So, I was sitting in front of my computer, like a useless bean bag, when something bugged into my mind:

Just how many stories got created from people, who used WB: SE to create a world?

There are also other mistakes, such as unnecessary details, and a very distant narrative, also the "PG-13 Rwanda Massacre Syndrome" (you can't make a global catastrophe child-friendly)

TL; Dr

Too much worldbuilding, too little everything = Bad story.

I don't know what you (the collective) think about this, so...

Does WB: SE hinder the creation of good stories, and slows down the workout of a concept, with its rigid, and possibly useless Q&A style?

Was WB: SE a good idea, or it was a mistake?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Somewhere in your question you make a reasonable point, that being that excessive attention to detail detracts greatly from the telling of a story. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Aug 8, 2017 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix For me, it was a bigger hit in the face, that the narrative remained way too distant. $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2017 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ This is not a place for building the narrative, this is a place for building the world. Finding the balance between narrative and detail is up to each individual author, it's not something we help with, though I do occasionally mention Chekhov in an answer. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Aug 8, 2017 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix The balance is between narrative and exposition. OK this is exactly what you said, except I called 'detail' exposition because that's what it is. The only amount of exposition needed is only that necessary to move the story forward. Your comment says more succinctly what I said in a long-winded answer. Well done, sir. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Aug 8, 2017 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ @a4android, possibly you went a little heavy on the exposition, I prefer to stick tightly to the narrative ;) $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Aug 8, 2017 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ You know you could actually make good points if you didn't insist on insulting people every time you type. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Aug 8, 2017 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ @James And who was I insulting this time? $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2017 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ You insulted the site and how it functions, which is to say, how we as the community function. Its unnecessary and does nothing but detract from the point you are trying to make... $\endgroup$
    – James
    Aug 8, 2017 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ @James It maybe has something to do with my reactive-armor questions getting closed constantly and marked as duplicates of my older question that only covered the plausibility of their preciseness and not power. But this one is definitely not the best place for developing concepts, as it would require loads of questions, some of which might even get labeled as duplicates. $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2017 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ PG-13 Rwanda Massacre Syndrome: I was a micropublisher for many years and disagree entirely with the idea that you need to see someone run over by a truck to understand why it's bad to be run over by a truck. Whether or not it makes sense to minimize or maximize something like violence has everything to do with (a) your intended audience and (b) why you're telling the story. Adding (e.g.) excessive violence on principle is the very essence of bad story telling. It means you care nothing at all about why you're telling the story and who you're telling it to. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Aug 11, 2017 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH If you attack my strawman again, I'll send the fibrous plant remnant army on you. The absolute soullessness of the news shouldn't be imitated in fiction, and in the same way, as you don't attempt to convey the feelings, then the whole thing falls flat. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2017 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ :-) Allow me to play my "reap the field" card. It takes less to make a 6-year-old feel bad than it does an adult and putting the factual images of the massacre before a child can have really nasty side effects. You're certainly not doing the child a favor, especially when the "war bad, tolerance good" meassage that might be the theme of your story is as easily conveyed to a 6-year-old without every grisly detail. Assuming every brutal truth is necessary to tell a story under all circumstances falls far more flat than considering your audience and purpose. (unless I've misunderstood you.) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Aug 11, 2017 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ We're still talking about your original question, which appears to suggest the structure of WB:SE results in PG-13 Rwanda Massacre Syndrome solutions, which you appear to believe are universally unacceptable, right? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Aug 11, 2017 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH No, I think that it unwillingly generates the feeling in writers, that all you need is a good world and characters, making them forget about decent writing. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2017 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ Ahhh. I see your point. It's one thing to modify your story to meet a need, but quite another to ignore the realities of what we might call the "negative side of living life." I once had to explain to a very young friend of mine that you can't have an ultra-powerful starship without some kind of compensating weakness or the game will ultimately become boring. I agree with your issue completely in that, without the capacity to critique what OPs are trying to do with the ideas they receive, they might feel that their successful use of WB:SE legitimizes a poor story. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Aug 11, 2017 at 21:02

3 Answers 3


I cannot answer on behalf of the WB collective as I am and we are not a hive mind. I will give instead my thoughts, impressions and opinions.

