In contrast to “worldbuilding,” I’ll offer the term “worldconjuring.” Worldconjuring does not attempt to construct a scale model in the reader’s bedroom. Worldconjuring uses hints and literary magic to create the illusion of a world, with the reader working to fill in the gaps. Worldbuilding imposes, worldconjuring collaborates.
Let me make a necessarily incomplete analogy to another platform. In painting, worldbuilding is like Renaissance art that attempts to create realistic figures even when they are cherubs, demons, or god. Worldconjuring is a spectrum of other techniques: Matisse implying dancing figures with a few swoops of the brush, Picasso creating a chaos of objects to summon the horrors of Guernica, Magritte shattering our vision with impossible scenes. We should enjoy realistic paintings, but we shouldn’t impose their standards on every school of art.
Worldbuilding is The Silmarillion, worldconjuring is ancient myths and fairy tales. (In fairy tales, we don’t learn the construction techniques of the witch’s gingerbread house or the import/export routes of evil dwarves.) Worldbuilding is a thirty page explanation of the dining customs of beetle-shaped aliens, worldconjuring is Gregor Samsa turning into a beetle in the first sentence without any other fuss.
All stories may need to conjure a world, but only a few benefit from building one.
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