Being a Better Writer: Planning and Executing Heavy Worldbuilding

Welcome back, writers! It’s Monday, and it’s also Halloween! Not usually a vacation holiday, so I don’t plan on taking one. You know, as evidenced by the fact that you’re looking at this post right now.

But before we get talking about writing for this week and wrap up October, I do have one little tidbit to remind you all of: Dead Silver is on sale for 99 cents until midnight tonight! This spooky little (it’s a full novel, but by my standard) tale is perfect for Halloween and hey, it was my second published book, so it’s got a soft place in my heart. Following Hawke Decroux as he heads out to the sleepy New Mexican mining town of Silver Dreams to help Jacob Rocke catch a chupacabra, things soon take a turn for the worse, Silver Dreams seemingly caught in events more out of a nightmare than a dream.

Like I said, 99 cents until Halloween is over. You can click the link above or click the cover on the right. Either way, I hope you have a spooky and thrilling—in a good way—Halloween!

Now, with that all said, this is still a post about writing, so how about we get down to it? Today we’re going back to a classic topic that’s on a lot of minds. So much so, in fact, that the tag for it on the site is … substantial, to put it lightly.

But it’s a commonly discussed topic for a multitude of reasons, one being that it’s such a vast topic, but second to that because a lot of writers find it to be both a major source of inspiration and a major stumbling block in equal measure. Thus, it will not be a surprise to many of you to learn that today’s topic is a reader request from our last topic call!

So, let’s get down to it. Let’s talk about heavy worldbuilding. The in-depth, up-to-your-elbows-in-it sort of stuff. But with one gigantic context: making it useful, and then executing on that vision to craft a story, not just a bunch of excess files cluttering up a hard drive somewhere.

Hit that jump. Let’s talk worldbuilding.

Okay, so I want to start by discussing why worldbuilding gets such a bad rep in writing communities, and that’s because too many would-be writers don’t understand the difference between worldbuilding and brainstorming. Even outside of today’s context of heavy worldbuilding, a lot of new writers have a tendency to produce literal piles of worldbuilding material for months on end while generating no actual story content (or context). Ever.

Don’t believe me? I haven’t even counted the number of times I’ve been cornered at a party or social gathering by someone desperately telling me how they’re writing a book and it’s going to be the best thing ever when it comes out—so I’d better get all my writing done before then, hah hah—and let me tell you a little bit about the history of this noble family—it’s only sixty-eight pages long, but that’s how I know it’s so good, and you’ll need to understand it in order for the protagonist’s decision to go on an adventure to make any sense …

I bet some of you think I’m exaggerating. Not really. And this has happened to me enough times that I’d need more fingers than I have to count it up.

Point being, many of these people aren’t writing. I know that sounds harsh to say, but they aren’t. And they’re not really worldbuilding anymore either. What they’re often doing is akin to brainstorming. Which is why they’re being sucked along by it. Brainstorming can be a lot of fun! It doesn’t have many restrictions if any at all. You can just come up with stuff! And if doesn’t happen to make sense with what the other stuff is, you can just go “Meh, I’ll figure that out later” and go back to your sketching of this incredibly complex family tree that the hero is supposed to see the crest of on a wall at some point.

Brainstorming is pretty stress-free. It’s open and completely unrestrained. It’s easy to enjoy and to participate in. But it’s not worldbuilding. Not on its own. And this is where many young writers go wrong. They sit down and think “Okay, deep worldbuilding” and then they generate as much content as they can.

Don’t get me wrong, at some point every bit of worldbuilding needs a genesis. But where these would-be writers go wrong is piling genesis atop genesis without form, structure, or reason, and then never go further when the story beckons, because that’s the moment that worldbuilding switches from “easy and fun” to “difficult and requiring a lot of effort.”

Again, you do need to brainstorm. But if you want to sit down and craft a deeply built world, you’re going to have to be willing to work past that first stage. You’re going to have to do the bits of worldbuilding that aren’t as fun, that aren’t as free, but run into structure and logic.

So let’s talk about that structure and logic for a bit.

Let’s start with the biggest core bit of all when it comes to your worldbuilding. Even your brainstorming. A question that you should always be asking, that should always be floating at the back of your mind when you’re sitting down to prep your world for the story: Is. This. Relevant?

See, sixty-some odd pages recounting a noble family’s history for a crest that your character will look at once but otherwise has no importance in the story? That’s honestly a waste of time, if fun. It’s not relevant, and so you shouldn’t spend a ton of time on it.

Of course, if that crest and the family’s history are key to the story—for example if it’s a Fantasy-Mystery trying to determine who a legitimate heir is through this complicated noble family tree—then you should spend all that time on it.

But with one major caveat. Above I mentioned structure and logic playing a part. This is why brainstorming is so alluring: It can be anything. And then this family member married a cat-person. “Hah-hah, that’s funny, why are there cat people and how do they fit into this world? WHO CARES!”

Brainstorming is appealing because it often and largely lacks consequence for the setting. The creator thinks “Hey, a big manor would be cool here” and slaps it down without any regards to how that manor fits in at all. It’s a cool manor, end of story.