Is WB SE killing stories? Answer: Only if you let it.

Too much worldbuilding, too little everything = Bad story.

Agreed absolutely. The exemplar of this is Orion's Arm Universe Project. There the worldbuilding has reached the stage of choking out what could be interesting story scenarios by rigidly adhering to the fidelity and the axioms of its conceptual universe. The Project has been around long enough that its worldview remains stuck in the nineteen-nineties.

On the other hand, the real value of the Project is that it sets out, in detail, a considerable number of scientific and technological concepts that can be used by the canny science-fiction writer. You want faster-than-light travel via a wormhole network for your story? Well that's explained comprehensively, so borrow all you need and discard what you don't. In that sense, it is an excellent resource and should be used as such. Try setting a story there and it's too much hard work for little reward.

Now WB SE is itself an excellent resource for ideas about specific elements in building worlds and the frameworks for imaginary worlds. In essence it functions more as a test bed for assisting worldbuilders to determine whether elements in their worlds are workable or not. What it is not is a resource for developing stories.

Now in doing so, this process isn't perfect, the agents doing the sifting, sorting, sieving and selecting in terms of the criteria to determine whether a given question is suitable for WB SE, are fallible human beings. Too often I suspect many questions are closed not because they fail to meet WB's criteria but because the VTCers fail to understand the criteria themselves either because they have never read the criteria or if they have haven't understood them at all well.

The reasons I say that is that in one of my careers I was a decision-maker who had to determine matters governed by Acts of Parliament and the outcomes had to be based on legislative criteria. This is especially so when the decisions I made could be reviewed and overturned by internal review conducted by my department, review by the Office of the Ombudsman, and in court. Indeed I had to defend my decisions in court on only one occasion. This means I hold much more considered standards for making decisions. All the criteria have to be properly met and often the benefit of doubt has to be exercised.

However, the question & answer methodology here at WB SE isn't designed to build stories, even though there will inevitably be worldbuilding elements proposed in questions that do go towards constructing a story. For example, asking about "How to overthrow the emperor of the universe when she is protected by an impenetrable force-field?". This is likely to be closed as story-based. Whereas if the same question had been posed as "How to penetrate an impenetrable force-field?" then the question would treated as being about a worldbuilding element, in this case, the penetration of an impenetrable force-field.

What I am trying to suggest is that questions need to be framed so they can be asked in a way that fits WB's criteria for questions and answers. While a querent can do all they can about their questions to try and ensure they fit WB SE's criteria, they have no control over the criteria that may be applied to it in terms of whether it meets those criteria. This does mean quite often some WBers seem to be looking for criteria to close when they could have spent more time putting effort into improving questions.

Is this an easy process? Absolutely not!! Having tried to suggest ways of improving questions, it is too easy to fall into the habit of dismissing questions with a snarky comment. I have no doubt I have been as guilty of doing this as anybody else here. Thinking about how to improve questions is hard work. Much harder all too often than answering the question itself.

Does WB: SE hinder the creation of good stories, and slows down the workout of a concept, with its ... Q&A style?

Quotation above edited to remove unnecessarily emotive phrase.

My answer is only if you let it. Starting with the proposition that WB SE isn't in the business of fiction construction, it's possible to ask what is its relationship between storytelling and worldbuilding? Before I answer my question, we need to realize every story exists within its own fictional universe. Some facts and factors of the real world are excluded or omitted. For example, people usually don't die of cancer in a comedy, but they do in nitty-gritty realist fiction. On the other hand, they contain things that don't happen in reality: private detectives solve murders or people have super-powers.

Every story creates its own fictional world in which the events of the story can unfold according to the internal logic of both the story and the world within its events exist.

The trap some storytellers can fall into is in focusing too much on the worldbuilding, to the extent that overzealous adherence to a concept blocks the progression of the story.

How this can be circumvented I will illustrate by the following.

