The Work of Worldbuilding

In the past, I’ve given you guys some general advice on writing: how to get started, how to keep going, how to find inspiration. Now I want to start doing some articles on the most important part of the writing process, and that’s the part where you actually sit down and craft your story. I want to start by focusing on the large-scale steps, and then get down into the minutiae of putting words to paper. And what’s more large-scale than building an entire universe?

As a fiction writer who specializes mostly in fantasy/sci-fi, I tend to do a bit more worldbuilding than I would if I was writing a small-town drama. We tend to associate worldbuilding with the task of constructing realities entirely different from our own, with no sense of the familiar. But every story, no matter what the genre or scope, requires some worldbuilding. If you’re working with fantasy or science-fiction, you’ll need to come up with things like kingdoms, planets, creatures, and technology. But what about a realistic spy thriller? Some worldbuilding will be required for that, too. You’ll need info about the state of politics within and between nations, the key figures/events in recent history, the workings of how special intelligence is gathered and analyzed. How about a soapy drama or romance? You might need to work out the details of daily life in your setting and how well or how badly it functions as a community. The amount of info required for worldbuilding varies from project to project, but there’s always a need to do something. And we should because worldbuilding is what keeps your narrative grounded. It establishes what the rules of the story are, physically and culturally, and what is considered normal for your characters. If you only have the inklings of a plot, fleshing out the conditions of your world and the relationships within it could even give you ideas for potential conflict.

In this article, I’m going to give some worldbuilding advice that can apply to any project. Posts about worldbuilding for specific genres can come later if you guys would like to see them. For now, here are some general pointers for worldbuilding!

  • Figure out how big to go, then go bigger. When you’re starting a new project, the first thing you need to decide on is the scope of your narrative. Are you writing an epic adventure that spans multiple countries and/or planets? Or maybe it’s more contained, something that takes place within a single town or even a single building. The size of your story determines how much worldbuilding will be required. You’ll need to pin down the details that will have an immediate impact on your plot and characters. It’s just as important, however, to make sure that you know more about your setting than what directly appears in your story. If you’re writing about a single town, expand your scope to include neighboring areas. If you’re writing a political story about the turmoil within a single government, put down some notes on the other prominent nations in that world and what they’re up to. It’s my belief that a writer should always know more about their own world than what the readers get to see. Having a larger world to work with gives a story context. Hinting at a world’s rich history and the various forces affecting it makes it seem more fully realized: it existed long before this particular snapshot of its timeline, and it will continue to exist long after. If you’rethinking about writing a series, doing more worldbuilding than you initially need is almost a requirement. Think of it as a rulebook for what you have in your setting and what it’s possible to add.
  • Make your encyclopedia. The worldbuilding process is kind of like making your own little Wikipedia, where you are the sole editor and every article is about a different country/city/faction/creature/etc. in your world. This kind of interpretation has been around for a while. In television writing, for example, it’s common to have a “bible” summarizing key details of the story and setting. When I worldbuild, I’m writing an encyclopedia or reference guide for my setting. Let’s demonstrate this with a project I’m currently working on. In my computer are two files, one called “[setting] creature encyclopedia” and the other called “[setting] faction encyclopedia.” In both of them are multiple headers on a variety of subjects within my setting, with short articles about each one. Sometimes I attempt to write from an in-universe perspective, to get a feel for the tone and attitude of the world. But that’snot necessary: what’s important is that you have the information on your world compiled in one easily accessible location.
  • It’s okay to not use everything. This is a point that goes along with the point about making more information than you directly need. When you’ve done a lot of worldbuilding, it’s tempting to try and cram as much of that work as you can into the story proper. Sometimes that can be done well: I’ve read several enjoyable books that can be described as “worldbuilding pieces,” where the focus is more on the setting than the plot and characters. If your concern is more on those elements, however, then it’s best to let the worldbuilding details take a back seat the majority of the time. Not everything you’ve come up with will have a place in the story, and that’s okay. Insisting on unnecessary details will slow down your narrative. Address what is relevant, and leave the more distant stuff in the background where it belongs.
  • Don’t let worldbuilding be your procrastination. If you insist on hammering out every detail of your world before you start your story, you will never actually finish your story. Heck, you may never even start it. Worldbuilding can be fun, but if you aren’t careful, it can also become an excuse for you to avoid starting or working on your initial draft. This is why I’m doing my first draft and my worldbuilding simultaneously. I worked out enough details to support my initial premise, and then I moved on to plot and characters. While doing this, I was also setting aside time to continue working on my world notes. As I move forward in the first draft, my notes become more extensive and fleshed out. Some of them will find their way into this current draft, some of them will have to wait for revisions and somemay have to wait for a different story altogether. But simply knowing more about my world is already helping out my first draft a lot. Worldbuilding isn’ta prerequisite step that you have to complete before you’re allowed to write. Instead, it’s something that should be growing and evolving along with your narrative.

Before we go, I’d like to draw your attention to some online worldbuilding resources that have proved useful to me over the years. All these options are free to use (at least in their basic form).

  • 30 Days of Worldbuilding: Designed for use in the months leading up to NaNoWriMo, this guide by Stephanie Cottrell Bryant consists of short daily exercises that one can use to develop a setting. Each day focuses on a different aspect of the world, starting with the broad strokes like climate, geography and races, then moving down to things like economy, education, culture and finally plot/character.
  • Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions: This questionnaire was developed by author Patricia C. Wrede and basically serves as a series of broad prompts that can be structured in any way the author likes. While designed for developing a fantasy setting, it can be used for any genre.
  • WorldAnvil: This is a cool website that takes the “encyclopedia” method to its logical conclusion by helping you construct a wiki for your setting. Once you set up the basic details about your world, you’re given the ability to set up additional articles using a wide variety of templates. There are more advanced options available through paid membership tiers, but most of the resources an author would need are already available in the free version.

I hope you enjoyed this article. The next one I plan to do in this little series will focus on how to develop and outline a plot. See you next time!

— Dana

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