have begun Colson Whitehead’s Zone One for Professor McCoy’s English 432 course. At the point in time when I begin writing this post, I am only about twenty or so pages into the plot. Although I cannot say the following is applicable to the book as a whole, I will say that the following is the case for what I have read so far. Whitehead seems to narrate this work expository format, providing readers with detailed descriptions of the world of Zone One, even going as far to provide details that do not seem relevant to the plot. For example, when depicting some of the first zombies shown in the text, Whitehead gives every little detail that can illustrate the zombies’ appearance stating, “they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial splashes and kernels of gore” (16). Just to show you how detailed this depiction is, this is only a part of the page and a half description for these zombies. Before I go on, I am not trying to describe this technique as neither a good nor bad illustration. Although it is long and adds “unnecessary” details such when he mentions that the zombies’ dress suits were “sensible”, it provides a vivid depiction of what the author wants us to see. 

When I first began reading through the zombies’ description, I only thought negatively of the epistolary technique. I even wondered how anyone could get through reading such a long description that doesn’t even seem to add to the plot. But then I realized what I mentioned earlier. This may not add to the plot, but it adds to the aesthetic. Just because some details may not drive the plot forward, it can be necessary to help the audience visualize what they’re reading. For a literary world to be comprehensive, it needs a good mixture of plot details and aesthetic details. Is there a definitive ratio of aesthetic detail and plot detail? Who’s to say? Does one exist? Probably, but not as a definite ratio. If such a ratio does exist, it probably depends on the writing style of the author, the content of the work, and how close in representation the created world is to the actual world. Even though I can’t answer, nor do I think there is a definite answer, what does everyone else think? Could there be a defined ratio made like a template for all novels, or does it depend on all the conditions I mentioned earlier? Conversely, is this idea too complex to be categorized by such simple terms?

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