Kevin Grazier who was scientific adviser to Battlestar Galactica said he expected scientists who had watched the show to come up and admonish him for getting the science wrong. Instead what he found was they usually came up and said to him something along these lines: "Ah! I see what you did with this scientific concept. You assumed x, considered y, and ignored z." Smiling and nodding in agreement with what he had done.

Greg Egan said that when he was going to introduce a piece of nanotechnology into his fiction he could either spend the whole day calculating the thermodynamics to see if the concept worked or simply assume it worked and get on with the story. I chose the latter.1

Having noticed that Joe Haldeman creates most of the science-fictional devices in his fiction by postulating the rules about how they function I called this approach "Haldeman rules". For example, in his 1975 novel Mindbridge where the rules for the Faster-than-light teleportation technology are explicitly stated. When I mentioned this concept of a rules based system to Sean Williams, I remarked that he uses the same technique in his science-fiction too.

If a writer develops a set of Haldeman rules to cover their version of FTL travel, time machines, antigravity or thermonuclear cheese, then provided they stick to the rules this will engender internal logical consistency to make their story more plausible. It also makes the writer's task of worldbuilding easier.

Was WB: SE a good idea, or it was a mistake?

Strictly speaking, the tenses in that quotation should be present tense, but that's not important.

The answer is yes and no. For what it intends to do, WB SE may not succeed as well as it could, but what it actually achieves makes it invaluable. Its main failure is in fulfilling its own set of criteria comprehensively and most of the time. Where it does succeed is in creating an extensive resource of ideas, concepts and putative frameworks for worldbuilding. Many of its answers are exceptionally brilliant providing amazing insight into how worlds can be built, often overthrowing conventional misunderstandings, and helping to raise the standard of what goes into worldbuilding. Does it always succeed in doing so? Absolutely not, it is a fallible human institution and fallible human institutions often fail, but frankly they are all we have got.

If you expect WB to help you build a story, that's not what it's for. But if you use it as a way to guide you through the darkness, then it can be invaluable.

1 Greg Egan, personal communication.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't know why my previous comment was deleted. There are still words missing in some of your sentences... "This is especially [true?] when the decisions I made could be reviewed and overturned", "While a querent can [know?] all they can about their questions", "For example, in Mindbridge where the rules for the Faster-than-light teleportation technology are explicitly [stated?].", "but what it actually achieves this[<-- cut this word out?] makes it invaluable." I am pretty sure in my last comment I mentioned one more, but I can't find it right now... $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Aug 9, 2017 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Secespitus Many thanks for all your work and effort in spotting missing words & phrases. There is a technical term for this -- elision -- and I am a particularly case of it. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Aug 10, 2017 at 1:51

First off, I agree with a4android's statement that

Is WB SE killing stories? Answer: Only if you let it.

  • Some people have always got stuck in the process of building a world, never getting around to telling a story.

  • Some people are always going to get stuck in the process of building a world, never getting around to telling a story.

  • There have always been people who were so eager to tell a story that they didn't notice that the world that story is set in is horribly internally inconsistent, which typically is a great way to violently jar a reader out of suspension of disbelief.

Having a Stack Exchange site dedicated to problems encountered while building an imaginary world isn't going to appreciably change any of that.

However, having a place where questions can be asked, both about specific details ("if a frobnicator bafoogles, how would a dragon be able to fly through the warp field of a starship in a methane atmosphere?") and about larger chunks of the world ("given that dragons exist, how do I make sure it is reasonable to have warp-capable starships that can operate within an atmosphere?"), can help ensure that the world is internally consistent.

Note: can help ensure that the world is internally consistent. It certainly isn't a will ensure, nor will it prevent the telling of stories in internally consistent worlds.

  • Some people love building worlds just for its own sake. And that's fine.

  • Some people love telling stories, but also want to make sure the world which that story is set in is internally consistent. And that's fine.

  • Some people just want to get around to telling their story, and see worldbuilding as a necessary evil. And that's fine.

