An important part of science-fiction and fantasy is the world that the story takes place in; the setting. Well, actually, the setting is perhaps one of the most important parts of any story, regardless of genre, but it’s a bit more in-depth when you’re dealing with SF/F. Why?
Because it’s not real.
With the rise of the internet, we have all the information in the world literally at our fingertips. For example, I’ve never been anywhere near Spain before, but if I read a book set in Barcelona, and I see something that doesn’t make sense, I can just look it up. Type a few keywords into Google, read a few articles, and I’m done.
Except, the internet is new. Very new. Before the internet, chances were good that your readers would have no idea what you were talking about, so you had to describe it to them. In great detail too, I might add. Hence the long, complicated, boring descriptions common to Victorian-era books.
Luckily, this is a trend of the past. Whenever I see paragraphs upon paragraphs of unnecessary description, my eyes tend to glaze over. It’s the reason why I write my books set in the 19th century in a Victorian-ish style. Retro-modern style, I like to call it. It has the archaic word choices and flowery expressions appropriate to that time period, but the unnecessary descriptions and explanations have been cut out.
But when we’re dealing with SF/F, there is nothing to look up. The place isn’t real. You can’t find out why the Malbidians from planet Barda all use their left hands during religious ceremonies, and you can’t just Google why all the trees on planet Orion 2 are purple instead of green.
Hence, the author needs to describe it for you. This kind of expository description is called, in most things I’ve read, “world-building”. It’s a pretty fitting description. After all, you are essentially building a whole new world from the foundation up. If you’re ever writing a new planet for a SF/F book and get stuck, you now know how it feels to be a god. (Hint: It’s not easy.)
This is also why SF/F novels are, generally, a bit longer than other novels. You need room for all that backstory and world-building.
Now, that doesn’t mean go crazy and fill up the first 100 pages with nothing but exposition and backstory and description. You still need an interesting, coherent, meaningful story with things like plot and character. A cool world will not make a whole story, but it might make a good story just a bit more interesting.
I don’t want to hear all about how this super strange planet came to be, how the atoms were all caught together in the gravity from a nearby black hole, how life came to be over billions of years… blah, blah, blah.
I don’t care. Why should I care about this planet? You’ve got a cool, lovable hero running away from the evil empire that wants to take over the world? Great, where is it? Page 200?! No, put that on page 1. You can deal with the complicated black hole planet exposition later, after I actually give a crap about these people.
I realize this is tricky. You’ve got a great planet! How will readers know all about the culture if you don’t put it all in? Well, here’s the thing: they don’t need to.
The writer should, as a general rule, know more about the world than he/she puts into the story. Keep it, save it on a hard drive, write it down, whatever. Keep notes on that cool springtime festival and that cool summer ritual, but unless it’s important to the plot, we don’t actually need to see it. Then, maybe, if someone asks, you can drop the notes in as sort of bonus trivia, like lore in a video game. It’s not necessary to play the game and enjoy it, but if you’re a role-play nerd (like I am), it can make it a bit more interesting.
Things like maps can help a whole bunch, too. Pretty much every Fantasy novel I’ve picked up over the past few years has had a map in the front cover that you can flip to for quick reference. I find this not only helpful in case you get turned around in the book, but also unobtrusive, and it doesn’t tend to throw the reader out of the story like having to Google something might. After all, if you were in a strange land, wouldn’t you keep a map of the area with you?
I’ve seen this done most often with countries and continents (Middle-Earth, Westeros, etc.), but if your setting is smaller, I don’t see why the map can’t be smaller. My stories take place almost exclusively inside one city, and I’m planning to insert a map as soon as I find a good source. And JK Rowling had a map of Hogwarts castle, so…
Writing and world-building can be fantastic (no pun intended) if done right. It’s just a matter of actually doing it right. Creating our own settings is difficult. If we didn’t enjoy it, we would write something simpler. So why not go to the trouble of writing well?