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So you’re starting a story, probably Sci-fi or Fantasy and you want to absolutely crush your worldbuilding, ideas pour out of you like a broken faucet…
OR, you’re starting a new Sci-fi/Fantasy story and maybe, you’re not so sure how much worldbuilding you need to do…
OR, you’re starting a real-world, modern day story, NOT Sci-fi/Fantasy and you know you don’t have to do any worldbuilding whatsoever…. right?
There’s some awful rough advice out there when it comes to worldbuilding in fiction. Either it’s laughably vague, “Hey man, just think of what it’s like to live in your world and write that,” or, it goes the other way, delivering a step-by-step guide to building a world from the ground up. I don’t know if those folks are just trying to sell books and classes or what?
Just implying you have to do that; sending fledgling writers on an odyssey of the minutiae.
~ Ooof ~
Let me tell you before we even begin–If you’re looking for step-by-step details on how to build your world: first let’s make an economy, next let’s develop your world’s politics, then we’ll capture your world’s unique weather, lol, Jesus…
You won’t find any of that direction here.
In my own work, I would never want someone else to dictate the specific details I need to incorporate in my worldbuilding. I want personal ownership of the details I populate my world with. Details that come from a place of personal experience and emotional attachment, framed within the unique context of my own story.
Using some other guy’s suggested details is simply going to create uninspired, derivative work and quite possibly distract you and the readers from the important elements of your story.
While I’m not going to give you specific details you must include in your worldbuilding, I AM going to show you, an actual, practical approach to worldbuilding. With my method you don’t pull your worldbuilding details out of your arse (or somebody else’s arse), YOU deliberately choose them because your narrative calls for it.
I’m going to teach you how to use your own story fundamentals to define your world, while at the same time, use your worldbuilding to further shape your story. A self-perpetuating cycle that creates a stronger story the longer you work with it, ultimately leading you to a flawless blend of story and setting.
Is your glass mostly full when it comes to worldbuilding, grasshopper?
Well, it’s time for a palate cleanser, give me that glass… gulp, gulp, gulp.
~~ Shit, that wasn’t Tequila. You actually had water in your glass? Shesh, noobs. ~~
Is Worldbuilding Necessary?
You’re probably thinking, or have been taught (especially in Sci-fi and Fantasy), absolutely…
First, let’s clear the air when it comes to worldbuilding.
Every story has some level of worldbuilding built into the cake. It‘s just the nature of fiction, even if you’re not consciously trying to define it. You can’t really make a story without some sort of world invovled.
We’re gonna ignore the auto worldbuilding done by creative brain for the sake of this article.
Next, is a lighter approach to worldbuilding. You acknowledge it, maybe throw together some notes or even a couple of pages, but that’s about it. Ain’t no story that can’t get a boost of polish from this approach.
My double negatives say that’s a good thing to do. Though you may not choose to seriously tackle worldbuilding, just getting clarity on the elements, recognizing and defining them helps shape a narrative. If you don’t want to seriously unpack worldbuilding, this light approach will give your story a little shot of Vitamin B.
Next, is a serious approach to worldbuilding. Prioritizing it, if you will. Deliberately, planning and plotting to fully connect the worldbuilding to the narrative and vice versa… but NOT writing up a 500 page grimoire.
If your worldbuilding is important, this is where you want to live.
Lastly, is the epic, deep dive approach to worldbuilding. This is pool most newer writers line up to splash around in. This is the approach where you actually write up that 500 page grimoire. The mantra is usually something like, “Franchise, Franchise, Franchise! Games, comics, movies, animes! This world is gonna be so big and awesome, we’re gonna do it all!”
Because I see so many newer writers fall into this epic worldbuilding trap, this last one is where I want to start off.
Look, you want to spend three years of your life:
- Detailing out all the political parties in the Galactic Federation.
- Breaking down the seasons on each of the twenty-four main planets.
- Drawing up schematics to every single primary firearm, making up fictional physics and power sources.
- Creating a cooking guide of the top two-hundred dishes as noted by intergalactic Yelp.
- Establishing complete languages so super nerds can scream at each other at conventions and nobody knows what the hell they’re saying…
If that’s your thing, if that’s your passion in writing… Go for it!
I mean seriously, in writing you gotta do what you love, so if you love getting lost in those details, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
But be forewarned…
Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.
Ok, not really, I’m just being dramatic to make a point…
but if you’re considering deep diving an epic effort to worldbuild your latest story, something to rival the complexity and depth of the Star Trek universe, or Star Wars, Dune, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, whoever… realize, you might be putting the cart before the horse.
