Three Seashells and a Plumbus: When does worldbuilding get in the way of the story? by KA Masters

banner.jpegEnjoy an exclusive guest post from KA Masters, author of “Per Aquas As Astra,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.


Every author yearns to create a perfect setting for their story.  Whether a historical novel uses a foreign term, a new alien species is discovered in a sci-fi story, or a magical creature encountered in an epic fantasy, authors must carefully choose how much detail to add to their work. Authors across all these genres face the same problem: when does worldbuilding get in the way of the story?

When done well, worldbuilding enhances a reader’s experience, and helps them to not only immerse themselves in the story as well as empathize with the protagonist. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true; too many details can completely derail the reader’s interest. So when is too much too much?

A perfect example of successful worldbuilding is found in the “Three Seashells” scene in the 1993 movie Demolition Man. Despite the fact that the movie never explains how the Three Seashells function, John Spartan’s inability to properly use them and the humiliation he receives for his ignorance perfectly showcases the protagonist’s isolation from his new society and struggle to adapt to his surroundings.

Worldbuilding gone wrong can easily be seen in the satirical “How They Do It: The Plumbus” episode of Rick and Morty (Season 2, Episode 8: “Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate”). Instead of the myriad of gadgets that the brilliant but broken scientist Rick Sanchez uses seamlessly in each episode, the minute-long description of how plumbuses are made adds nothing to the plot, merely satirizing the ASMR-inducing “how it’s made” episodes popular in contemporary television and social media.

So when is too much too much? An author needs to carefully decide how much worldbuilding is necessary for their story. These new terms and elements should be introduced as organically as possible, with context clues instead of explicit descriptions of the new term’s purpose. They should be authentic to the protagonist’s world, and integrated into the story with nonchalance. In short, each new worldbuilding element should be Three Seashells, and not a plumbus.




KA Masters is a fantasy writer who specializes in twisted fairy tales and zombie-infested historic fiction. She attributes her passion for Greco-Roman mythology and Germanic folklore to her alma mater, Dickinson College. Her debut novel, The Morning Tree, was recently published by Indie Gypsy.




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