Being a Better Writer: Where to Start with Building Worlds

Welcome BACK readers! Sands and storms it has been a while, hasn’t it? But once again, Being a Better Writer is back and returning to its regular schedule.

Just in time too. The break was nice, but it was starting to be strange not to have these coming out every Monday. Legitimately weird. So I’m glad to be back at it at last. That, and I’m pretty sure a number of you were really starting to miss them as well.

But, convention must be adhered to. So before we dive in to today’s topic, let’s talk about some news.

First and foremost: Starforge is in Pre-Alpha. That’s right! The finale to the UNSEC Space trilogy is going through the early editing phase before Alpha readers get to see it. I’ve got a notepad with notes I’m jotting down, changes are being made, and I’m having a good time reading through and experiencing a story that to date I’d only seen during the writing process.

Does that mean Alpha Readers should be sitting up and getting ready? Well … no. Not yet. After a week I’m only about a fifth of the way through this enormous titan of a tome. So it’s going to be a few more weeks yet, plus I don’t know how much of it I might end up rewriting prior to the Alpha.

That said, the Alpha could drop as early as February, and with this book’s big status (the biggest, and most anticipated, release I will have to date) I’m determined to make sure that at launch it’s as polished as I can make it. This means if you want to Alpha Read, I want you to Alpha Read. If you want to Beta Read, I want you to Beta Read. Sands, I am even going to be looking for people that haven’t read the first two books to at least read the opening chapters of Starforge to see if they can follow along and put together what’s both happening and has happened enough to be able to keep up with the book (at least, until they decide to go back and read the first two, hopefully).

But yes, Starforge is coming. Line by line, page by page, it is coming. And this book is a ride. If a trilogy is a three-act structure, this is the climax where everything rarely stops blowing up.

So get ready. But not just for that. Because in just over a month, Life, The Universe, and Everything happens! That’s right, it’s time for LTUE once again! And once again, I will be there and paneling and signing books.

If you’ve never been to an LTUE before, it’s a fantastic experience. LTUE is a convention, but an unusual one in that it’s entirely about the act and art of writing. The panelists are authors, editors, publishers, and other book-related creative folks, all there to talk about Sci-Fi/Fantasy writing. How to do it, what works, what will benefit it, everything! It’s an absolute blast, and if you’re at all interested in the art of writing (or just in meeting a bunch of your favorite authors), this is the con to go to.

So far, the plan is for LTUE 2022 to be live and in person (though the venue does have health and safety requirements). If lockdowns emerge, then it will be online like during 2021, but we’re all hoping that we’re able to meet in person once more. Regardless, as I understand it there are plans to stream this year’s LTUE online using a similar setup to 2021, so those of you that are a vast distance away can still participate!

So, Starforge is coming, as is LTUE 2022! Got it? Good! Now, let’s hit the jump and dive into today’s topic, which is a bit of an interesting one: where do we start when we’re setting out to worldbuild?

Hit the jump, and let’s get building!

So, this reader request is actually a pretty smart question to ask. A) it’s a question many have, and B) it’s a question that gets a lot of, shall we say, less than helpful answers.

For instance, I’ve seen people online on Reddit ask this sort of question on writing subreddits and some of the responses are a little less than helpful. For example, a lot of times people tend to say something in the vein of “It doesn’t matter, just worldbuild until you’re done and then get writing. Don’t skip the writing part!”

To be fair, the last bit is good advice. Joke after joke has been made about the “eternal worldbuilder” that gets so caught up in creating an exciting world to write about that they never actually do any writing. This curse is pretty common, actually. Sands, once I became an author it was amazing how many people would—and still do—tell me that they “plan” on writing this book, and it would be huge and successful and a best seller because the world they’ve built for the last twenty years is so amazing and wonderful, and they’ll start it just as soon as they get the time but in the meanwhile they’re still figuring out what the duchess Azarabarel wore as a necklace to the emperor’s ball five-hundred years before the plot began … even though that doesn’t have anything to do with the current story.

You might laugh, but no joke, I have encountered situations like this. More than once. It’s very easy to get caught creating a fun world, rather than doing the much more difficult act of writing to bring that world to life.

That said, there are instances where the advice of “just start worldbuilding” does actually apply, and we will discuss that later. But first, we’re going to tackle a more directed approach to things.

So, you’ve just set down, and you’ve decided that you need to figure out the world for you next story. It’s time to worldbuild! So … where do you start?

The proper answer isn’t “just anywhere.” No, the proper answer is to ask yourself what kind of story you want to tell, and work outward from there.

