Worldbuilding is the process by which an author introduces a reader to the world of his novel. All novels have some elements of worldbuilding – they must explain how the world in the story works and what its laws and limitations are – but some genres are heavier with this exposition material. In particular, science fiction and fantasy tend to have more complex or larger worlds which are often very different from our own. So in these genres, the author typically must spend more time introducing his readers to the world and familiarizing them with how it works.
Some literary critics and readers take issue with the idea of worldbuilding as a separate idea from the general craft of storytelling. These people claim that a good grasp of worldbuilding is essential to telling a good story, just as being able to craft story elements is an important aspect of worldbuilding. They argue that worldbuilding is really just a part of writing well, and that authors whose worlds are not as fleshed out or believable are simply bad at writing. I disagree.
Many writers attempt to build fictional worlds that “work”: that is to say, they make sense in their own context and within the framework of the story. Many fail at this, but this doesn’t automatically make them bad writers or indicate a poor grasp on the concepts of storytelling. Just look at one of the scores of YA fantasies on bookstore shelves. You’ll likely find that many of the authors seem to have a good understanding of of storytelling conventions – how to make the characters compelling and the plot well-paced – but they often lack skill in the area of worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is extremely complex. Some key elements writers should be aware of when creating a world include history, language, culture, traditions, lineage, and level of advancement. In fantasy, for instance, the society in the story often has a very limited understanding of science and technology, while in science fiction, the society is usually fairly advanced in technology. I can go into more detail in the best ways to write each aspect of worldbuilding in future articles if requested.
Perhaps the best way to learn worldbuilding is to read many books whose authors have mastered this skill. Lord of the Rings, Dune, 1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, and Fahrenheit 451 are all excellent examples of books with very distinctive worlds which are set up well in the context of each story. In general, learning how to build fictional worlds is part of learning to write well, but it is only one of many important skills.