There are some serious drawbacks to the epic level worldbuilding of some of your favorite IPs (IPs that most of the time, developed their full scope of worldbuilding over many installements and years, mind you).
So, let me do what no other worldbuilding writing article will do and first try to convince you, not to do the epic, deep dive.
Seriously, there is a BIG problem with deep diving your world building.
In fact, the bigger you build your world, the bigger the problem becomes.
Once you have your 300 page Encylopedia Arrakis… are you really going to remember even half of it?
It may sound simple, obvious, and stupid… but believe me, it’s 100% true.
Because make no mistake, defining the world, then forgetting exactly what you defined and where you defined it, is a sure fire way to make a complete and total mess of things. Forgetting the details you’ve laid out pretty much guarantees inconsistencies, contradictions, and other logical breaks in the work.
But wait, there’s more!
When you create your epic masterpiece of worldbuilding there’s another person who needs to know every single bit of it… just as well as you do (or in a lot of cases, better).
And let me tell you something… Where you might shell out $3000 for an edit on your Max Payne sequel novel.
There ain’t no way, no editor is charging that same amount when they have to FIRST read your 300 page Encylopedia Arrakis, THEN cross-reference every damn worldbuilding detail between it and your manuscript. (I know, cause I’ve had to do this myself. Thank God I love Sci-fi and Fantasy.)
So long $3k, hello $6k or more.
And where an editor will just outright charge more for such complex scripts the fact of the matter is that heavy-worldbuilding scripts almost always have more rounds of edits.
That’s just the nature of the beast.
And you might have guessed it, I’m not even done yet delivering the bad news, lad.
Despite your 300 page Encylopedia Arrakis, you’re not going to cover everything. You’re still going to have gaps, holes, and things you never thought of (which of course, “fans” will be more than happy to point out after you publish).
Reality is just too complex. Maybe infinitely complex. And fiction, no matter how hard you crack it;
Fiction implies reality, it isn’t and never will be, reality.
Did someone in the back just yell quick example?
You’ve got flying cars in your world. Cool.
Hey, you even broke down they’re powered by a Mister Fusion and Flux Capacitor. Man you love them details!
But ummm, where does the Flux Capacitor come from? I mean, did you remember to note down that it uses a rare metal mined only in one part of Africa?
What about the fact that that metal is mined exclusively by slave labor?
Did you record the conflicts and embargoes between Africa and other nations surrounding this metal production?
What about the fraudulent banking sectors that sprung up around this metal and its socio-political pressures?
I could go on and on and on.
The more questions you answer… the more questions pop up. Like Tribbles in a grain bin.
Obviously, when you sit down to worldbuild, you’re not actually expecting to “build it all,” but that leaves a few glaring problems.
First, how do you even know when to stop going down this never-ending rabbit hole? Second, when you do stop, wherever that is, it’s like painting this absolutely beautiful classical painting, only you suddenly stop and the rest of the extremely large canvas sits totally blank.
You hope that you, or the readers get so distracted with the main body of the painting their attention never wanders over to the unfinished part… but there it is, big and empty.
Third, the more complex you make your world, the more you build, ultimately, the more restrictions you put on your narrative and the easier it is to paint yourself into a corner. For example, let’s say you worldbuild a culture that is split between two races that hate each other and there’s a strong economic divide. When you visit this world to create a story, you might want to create a story that has NOTHING TO DO with racism and economic classes, but you baked these elements into your world. You’ll have to really work extra hard to make sure these thematic elements don’t overshadow your real Master Theme.
Take into consideration the catch-22, the more you do “build it,” the uglier those original two points I already mentioned get, the whole epic deep dive gets really sticky, really quick!
Alright, I’m gonna hit with one last anti-epic worldbuilding point and it’s a purely practical one.
You ain’t gonna like this one at all…
You spend three years (or three months, whatever) putting together your epic worldbuilding story… you publish, pump it till the lever breaks, and in the end your story goes nowhere. Frank talk y’all, a lot of writing is failure and rejection. So building out some crazy epic worlds, at least when you’re a relatively unknown writer, there’s a good chance that could happen.
You just did a ton of extra work for nothing. Like I said, putting the cart before the horse.
I’m not trying to come off anti-epic world building, or even really persuade you from doing it, if you really wan to. What I’m trying to make perfectly clear is that:
The validity of your world doesn’t rely on the scope of your details. It relies on how well the details are developed and how well they’re connected to the narrative.
Size Doesn’t Matter?
Recognizing reality has endless moving parts, which we can’t possibly capture in their entirety.