Let me clarify. When I sat down to build the world for Shadow of an Empire, I already knew what sort of story I wanted to tell. Not down to the last detail of the plot, but in general specifics. For example, I knew I wanted it to be a western. Right away this narrowed the sort of world I could create: Whatever I built needed to support a western-style story. It needed to allow for those elements of a western to exist and flourish. I needed a setting that had a frontier, as well as an oncoming slow, but inexorable, tide of civilization moving over that frontier. Whatever world I put together needed to deliver that, or I wouldn’t have a setting for the type of story I wanted to tell.

In other words, when you sit down to worldbuild, one of the best things you can do to smooth the process and make it both productive and smooth sailing is have a direction. This direction doesn’t need to be genre. It can be something as simple as “I want a story about two people that have drama” or “I want to write about a setting with cool magic.” Both of those are perfectly valid directions to sit down and start worldbuilding with.

The reasoning is thus:: Worlds are massive, huge complicated places. Starting with no sense of direction can lead you down fun paths, but it also means you can spend hours figuring out something that then has no bearing whatsoever on the story you eventually decide to tell.

Meanwhile, having even the slightest direction to start from is a complete difference. The former, directionless angle is 360-degrees of freedom … and no map. But a direction? Even if it’s, to extend the analogy a bit, 90-degrees of freedom, that’s still a lot narrower of a picture to paint than the previous 360 degrees.

Don’t get me wrong: A quarter-slice of a whole setting is still a massive slice. But here’s the thing. Once you start in that direction, you’ll be moving with a goal. “Create a setting that allows me to have two magic families that have been feuding over land for a hundred years,” for example. That’s still incredibly broad, as there are dozens of ways we could worldbuild a setting that fits and works for that particular prompt. But it’s far easier to pin the setting down when we know what we want.

And really this basic direction is all you need. Those of you who don’t think so, just trust me. It might just be “genre” or it may be a specific direction like the one given above, but it will give you a focus to build toward. And yes, it’ll probably be a winding path. You might, to use the example above, start with a magic system, and then once you’ve got that halfway worked out, realize that you also need a societal system wherein two families can feud over land, and hey, wouldn’t it be cool if the magic came from the land, so the social system was built around who owned what land and the magic it gave them?

Suddenly, just like that, you’ve built a neat system for your world that reinforces the story. There are still bits and pieces to work out—for example, what sort of government is over this “nation?” Is there one? How does it stay in power? Land? Magic? There are still plenty of questions to answer, and the worldbuilding can answer them as they come.

Each time it does so, however, the “direction” that’s “open” in front of that setting will grow “narrower” until eventually you’re practically writing the story! At which point, yes, it’s time to begin that process if you haven’t already.

Now, some of you might be thinking at this point “Well, this makes sense and sounds like a good idea. I’ll do that.” To which I say “But wait, there’s more!” You know, just in case you weren’t sold on this idea already. There is another very useful bit to why building with even the slightest bit of direction to start is a good idea.

See, as demonstrated above, this sort of “directed” worldbuilding will eventually reach a point where you’re pretty much just writing the actual story. Which is a great direction to move in, but there’s an additional benefit. See, the world becomes so clarified that the story begins to move on its own … which means that in turn the setting you’ve built is going to be fully interconnected with the setting.

This is important because it makes the setting feel like a real place. Because to the story it is. It will effect the story and have an influence on it. As opposed to a story where the setting isn’t as well thought out and feels either empty, like a bit of a blank slate, or even superfluous to the story that’s occurring. I’ve read books like this, in fact, where the world is just … kind of there, but not very well defined, but it doesn’t matter because the story almost never references it unless it needs to, and just sort of goes on its own speed.

Those don’t make for great stories. It’s hard to feel grounded in them or, as a reader, like any decision made by the characters has any weight outside of their immediate space when the space outside them is just a void. No joke, I’ve read stories like this, where the setting only comes up the moment it needs to have anything to do with a character … and the result is a world that feels hazy and unsatisfying to read about.

Building our world with a direction doesn’t just give us a grounded setting, it all but ensures that the story we write will be part of that setting. That the story and the setting are woven together, inseparable from one another. I’ve read books where the characters and story could have been plopped down just about anywhere because the world was a hazy blur that hadn’t been worked out past a few details that only mattered once the plot decided they needed to.

If you start your worldbuilding with a direction that serves the story, you’ll ensure that the story you tell is set in that world, linked to it permanently. And that permanence will resonate with the reader.

Side note: This isn’t to say that you must worldbuild before writing. This is simply an advantage to directed worldbuilding that can be brought to the story.