There are places on the Web where you can discuss worldbuilding issues in a more free-form style, if you prefer that. I personally like the Q&A format, in part precisely because writing a good question forces you to think about what you really need, and make that need explicit. It also encourages you to consider previous questions, and if similar or related answered questions exist, discuss how those relate to the one you are asking; at least, if you want to reduce the risk of yours being closed as a duplicate of an existing one. There have been many times when, in the process of actually formulating a question, I have realized that I have everything I needed to come up with the answer myself; both on Worldbuilding SE, other sites in the Stack Exchange network, and in completely different venues in life. And of course, there is How To Ask Questions The Smart Way.

Also, don't confuse knowing how your world works for using every such detail within a story, let alone describing every such detail within a story. I can set a story right here, coming up with me doing something at my desk. I have a decent idea of why my desk phone isn't floating out through the window, but that doesn't mean I need to explain within the story I'm telling the intricacies of gravitational attraction of bodies, subatomic repulsive forces, and orange juice. (Well okay, maybe not that last exactly.) But knowing a little about those things ensures that I won't accidentally write a story in which the desk phone suddenly does float through the window, which would likely be bound to make the reader go "what the eff?", completely forgetting about the point I am trying to tell by telling the story itself. Worldbuilding SE is really not very different from all that.

Sure, you (for some value of "you") can spend all your time on Worldbuilding SE, never getting around to telling a story. But that's hardly Worldbuilding SE's fault.

  • $\begingroup$ This really became much longer than I originally set out to write, but... $\endgroup$
    – user
    Aug 8, 2017 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ I know exactly how you feel. The same thing happened with my answer. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Aug 9, 2017 at 7:16
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    $\begingroup$ Part of why I've never asked a question on the main site is that in the process of formulating my question I ended up coming up with the answer. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Aug 9, 2017 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings Exactly. Even the process of formulating a good question, with clear descriptions of what you want, what you have tried, and what alleys (blind and otherwise) you have gone down, will (at least in my experience) typically be about 75% of the way to having an actual answer. More often than not, once you're done writing that out (if not before), you realize that all you really need is one little detail that you can look up yourself, and you don't really need to ask the question in the first place. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Aug 9, 2017 at 20:06

Let me get the bit where I think you've asked a good question in a really bad way out of the way first. The question raises important issues but the tone and the broken formatting detract seriously from the [rather limited] useful content.

In my opinion, and I'm pretty new here but an old hand at worldbuilding, the way this site is set up encourages those with questions they're willing to put into the public arena to really think about what they already know, what they want to know, and what they need to know. This has meant that a lot of questions I've been working on haven't made it as far as the page, I haven't needed to post after formulating something fit for asking, formulation alone has provided the answer. I agree that the format does slow down the process, and that's a good thing, slow considered work on a world saves hassles down the road. Also I doubt very much that this site has ever built entire worlds, that's not what it's for, it helps to hammer down outstanding issues not scratch build a fictional universe. You probably could do that now given the range of content available and it would save a good deal of time if you didn't want to make any effort, I'd find that quite dissatisfying but others might not.

While I agree that the world shouldn't be the story I feel that the world is essential to any good story. Regardless of how much worldbuilding, geographically or historically, one chooses to display in a finished work without a clear, consistent picture of how it fits together and how it effects the story's participants inconsistencies build up and the story falls down. Anything that helps one to get that clear, consistent world put together is going to help not hinder good storytelling.

I'm not getting into realism either sex or violence in fiction that's not a viable question in my opinion because there's no widely applicable answer.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site (and meta)! $\endgroup$ Aug 15, 2017 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio Thanks, I'm still getting orientated because I suck at navigating even simple websites, only found meta this morning, found chunks of the help section I'd been looking for from day one a couple of hours later than that. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Aug 15, 2017 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ If there are things you're having trouble finding, please feel free to ask questions tagged "support" here on meta and we'll help you out! It's helpful to have the perspective of new users, to know what is and isn't easily found. We can't control all of it here (a lot comes from the SE platform), but we might be able to make some things easier if we just know which ones. Thanks! $\endgroup$ Aug 15, 2017 at 19:43

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