World-building can be fun for us imaginative types. Escaping to an exotic land is exciting and draws us to wonder how others might live if certain extraordinary conditions were a part of their day-to-day lives. As important as world-building is to set the right stage upon which your drama is based, it’s important not to spend too much time writing about details that don’t ultimately contribute to the story you’re telling. Just like a toilet — everyone uses some version of one, but it’s only important if it affects the plot.
Show, don’t tell
Have you written volumes about the ancient aboriginal culture whose dedication to various demonic gods of war developed an obsession with the color red, which is why one of your supporting protagonists wear’s a red watch, thanks to being 1/8th aboriginal?
World-building geeks would love that kind of detail, but more than 95 percent of your readers don’t care unless it has a direct impact on the plot. While it might be fun to explore the depths of your landscape’s rich and varied history, don’t lose yourself in it so that you waste time writing about things that will never impact your story.
Show the reader by describing objects in realtime. If something must be explained, have the characters do that as much as possible, so that it fits within the idea that you’re following the characters, instead of some invisible detail-obsessed narrator who would rather play with the toys than run with the boys.
This isn’t to say that you can’t outline certain cultural details that have indirect impacts on your plot. If a certain gender performs a certain task within your culture, it’s important to work out those cultural norms so your protagonists behave accordingly, or encounter resistance to their efforts, as appropriate.
Perhaps a lack of a certain foodstuff in this region has led to small microevolutionary changes in biology, or perhaps a traditional distrust of eating a particular animal because the variety that lives near them is poisonous, has an important impact on your story based on how certain characters behave. These can be explored appropriate to their impact, but need not be discussed at length if only a minor hiccup to the flow of events.
Focus on the story
As interesting as islands floating in a sky due to some complex magnetic variance thanks to “unobtanium” might be in movies like Avatar, the truth is they’re irrelevant if they don’t impact your characters’ actions. They make great set pieces IF they support great DRAMA.
Perhaps your antagonist chases your protagonist through caves that mask complex sounds and make voices appear far from where the people are, or those floating islands where a big fight occurs that creates an amazing piece for conflict to play out. Merely having interesting pieces means little if they don’t change, slow or otherwise affect your storyline.
While it’s important to set the environment, focus on details as to how they create problems for your plot, not merely because they exist.
Forget the toilets
WHO is the most important detail of your story. WHY is the second and HOW is the third. However fascinating it might be for purple trees to sing songs that put mammals to sleep so they can eat them, your reader will only connect with WHO encounters them, WHY they’re there and HOW they overcome these dangerous plants.
Or consider something as simple as toilets. If you’re working on a detail as simple as how characters handle scat in a plot that doesn’t depend on it, then stop wasting your time. Everyone shits, and it’s okay to know that Tribe A and Village B have widely different ways of handling mammal waste without spending your time outlining it to your reader, or even wasting time outlining it to yourself. While it’s an important truth that shit rolls downhill, only the details that actually affect how characters deal with it are important to put into your story.
People connect with people, so focus on your characters and what drives them through change and difficulty. I can’t see myself in an amorphous robot that makes no mistakes — I relate to the idealist who finds out the world isn’t so simple as he once believed, but that his decision to cling to hope and press through difficulty drives him toward a brighter future.
As you write, pay attention to detail, but ignore the toilets.