Fantasy Month 2020: The Laws of World-Building and How to Break Them

Are you ready to build some worlds? And then sMAsH ThEM iNto SCReAmING sHaRDs oF unREleNtING cHaOS?

Of course you are. That's the whole point of being a writer, isn't it? Am I right? Well, am I?

Okay, just me then. Fine.

February is Fantasy Month, a blogging event started by the marvelous Jenelle Schmidt. One of the topics on the list for the event this year was world-building, and instead of delving into a specific aspect of this theme, I decided to take a step back and talk about the balance between world-building and storytelling. True, there shouldn't really be a divide between the two…but sometimes there is, which can lead to problems.

This issue is very similar to one which crops up regarding the creation of magic systems. Specifically, the debate over whether hard or soft magic systems are preferable. The point is moot, in the end–some stories are better suited for one over the other, and either one can be equally effective if handled properly.

But there's also such a thing as hard or soft world-building. Some authors prefer to have their worlds mapped and planned down to the last detail before they begin, while others prefer their world-creation to be a little more flexible.

As you might have guessed, neither one of these methods is objectively wrong. One or the other may be preferable depending on the context. The trick is determining which one will work best for you.

So, let's go over some pointers for developing your own unique world-building style, based on the story you want to tell.

Don't get lost in your world-building.

This is the foremost thing you need to remember, which is why I've put it at the top of the list despite the fact that it's a negative. The reason why is that world-building is fun, and it can easily become one of the excuses your brain uses to keep you from actually getting your story written and published. It's a lot easier to draw maps, invent creatures, and write fictional histories than to actually get a book finished.

You should certainly devote a reasonable amount of time to world-building as you craft a book or a series, but don't allow this element of the process to take center stage. World-building is a valuable complement of writing, but world-building alone is not writing. Only writing is writing.

Story comes first.

Your story, and the things which must be done to make it better, outweigh any possible restrictions imposed by your world-building. The world-building should bend to fit your story, not the other way around. So if you have a bunch of notes on your world prepared for your story, don't follow them slavishly. The most important thing is for your story to be as good as possible. Everything else should play second fiddle to that. You may need to tweak your world-building as you go to improve the finished product of the book as a whole. If the story revolves entirely around your world-building, you're likely to end up with cardboard characters and uninteresting plots.

You may not “use” all your world-building…and that's okay.

Assuming that world-building is playing its proper role in your storytelling, and not overshadowing the other important aspects of your fiction, feel free to add as many details to your world as possible. But keep in mind that you don't have to shove all these details into your actual story. Here's the thing–the bits of world-building you leave on the cutting-room floor still have value. Maybe you'll use them in a future book, but even if you don't, they can still contribute to the quality of your current story regardless of the fact that you haven't actually included them in the plot. The deeper and richer your story-world, the more like a real place it will feel to you, and to your reader. Having all those details in your head will help you to immerse yourself and your reader in your storyworld, even if some things remain hidden in the background for now.

Not every story needs an extremely detailed setting.

Building on my previous point, you may include very little of your worldbuilding in the actual story, depending on what kind of story it is. If you're writing something that's very light-hearted and fast-paced, your readers aren't going to have much patience for lengthy dissertations on things like the history and politics of your world. These are things readers are more accustomed to finding in epic fantasy than lighter fare. As I said before, all that world-building still has value, but think carefully about what kind of story you're trying to tell before you decide how many of those details you want to put in.

The world-building you do include in the story should make the story better in some way.

The days when fantasy authors could get away with going off on tangents about, say, crop rotation in the middle of the heroes' journey to battle the Dark Lord have been over for a while now. Today's readers, even the ones who favor slower-paced epic fantasy, are still expecting you to stick to the point in your storytelling. Now, that does not mean that every single piece of background info you drop about your world should have some direct connection to the plot. Sometimes non-essential details are wonderful for adding flavor and atmosphere to a story, so long as they're not in the form of lengthy, boring lectures. If you're trying to make up your mind whether or not you should include something, ask yourself, “Does this make the story better?” If it messes up the pacing, leave it out entirely or put it elsewhere in the book. If it's not hurting anything, leave it be, by all means.

Don't info-dump.

Regardless of how much world-building you include, it should not be in the form of big blocks of text that your readers have to wade through to get to the part where the story actually gets started again. This “pops” the readers out of the story, and drives a wedge between them and the character journeys they're meant to be invested in. A couple of paragraphs of world-building info between the dialogue portions or action scenes is fine, but if there's an issue that needs to be addressed at length, find some way to interweave this explanation with what's happening in the story. There are a couple of ways you can go about this. You can have your characters explain the world-building in dialogue, which works well so long as it's not just one character giving a dissertation to a silent audience. Make sure there's plenty of back-and-forth between your characters to break up the monotony. You can also simply split the necessary information into several chunks shared across multiple scenes, instead of explaining it all in one swell foop. Ask yourself, “Do my readers need to know everything about this right now?” In many cases, the answer will be “no.”

