There are a lot of amazing things about being a novelist—things that make the tough parts worth it. The joy of bringing characters to life, torturing them because we can ... in worlds we create.
Talk about power.
Sometimes, though, we get carried away with that power. We name and define enough flora and fauna to cover the planet twice over. We develop a 700-year history of the monarchy. We formulate scientific theories to support complex technology that all runs on algae.
That's great. Fill reams of paper or gigabytes on your hard drive with every nuanced detail. Go for it.
The problem comes if we throw it at the reader ... all of it.
Don't get me wrong. I love a fully realized world. And I hate one that doesn't have enough detail, lacks internal consistency, and just doesn't feel real. But having that fleshed-out world as a foundation doesn't mean we have to spell it all out within the manuscript. If we do all the hard labor of working it out behind the scenes, it can seep naturally into the story.
Some details do deserve to make the page and add to the narrative. Personally, there are a couple of situations where I feel it's worth the word count to detail things in.
It's News to Me. This is pretty typical in speculative fiction genres. The protagonist enters a new country/society/galaxy/dimension. Everything will be new, so some detailing is only natural. In these situations, I always ask myself what my MC would notice first, and what would get glossed over until they're in deeper.
It's a Matter of Life or Death. Okay, maybe not that extreme. But I'm talking about aspects of world-building that are pertinent—even critical—in that particular moment. Make sure the diversion into explanation or description is properly motivated.
I'm Right and You're Wrong. This can be a fun one. Character #1 says, "Let's do ____ to accomplish this goal." Character #2 says, "You're a moron, that'll never work!" #1: "Yes it will. If we ____, ____, and ____, then ____ will happen." #2: "No way. Nuh-uh. The ______ of the ____ will never ____ _____ _____ ...." And so on. Hopefully done more artfully than that, but you get the idea. When there are legitimate differing views on how something in the world operates, that can be a decent time to work in some specifics.
I'm sure there are other situations and a variety of factors that can play into how much is too much and what approach is best. Some genres expect world-building to be handled a particular way. Some readers can drink in pages of geography and political history, while others will skim (if they don't just give up on the book altogether).
And who says it's just the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum that world-builds? Historical fiction may call on a setting we have some passing familiarity with, but it has to make it real just the same. Just about any novel has to establish at least a microcosm of a fictional world.
For myself, the sign of great world-building is when I don't notice it happening. Whether through description, dialogue, or more subtle means, I experience it and live in the world.
Do you have pet-peeves when it comes to world-building? Tips for pulling it off smoothly? I'd love to hear them.