Being a Better Writer: Building a World From Scratch – Part 1

Welcome back readers! It’s another glorious Monday, and I’m back with another installment of Being a Better Writer!

What makes it glorious? Outside of there being a new installment for BaBW, well, today marked the delivery of two new five-star reviews for Axtara – Banking and Finance, plus a contact from a new fan who loved it and is hoping for more!

In addition, it is finally spring where I live. Shorts weather! Biking weather! Said bike is at the shop, already getting worked on. I’m ready for sun and sweat!

But all in all, that’s a good start to any week.

So, my week is already off to a good start, so now let us switch the focus over to you, reader, and to what you’re here for to help your week have a strong start. That’s right, we’re just going to dive into today’s Being a Better Writer.

But first, really quick, I’m going to thank the support of all the Patreons who make posts like this possible. Thanks to these supporters, Being a Better Writer exists. Without them, it wouldn’t. Be grateful for the support of the following folks:

Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, Thomas, 22ndTemplar, and Piiec!

Without them, BaBW couldn’t continue to exist! You have them to thank for topics like today’s being possible.

Speaking of which, what are we talking about today? Well, today’s topic is a big one. A really big one, by reader request. Today, we’re going to talk about building a world from scratch.

Or rather, we’re going to talk about step one in that process, because worldbuilding is a complicated, deep endeavor (and one that can run away with you if you’re not careful, but more on that another time). So today, we’re starting at the beginning—literally.

It’s time to try our hand at being a merciful (or not) creator. Hit the jump, and let’s talk about building worlds.

Wait. Not yet. There’s one thing I want to say first: Today’s advice is, wholly, more for planners. That doesn’t mean pantsers (those who write as they go) won’t find useful insight here, but let’s be honest: they’re a lot less likely to sit down and sketch out a world beforehand.

Okay, now we can go. Hit that jump!

So, where do you start with creating a fresh new world for your newest work? One of the reasons this question flies at me quite often from readers is because creating a world is a daunting task. If you’ve ever studied creation myths then you know that even in classic myth and folklore, there’s a lot that goes into explaining how a world works. As an author, when you sit down to create a world, you are in a sense taking on the task of doing all of that work yourself.

Thankfully … you can fudge it a little, because you’re going to be working with a specific aim in mind. Creation myths are often vast because they had to explain everything and here’s a little secret: we don’t.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. So you’re ready to start your new book, and you need to build a world out of scratch. Where do you start? What’s the proper way to begin? Do you sit down and write out “In the beginning …” and go from there?

No. No, the first thing you do is brainstorm and decide what you want to do with this story. What is the story you want to tell? What will your genre be? What will the tech-level be? What sort of experience do you want the reader to have? Let your ideas bounce around inside your head and crystalize, coalescing into key points that you absolutely want the story to have.

For example, I’m going bring up Shadow of an Empire here and talk about what went into the worldbuilding there to show you in effect how this process worked. Empire started out as a single idea: A gunslinger wizard. The initial concept was “wizard in a duster shooting magic bullets at goblins in a big battle.”

Now, those of you that have read the book know that there are not goblins in Shadow of an Empire. But for the sake of the earliest moments of its conceptualization, there were. See, I liked the idea of a magic-using cowboy. But I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of a generic horde of goblins. So one of the first things I thought about with the story was “no generic fantasy races.” Goblins were out. But I did want to have a big crazy shootout at the finale. So okay, I needed a setting where such a big shootout could come to pass.

I also didn’t want “generic” magic. So I started thinking about magic systems, and how tightly I wanted magic to tie into this world. Those of you that have read Empire know that magic is tightly woven into every aspect of Indrim’s society, culture, and industry, and that was because early on I decided “Yes, I want magic to be tightly used at every step of the way.”

Of course, making this decision, that meant that before I could go much further with what the world was like I had to know what that magic was like so that it could organically be part of it. So I had to sit down and, at last, do some solid writing and typing as I figured out exactly what the magic of my setting was.

What I’m saying here is not “start with the magic.” Far from it. I didn’t start there at all with Axtara – Banking and Finance. No, what I’m getting at is that the first thing you want to do when creating a world from scratch is figure out what kind of story you want to tell, and then letting your ideas mix and mingle, weeding out those that won’t work while letting those that will stretch and develop inside your head.

That’s where you start with building a world: By figuring out what your needs and requirements are to tell the story you’d like to tell. Does your world need to be in an ice-age? Does it need some from of flying transportation?

This sounds a bit like brainstorming, and in a way it is, but it’s also going a step further. This isn’t just throwing ideas at a wall to see what sticks. It’s taking the ideas you have and clarifying them, looking at what their requirements will be, or in other words what your setting will need to do for those ideas to come to pass.

Side note here: Sometimes ideas might not make it. This is acceptable. Sometimes you’ll have an idea or a concept and realize that you can’t do everything with it that you wanted to do. And that’s fine. Shelves those ideas for later. A sequel, maybe, or even another story. Every creative exercise has bits that get trimmed and bits that don’t. It’s like pruning a tree.

But back to the core of things, this is where your worldbuilding should start: Letting your mind work on the concepts you want that the world needs to support. Don’t dive in creating an advanced, complex setting until you know what concepts need to be in that setting for your story to work. Otherwise, you might end up with a story where the readers nod their heads and then say “But wait a minute, why does X exist? This doesn’t make sense except as ‘it just exists.'”

Let the ideas bounce around in your head. Figure out what kind of story you want to tell and what the needs, therefore, will be for your setting. This can be as simple as one need or as many as your story necessitates. Sometimes this can be as simple as “I want my story to take place in a port city” or as complicated as “Okay, my character is going to be an orphan, raised by the state, but this can’t be unusual, so we need an event that wiped out all the adults in large enough numbers that this isn’t questionable, plus we need a government that can provide in that respect, and that means looking at the right kind of government …”

Point being this can fix in on a central idea that has to be protected, or spread out to a bunch of different things. Either way, you’ll know what you need to work toward when you sit down and actually start figuring out details about your setting.