Good worldbuilding, on the other hand, does care. Going back to our example about the family crest and the history of this noble line for a Fantasy-Mystery we quickly find that in order for our mystery to function at all, we can’t simply throw things in without thinking about the structure. Mysteries are a puzzle, and for that puzzle to make sense, there needs to be order and structure to them, both so that a solution can be reasoned out, and so that we can set up the appropriate doling of clues that will lead the reader (and protagonist) to work out a solution.

If you don’t have structure and logic to your worldbuilding, you can’t dole out those clues. This is where many would-be writers start to chafe. “Writing,” they’ll say, “is about creativity. Who cares about structure?”

Well, the universe does. And that includes the universe in your story.

If this is making worldbuilding sound like a lot of work, well, it is. Which is why you should confine yourself a bit by asking “Is this relevant.”

Let me use one of my works as an example and talk about the worldbuilding that went into Shadow of an Empire for a moment. The first bit of worldbuilding I did for Shadow was, in what should surprise none of the readers, a breakdown of the five gifts and how they worked. Once I’d figured that out, I then wrote two more documents: Cities of the Empire which effectively was a short history of the major cities and locations and why they were where they were (working in the five affinities) and Creatures of the Outskirts/Badlands (which swiftly became Outlands), which covered boval, chort, and other creatures that would be starring in the book’s setting. Money in the Empire came next, because it was as much about the basics of economy and how gifts fit in to it as it was about where and how the money had been developed.

There were a few other files after that, and then I wrote a chapter synopsis and got to work on the book.

All of that had structure and importance that was directly relevant to the story. Not all of it was used—in particular one city isn’t even named in the book, though it is given a passing reference to by several characters—but it all served as a set of points around which the narrative revolved and built.

In other words, your worldbuilding should be a foundation to build a story off of, something which I am positive I have said before on this site. You don’t build a foundation by just slapping concrete on the ground, but by laying out and planning what sort of structure you want to go atop it.

“But wait!” some of you may be saying. “Today’s topic is heavy worldbuilding! Doesn’t that mean a lot of it! Pages and pages?”

It does … but for a story that requires it. Let us speak for a moment of Tolkien (you may resolve your bets now about how long it would take him to show up).

Tolkien is famous in fantasy and with good reason. That said, too many people use Tolkien’s amount of worldbuilding as a justification for their own rampant brainstorming instead of focused worldbuilding, not understanding that Tolkien’s worldbuilding was deeply structured and very focused. For example, I once sat in on a panel at a con (LTUE, if you’re curious, the first I ever attended) that pointed out that Tolkien had carefully built both the “modern” Dwarven and Elvish languages to both come from a common root. That’s some serious worldbuilding … but it also was deeply relevant to the setting he’d built, showing that Elves and Dwarves had once been close but later split, and the attentive reader, such as the one giving the panel, could note these similarities and that the story showed the gradual drift away if one paid attention to the dates.

Extravagant? Well, I won’t argue that. But it was something that was a deep part of the setting and directly relevant to the Fellowship (the main cast, if you’ve not read the series): Elves and Dwarves had a bit of a beef with one another. No longer violent, just … there. But once, they’d been friends.

As this had been an important part of the setting, Tolkien worked it into the structure of the world.

Okay. With all of this said, naturally we need to move into how we can apply what we’ve talked about to our own worldbuilding. How can we worldbuild deep, complicated settings while making them functional and not getting caught up in the allure of brainstorming without consequence?

Well, let’s break it down. One of the first things we can do—and I know some of you will balk at this one—is research what we’re going to be worldbuilding.

Do you want to write a story about nomadic people? Well, you should look at real-life examples of nomadic people to understand the mechanisms, needs, and solutions to the nomadic life. I’m not talking about lifting a real-world culture note for note, but looking at the issues they needed to solve—For example, where does a nomadic people get water? Is it carried with them? Found each day? What about food? Shelter?—and figuring out how the people in your book will solve those same problems.

Yes, this sounds like a lot of work. I know that some want to be writers because they feel “I don’t need to know what the world is like, I’m writing fiction” but the truth is that even in something like Through the Looking Glass or The Phantom Tollbooth there are rules. Rules of a setting that a cast and world must work around, just like in real life.

So when it comes to your worldbuilding, if you want to write a story about fisherman living on a desert coast with a tech level of some point in the middle ages … then you’d better know a bit about real-world problems and solutions for that sort of setting. Then you can layer the fantastic atop that, adding new problems and new solutions for this culture to deal with.

But again, keep it relevant. It’s fine to decide “Okay, there’s a dangerous predator fish” so that your protagonist who is passing through said town can ask “How’d you lose that finger?” and be told “Don’t try to take a rock-hopper out of a net with bare hands” It’s not okay to spend four hours of worldbuilding time working out the life-cycle of rock-hoppers, how they factor into the local economy, how one properly handles them, etc etc, if all that’s going to happen is a side-character saying “Don’t try to take a rock-hopper out of a net with bare hands” and our protag says ‘Oh, yikes, I’ll keep that in mind” and goes on his merry way, the tock-hopper never coming up again. It’s fine that the exchange happened, but spending all that time worldbuilding rock-hopper mating habits? Not worth your time.

