Building a world, whether a simple stage, a vast universe, or anywhere in between, is hard work. Worse, it’s work that never really ends. One author, one team of writers, one group of players—none of these could hope to create a full-featured world in anything approaching a reasonable time. We have to cut corners at every turn, just to make the whole thing possible, let alone manageable.
Where to cut those corners is the hard part. Obviously, everything pertinent to the story must be left in. But how much else do we need? Only the creator of the work can truly answer that one. Some stories may only require the most rudimentary worldbuilding. Action movies and first-person shooters, for example, don’t need much more than sets and (maybe) some character motivations. A sprawling, open-world RPG has to have a bit more effort put into it. The bigger the “scale”, the more work you’d think you need.
Level of detail
But that’s not necessarily true. In computer graphics programming, there’s a concept called mipmapping. A large texture (like the outer surface of a building) takes up quite a chunk of memory. If it’s far enough away, though, it’ll only be a few pixels on the screen. That’s wasteful—and it slows the game down—so a technique was invented where smaller versions of the texture could be loaded when an object was too far away to warrant the “full-sized” graphics. As you get closer, the object’s texture is progressively changed to better and better versions, until the game engine determines that it’s worth showing the original.
The full set of these textures, from the original possibly down to a single pixel, is called a mipmap. In some cases, it’s even possible to control how much of the mipmap is used. On lower-end machines, some games can be set to use lower-resolution textures, effectively taking off the top layer or two of the mipmap. Lower resolution means less memory usage, and less processing needed for lighting and other effects. The setting for this is usually called the level of detail.
Okay, so that’s what happens with computer graphics, but how, you might be wondering, does that apply to worldbuilding? Well, the idea of mipmapping is a perfect analogy to what we need to do to make a semi-believable world without spending ages on it. The things that are close to the story need the most detail, while people, places, and events far away can be painted in broad, low-res strokes. Then, if future parts of the story require it, those can be “swapped out” for something more detailed.
The level of detail is another “setting” we can tweak in a fictional work. Epic fantasy cries out for great worldbuilding. Superhero movies…not so much. Books have the room to delve deeper into what makes the world tick than the cramped confines of film. Even then, there’s a limit to how much you should say. You don’t need to calculate how many people would be infected by a zombie plague in a 24-hour period in your average metropolis. But a book might want to give some vague figures, whereas a movie would just show as many extras as the producers could find that day.
Branches of the tree
The level of detail, then, is more like a hard cutoff. This is how far down any particular path you’re willing to go for the story. But you certainly don’t need to go that far for everything. You have to pick and choose, and that’s where the mipmap-like idea of “the closer you are, the more detail you get” comes in.
Again, the needs of the story, the tone you’re trying to set, and the genre and medium are all going to affect your priorities. In this way, the mipmap metaphor is exactly backwards. We want to start with the least detail. Then, in those areas you know will be important, fill in a bit more. (This can happen as you’re writing, or in the planning stages, depending on how you work.)
As an example, let’s say you’re making something like a typical “space opera” type of work. You know it’s going to be set in the galaxy at large, or a sizable fraction of it. Now, our galaxy has 100 billion stars, but you’d be crazy to worry about one percent of one percent of that. Instead, think about where the story needs to be: the galactic capital, the home of the lost ancients, and so on. You might not even have to put them on a map unless you expect their true locations to become important, and you can always add those in later.
In the same vein, what about government? Well, does it matter? If politics won’t be a central focus, then just make a note to throw in the occasional mention of the Federation/Empire/Council, and that’s that. Only once you know what you want do you have to fill in the blanks. Technology? Same thing. Technobabble about FTL or wormholes or hyperspace would make for usable filler.
Of course, the danger is that you end up tying yourself in knots. Sometimes, you can’t reconcile your broad picture with the finer details. If you’re the type of writer who plans before putting words on the page, that’s not too bad; cross out your original idea, and start over. Seat-of-the-pants writers will have a tougher time of it. My advice there is to hold off as long as feasible before committing to any firm details. Handwaving, vague statements, and the unreliable narrator can all help here, although those can make the story seem wishy-washy. It might be best to steer the story around such obstacles instead.
The basic idea does need you to think a little bit beforehand. You have to know where your story is going to know how much detail is enough. Focus on the wrong places, and you waste effort and valuable time. Set the “level of detail” dial too low, and you might end up with a shallow story in a shallower world. In graphics, mipmaps can often be created automatically. As writers, we don’t have that luxury. We have to make all those layers ourselves. Nobody ever said building a world was easy.