Okay, so with that said … what if you don’t have a direction? What if you want to write a story but you don’t know what gene, what about, or what the world is going to look like. You have, for all intents and purposes, a blank slate. Well, there’s no way to start with a direction there, is there?

Well … yes and no. Because no, there is no starting point. At the same time, however, this means your starting point can be anything. Like jewelry? Start worldbuilding jewelry! Start asking questions. What does it look like? Where does it come from? Who makes it? Why is it valued?

Now suddenly you have a direction. It may not be the direction, but it is a direction. So keep going. Maybe the jewelry bounces you onto the question of mining and materials. Or maybe the creators. Play a bit. Don’t go crazy off on one tangent, but branch a little. Get some stuff going and built.

But then stop. Don’t go too far down the rabbit-hole. Take a look at what you’ve got built, and ask “What kind of story could I tell with this?” Play hypothetical stories out in your head with what you have. If nothing grabs your attention or feels like something that’d make for a good story, then keep worldbuilding, branching out in interesting areas, and then again stop and ask “Would this make for a good story.”

Inevitably, you’ll find something that will. At this point? You have your direction, and you can narrow the beam of your focus like a laser, directing your worldbuilding to support whatever story idea came to mind, much like you would above. From there, it’s just a matter of building out what you need and then writing the story.

Okay, let’s tackle one last big question that tends to plague worldbuilders: How do you know when to stop? Because even those with direction, who have reached the point where they could be writing the story, will back off and say “But what about ….?” and then keep on worldbuilding. How do you keep this from happening to you?

The answer is, well, not easy, but it involves recognizing when you have enough. A good way to do this is to look at what you’re developing and ask yourself if it is core and critical … or decorative.

Another way to think of this is to think of your story like a play. Or rather, an event that will be performed on a stage. Your setting that you’ve worldbuilt, however, is the physical space where the play will happen. Knowing that, you will need some very concrete elements, parts of the world that function like the wooden stage itself or the lights illuminating the cast. Backdrops.

But you don’t need elements that the cast will never interact with in any way. For example, a western stage play may have a barrel on the stage to set the scene … but they don’t need to tell the audience what’s in the barrel unless it matters to the actors. If the barrel is to be shot, or lifted and thrown, then that might be important to at least ask about. But if it merely is there to be a backdrop? Contents may not be required.

Think of your worldbuilding in a similar manner. If the plot and story need to know what’s in the barrel, then yes, the audience needs to know what’s the in the barrel. But do you need to know who made the barrel, and where the pickled fish came from, and who packaged them?

Well … only if the story requires it. Otherwise … no. Not really. And if you do suddenly discover that you need this information, well the nice thing about having had the direction earlier is it will likely be quite easy to answer those questions on the spot as they’re needed for you to write about them and still have them fit into the setting.

In other words, keep your aim on the story, not creating an endless world. The goal, as always, is to write a story. A good one.

So there you have it! Pick a direction, whether it’s one inspired by the kind of story you want to tell, or one that you find after playing with a few ideas and asking “Could this make for a good story?” Follow that direction, and not only will your world take shape, but the story will start to write itself. Both will be woven together into a tale that puts all your work to good use, and carries the audience away to the place you’ve created, on an adventure with the characters you’ve let free.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Where to Start with Building Worlds

  1. I am fondly reminded of the massive world I tried to create in my preteens. In my defense, I was less interested in writing and more interested in exploring a new world in which my childlike fantasies could flourish. When I finally did decide to try and write things in the world I soon came to realize that the sheer scope of everything I wanted was far too ambitious for me to actually achieve. It was a great learning experience in the end though.

    I am also reminded of when I started work on my story. I don’t know how I started worldbuilding for it specifically, but I did know one thing in particular: anything that probably wouldn’t impact the main character’s story was skimmed at best and left alone at worst. Yes, the Frozen North was a real thing and probably had a lot of lore behind it, but I had no expectation that we would ever, y’know, go there, so it didn’t warrant a whole lot of attention.

    But then there’s in-story worldbuilding, the kind that sneaks up on you. Maybe your characters need to get from one place to the next, but you need to do some character growth so that they’re prepared for what you want them to find at the destination. So you add a side-quest involving a small town. But wait, you didn’t do any world-building for said town! That’s okay, make it up as you go. Done writing for the day? Pull open your notes real quick, jot down what you’ve “discovered” about the town so far, maybe expand upon it so that you’ve got a clearer picture when you get back to writing tomorrow.

    All of this is a roundabout way of noting that worldbuilding is a delight when utilized properly.

    Liked by 2 people

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