Now, I do acknowledge that not everything gets used. You can err on the side of caution with this one and worldbuild things that you may not get into too much detail about in the story. Take the prior example of me having several paragraphs about an Indrim city that never appears in Shadow of an Empire, though it is referenced as part of the history. But that was several paragraphs, rather than a treaty on its trade routes and historical leaders. The only city that got that treatment in any fashion was the capital city of Indrim itself which, surprise surprise, is pretty important to the story.

You may not know your story yet. Maybe you’re just brainstorming and worldbuilding until something catches your eye? Well in that case, don’t go down a rabbit hole either until you see a story potential, and once you do lock it in. Narrow your focus to material you’ll need to have on hand for the story you want to tell. Example: Okay, so this means my protagonist will need to travel from this city to this city for the story, and quickly. What modes of travel could my setting have? Horseback? Carriage? Hot air balloon? Magical airship? Teleportation?

Now, here’s a real kicker: Each time you “create” something like this in the setting, you need to think of the ramifications of such a technology. For example, what if you’d said “teleportation” above. Now you have a setting where magic teleportation between cities is possible. So you may want to examine how it is possible, what the requirements are. Are your antagonists using it? What about business? Trade? Are there limits? Restrictions?

You may have just opened a can of worms that make the story you’ve planned fall apart. And if you don’t ask yourself these worldbuilding questions, you may not even realize it, either until you end up rewriting most of the story or you release it and someone else notices.

All so that our protagonist can travel quickly to a neighboring city. Questions like this are why worldbuilding has its place in writing. Some authors, of course, just wing it, and then refine later. That works too. And the solution may be very simple. “Oh,” you say with aplomb. “Teleportation is expensive, dangerous, and therefore restricted to the royal family. My protagonist will win a boon from them in an early chapter, so they save it until they need it, and that’s that.”

That works. But only by worldbuilding the ramifications of what you built were you ever aware that you needed to think about it in the first place.

So. understand and research what we want to worldbuild. Then, keep our worldbuilding relevant. Lastly, if you add something, extrapolate the ramifications of what you’ve created. A good rule of thumb question to ask with any addition of magic or tech, for example, is “How could someone attempt to—and perhaps succeed—at making money with this?”

With all this said—and it’s a lot, I know—let’s talk about executing our heavy worldbuilding. How can we take all this material and make it useable when we write our story?

Well, the answer is simpler than you might think, but also again requires a little bit of work. We do so by planning and organizing.

See, when I go back to any of the worldbuilding files I have for my books, like Shadow of an Empire or the upcoming Starforge, there’s a nice little array of titled documents ready for me to open and peruse. Question about Sali handling money in Shadow? Money in the Empire likely has my answer, along with a bunch of other information about trade and economy that I want to keep in mind. Furthermore, when I open any of these documents (which I keep on Google drive, but you could have wherever), I’m faced with an array of formatting, bullet points, spacing, and easily searchable terms so that when I need it right now and don’t see the proper heading a quick CTRL+F takes me right to what I want.

In other words, there is order and structure to my worldbuilding. Sometimes this meant going back through it and formatting things, or even moving blocks of text to other documents.

Now, my structure shouldn’t be your structure, but you should have a structure. You should have some form to your worldbuilding so that once you start writing, your notes are easily found and referenced so that any potential disruption rolls right back to writing as quickly as possible.

Again, my structure is my structure. Yours should be yours. It should also be there. Maybe it takes the shape of hyperlinks in a chapter synopsis to the relevant worldbuilding files (I’ve heard of this one). Maybe it’s printing all those files and having a binder on your desk with tabs you can peruse (heard of this one too).

But the ultimate directive, regardless of method, is that these notes that have been created are used and accessible. Have them there so that you can call upon them when you need to remember an obscure detail because a character is making a joke about it. Don’t just let it all languish.

Now, a side note: Sometimes you may realize that a minor note you jotted down doesn’t serve the story or would be so much better if it was tweaked slightly. That’s fine. I have plenty of worldbuilding notes that were later tweaked because “Oh, a character wanted to make a joke here, and with this change that’s a great joke, and it doesn’t affect anything else.” Remember, the story isn’t serving the worldbuilding, but the worldbuilding the story.

So, did you get all that? I know, it’s a lot. But really quick, let’s go over the highlights. First, your worldbuilding needs to be worldbuilding and not brainstorming. It needs to have structure and logic. It also needs to be relevant to your planned story. You are building a foundation upon which the rest of the story will be built, so unless you want a two-story garage, maybe you don’t don’t need to build the foundation for one.

Now, do research what you’re building so that you have understanding of how all the bits and cogs fit together, and what ripples your changes may send through it. Keep it relevant, but consider the ramifications of any change you make.

Lastly, be sure to structure and organize your worldbuilding notes so that you can use them later. Find a structure, order, or layout that makes it as easy as possible for you to dip your toes in and then return to your writing. Again, the worldbuilding you do is in service to the story, not the other way around. So if you don’t organize, and that keeps you from smoothly writing, your worldbuilding has gotten in the way.

Ultimately, it’s all about the story.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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