Make your world a place your readers would want to visit…and that you would want to visit too.

I want to wrap this up with a few words about what kind of worlds you should be creating. This will, of course, vary depending on what kind of story you're writing, but the advice remains true regardless. If you write epic fantasy, you're writing for readers who would want to visit wondrous lands full of beauty, danger, and adventure. If you write dystopian horror, you're probably catering a crowd who wouldn't mind slaying a few members of the local undead were-ocelot horde before breakfast. Your world doesn't have to be pleasant in every case; that's not the point. If your readers want a setting that's a little more bleak, then give them that. However, ideally, you should love your story-world as well. If you don't enjoy “visiting” your fictional reality as you write, you may be writing in the wrong setting, or writing the wrong book entirely. You're not going to have the motivation to get your story finished if it requires you to keep going back to a place you don't like.

I hope these tips on world-building are helpful to you. Did I miss anything? What principle of world-building is most important to you? Share in the comments.

(Yes, I deliberately wrote “one swell foop” earlier, just to see if you'd notice.)

Comments (12)

And here I thought you were actually going to teach me how to destroy a world. Sadness. (I mean… er… well… not that I want to destroy any REAL worlds, of course… hehe…)

I noticed the “one swell foop” AND I noticed before you pointed it out AND I knew you’d probably done it on purpose 🙂 🙂

Well… I should have just asked YOU to write my final post for the month, because… this is pretty much everything I was planning to say. LOL This was awesome. Love it!

Personally, I actually prefer to totally pants my story worlds… discovering random things I didn’t know about it in the middle of the story is my FAVORITE… but also involves a lot of stopping to figure stuff out and a lot of editing… which I already have enough of to deal with. So… favorite bit of world building? Probably just the initial discovery, the thinking out of things in very basic, general terms like, “Is there magic? Is it a kingdom? Are there dragons/fantasy creatures?” Things like that. 🙂

LOL, I do feel guilty about stealing your idea. 😂 But I’m glad you liked it! I will do one about destroying worlds eventually, though. After I get a bit more experience in that area myself.

I completely agree; it’s usually a lot more fun to just let the world grow as you write the story. It feels like you’re discovering the world as you write it, which makes the writing process even more enjoyable. Actually, scratch that–it makes the DRAFTING process more enjoyable. As you said, it can sometimes cause issues in the editing process. 😆 But for the less epic stories, that’s not always a big deal. On the other hand, discovering details of the world as you go along can help to make the finished product better, I think, since you’re mimicking the experience you want your reader to have as they go through the story. It’s sort of like beta-testing software, although that is an extremely dry and boring analogy.

Oh, please don’t feel guilty! I thought it was awesome! Great minds and all that. 🙂

I love discovering details as I go *nods* … hmm, maybe we could liken it to play-testing a new board game? That’s a bit more fun-sounding. 😀

YES. MUCH better analogy. 😀

That is great! DJ Edwardson just commented about making sure we don’t go overboard on our world-building. So….don’t go and read my Mapping Our Your StoryWorld miniseries. Ha! That said, I totally agree with you! I went overboard on my first trilogy. This time around I’m trying to find a better balance. Ha! Thanks for joining in on #fantasymonth!

Thank you! LOL, the one thing I didn’t really emphasize when it comes to extensive world-building is that it’s SO MUCH FUN…which means that it’s definitely not a bad thing in every case. Sometimes I use world-building as a brainstorming tool, going crazy with details in order to come up with stories. The thing I have to force myself to do in the end, though, is to pivot away from all my notes and maps and go into storytelling mode. Once I’ve done that, though, all the world-building still doesn’t feel like a waste of time, even if I haven’t used it all.

Super awesome post, Kyle! I’m definitely taking some mental notes here.

THIS POST IS PERFECTION. DOWN TO THE ONE SWELL FOOP (I noticed and then decided I was going to steal that from you)

I am 👏 an advocate 👏 for good 👏 worldbuilding 👏and this advice is great to keep in mind. Especially the info-dumping part (just easier said than done, of course, because when does writing want to be easy). I think one part of worldbuilding that a lot of authors neglect is the culture in a setting. Good worldbuilding definitely adds something special to the setting of a story, but bad worldbuilding 🤷

Thank you so much! Yes, I agree, culture is frequently overlooked, even in situations where you’d expect certain elements of the world to be reflected in the culture in big ways.

The first rule you listed is definitely the most important to me; I tend to get lost exploring my worlds, and don’t realize it until someone asks me how the writing’s going. Other times, I hit a snag during writing and have to take a few days to figure out fiddly bits of the world.
All of the advice is spot-on!

Swell foop isn’t a normally accepted turn of phrase? I thought it was, so I didn’t notice. 😛

It SHOULD be. 😂 Thanks, so glad you liked the post!

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