And on the other side of it, when writing a modern day cop thriller, one might expect to do minimal or no worldbuilding at all (mostly, we’ll talk about real-world worldbuilding later)…
It seems logical that size doesn’t actually matter.
That the real benefit of worldbuilding lives in some sort of hazey gray area of just enough details, but not too much. If only there was some way us writer’s could guide ourselves through this grey area without getting sucked into a deep dive black hole.
I know you smart cookies already see where I’m going here.
A worldbuilding truth, it’s not about trying to get all the details… but getting only the details you actually need.
And there in lies the worldbuilder’s rub, how do you know what you actually need?
Now, I know a lot of folks like to lurk Story To Script’s articles, sucking up the free article preview sections and not reading the full articles. I get it, money’s too tight to mention, but y’all are missing out.
Anyway, let me get right to the mind blaster when it comes to Worldbuilding for all you “free peepers”… Where most online writing sources are gonna throw whatever hints and tips to build your world, to set your story…
Hold on tight, because we’re about to get unconventional up in this mo’fo.
Write your story first, then go back and build your world.
Holy time-saving-tips, Batman.
Wait. What. How? Who?
That can’t be right… right?
Alright, alright, everybody calm the heck down.
Did you even hit that music link above? Grab a drink, chill. It’s gonna be, OK.
You know I got you.
YES, I’m gonna give you some tips and direction into worldbuilding, things you can even implement before you have your story. But the mind blaster I just dropped will help you get your perspective right, if you take it to heart.
Story is king, baby… Not the world where the story lives. If you’ve ever developed a story where the worldbuilding is paramount to the story, you’re in trouble.
Remeber, worldbuilding serves the story, not the other way around.
Worldbuilding ultimately flows from concept, theme, and characters (maybe, kinda, sorta characters, will explain later). When you have these three in aces, they will tell you what you actually need in your worldbuilding and in turn, when to stop worldbuilding.
Can You Really Write Your Story Before Worldbuilding?
But keep in mind, if worldbuilding is something you want to showcase predominantly in your story, you will need to go back and do a heavier edit round, specifically addressing worldbuilding.
If you know you’re working on a story that will heavily showcase or make use of worldbuilding, I suggest implementing the suggestions of this article at the very start and developing the worldbuilding before or at least alongside the story. Not that this method will deliver better results, but simply that it will be most time efficient.
However, if you’re not the kind of personality that enjoys all the worldbuilding minutiae. A perfectly acceptable compromise is to go ahead and build out your story outline without doing any worldbuilding at all. (Relying only on the auto worldbuilding you hold in the front of your brain as you write that I briefly mentioned at the beginning.)
Building out an outline first allows you to get the core story out faster than if you worry about all the worldbuilding details upfront. Hitting your completed outline with worldbuilding details after the fact will also save a lot of time compared to a full edit pass on a completed story–while at the same time giving you all the core story material to work with and enhance.
I wrote the entire 28 page Robotkids manga outline, which takes place in a unique sci-fi universe, in the latter approach, without any specific worldbuilding. The outline is available here on Story to Script, if you haven’t read through it yet.
The Robot Kids outline mentions classic manga mech combat, clan-based military cultures, fantastical forest environments (something out of a Ghibli movie), wasteland environments, and a clear socio-economical divide. These were worldbuilding elements I kept in the top of my head as I fleshed out the outline, but more importantly, they were worldbuilding elements that just had to be in the story. I didn’t need special thought in how they worked or why they were there, because they are just integral to the environment of the story.
Now, with Robot Kids, there is a lot of flavor in its setting. I didn’t write that story, specifically to be a worldbuilding showcase, but If I were ever to take the story from outline to full script, I’d definitely want to go back and really work out some of that flavor. I know it could add quite a bit.
Let’s back it up a little and slow things down.
Worldbuilding is one of the many “writer things,” that everybody knows intuitively what it is, but few ever bother to really deep dive what is and why.
So let’s take a few minutes and get clarity on exactly what we’re talking about before we go any further.
What is Worldbuilding Anyway?
// Hey, I've told you why you need to slow your roll when it comes to epic worldbuilding. We still have some discussion of what worldbuilding really is and it's true purpose in narrative, before I get to the three list approach that will completely change the way you go about worldbuilding.
With the three lists in hand you won't get bogged down in worldbuilding details, you'll produce exactly the details the story needs, in turn creating a tighter story with a plausible, credible, believable, and far more engaging world.
After you've got your details, I'm gonna hit you with a few approaches to successfully implement them, including how to leverage worldbuilding's secret super power! Fun times. //