Okay, so you’ve done this first step. You now know what you need for your story to work at the basic conceptual level. Maybe you’ve got a checklist. Or maybe you just have one thing in your head that you know the story has to deliver on. A scene or a setting that the world needs to deliver.

But either way, once you’ve done all this brainstorming, now you’re ready to sit down and start figuring out what sort of world will support that. But of course, it isn’t that easy. Where do you start? Do you pull an Old Testament and write “In the beginning …” Granted, we also very fairly call that “pulling a Tolkien.”

But no, you don’t have to start there unless your story needs it. Again, you want to think about your story’s needs. Is your story taking place in a pivotal city? Well, maybe start there. Work outward. What is the city like? Why does it exist? What does it look like, and why? What does it do for the modern world? What do the people living there do? What’s their employment? Their industry?

What’s the weather like? Okay, why? What nearby features produce that weather? Is it natural? Geologic? Now might be the time to grab your web browser and see what geological conditions will create weather like that. Unless it’s magical, in which case well why? Who’s doing it? Is it intentional? Was it? Why?

Build outward. That’s the key here. Start with these concepts that are core to what you want for the story, be they “the genre is Mystery” or “my character is a _____ worker” and then work your way outward to construct a world into which they fit naturally.

To use an analogy, think of a puzzle. What you’re doing with this step is taking the puzzle pieces, each showing a different piece of the world you dreamed up in step one, and setting them in place, then creating puzzle pieces around them that will slot in with the pieces you have so far and build a cohesive picture.

Now, going a step further with this analogy, we can make it “easy” and just create a bunch of square pieces with one contrived cutout in the right place for the “core” piece or pieces we’re building around … Or we can create pieces that are just as complex as that initial core piece and create a much more satisfying “puzzle.” Granted, it may take more work and time to get everything to fit together, but once it does, we’ll have crafted something that feels unique.

Now continuing with the “puzzle” analogy, be sure to keep your focus on what you’re crafting here, because this is the step where a lot of people lose track of their vision and start relentlessly expanding outward over and over again as they keep coming up with cool ideas.

In other words, as you expand outward from these core concepts, keep the overall picture those concepts support in mind. The picture you construct should still be related to that overall concept, supportive of it, rather than building out to a much larger focus. There’s nothing wrong with being able to build outward, but keep in mind what your story is about.

Don’t lose your focus, in other words. It’s fine if near the edges of the “picture” you’re assembling you start to see glimmers of other images, other stories and tales. Sands, that can be room for a sequel. Or, if you’re really daring, you might realize that you’ve got one piece of a larger story, and you’re going for an Epic (be careful of this one). But don’t get caught up in expanding the picture over and over until you’re working on elements that have nothing to do with that core concept and story you wanted to tell. Again, that can be room for a sequel (or again, maybe you realize that you can expand the story, but that’s a step best undertaken with experience). It’s okay to go a little bit past the “edges” of your vision (sort of like painting past the edges of a canvas because the frame will over it later) but don’t get caught up in continually expanding when you have everything you need to write the story sitting there waiting for you.

Now, this isn’t the end. Now that you have your “picture” there’s still a lot of work to do, and there’s also the whole question of how we forge the puzzle pieces that make up our picture, but for now, we’re going to save those topics for part 2 of this post, which will be dropping next week (otherwise this post will end up a true monster).

So for now, don’t forget what we discussed here. The best place to start with worldbuilding is letting your ideas bounce off one another, be explored, and then crystalize into central concepts that you can then explore and form into the core focus points of the story you want to tell.

Once you have those focus points, place them on your mental “table” and begin building outward, creating a “portrait” of a place where the focus elements can exist and will naturally. However, as you begin to expand, don’t forget that what the focus of the whole image is, and keep yourself grounded around your story and concept. As tempting as it can be to build far past the edges—and again, going a little past them is fine—it’s all too easy to lose focus at times and get caught up expanding our “puzzle” past the edge of the table.

So for now, focus on those central core ideas, and the pieces that will make them possible. Maybe even spend this week trying just that! A sort of “challenge” for all of you looking to try something. Brainstorm some ideas, then figure out the core elements you like and what you want to do with them. Expand outward from there to form a “complete” picture. Here, I’ll even drop an idea to get you started: A shapeshifter parent and their shapeshifter child. Not going to say anymore than that, you run with it. Let your ideas coalesce and then start thinking what sort of setting you’ll need around it for that story to work.

Then come back next week for part two, where we’ll talk about getting some nuts and bolts together to shape these other puzzle pieces so that they don’t just line up, but slot together to form a realistic, breathing world your characters and your readers can get lost it.

So until then, good luck. Now get writing!

Don’t forget! Being a Better Writer, as well as Unusual Things, exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters:

Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, Thomas, 22ndTemplar, and Piiec!

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If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book? Or do both!

Thoughts? Comments? Post them below!

4 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Building a World From Scratch – Part 1

  1. Worldbuilding is one of the funnest parts of storytelling. If I’m not careful, I can devote so much time to it that by the time I actually start writing the story it was all for, I’ve burned myself out. With ambition, it becomes an easy mistake to make.

    The very first world I ever created was a multi-year project called Arainia. It grew so big it ended up collapsing under its own weight and got scrapped, but some ideas from it have been reborn in some of my works over the last couple decades. It taught me the importance of holding back and only doing as much as is necessary to enrich the world the story is set in.

    Liked by 2 people

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