Weekly Writing Memo: Do’s and Don’ts of World BuildingPosted: March 30, 2016
World building is something I hear writers spend a lot of time anxiously freaking out about. All the tips on Where to Start a Story and How to Make Your Audience Care won’t help you get writing if you’re stuck in the preliminary stages of world building, so I thought I’d do a post on the basic do’s and don’ts of developing the world for your story.
When I talk about world building, I don’t just mean fantasy worlds or futuristic science fiction stuff. World building encompasses every story ever written, even ones based on true stories. Whenever you write you are building the world for your audience, so that those whose world view is different can “buy in” and believe the world is real. So every story involves showing the world it takes place in, the ones based on the real world just take a little less set-up because it’s easier for people to accept and figure out.
- DO establish “normal”
Every story has a baseline for what is normal in it. Establishing this just means you are saying to your audience that this is the world the story takes place in, and everything from this point forward will be based on that. To decide what needs to be established in this way, think of what is different in your world than the world we live in.
Do you have monsters that kill people? Do your characters have strong emotional/societal differences? Like in Invention of Lying where they can’t tell a lie, or in horror movies where the monster is supernatural, these things have to be established early on to orient the audience in the world of the story.
You don’t need to show us everything, but do show us what is important for understanding your plot, characters, and anything necessary for the story to work. It’s about small details, and consistency. So first decide what needs to be established, and then look for the easiest, and shortest, way to establish it, preferably in a way that helps move the story forward.
- DON’T over explain
It’s easy to get wrapped up in describing the details of a world because it can be fun to write. If you spend too much time laying out the world, however, it’ll start to feel like a history book of facts rather than a story. The key is to find a balance.
How much information does your audience need to know in order to understand the story? How much do they need in order to get a feel for the world? If you tell the audience just enough to get oriented in how the world works, without going too far past that, they will know what they need for the story and not feel like they’re bogged down by unnecessary details. Ask yourself with every detail, whether it is pertinent to the story, and how the story would be different without it.
- DO find one specific thing
The rule I use whenever I’m world building is to give one specific detail about anything that may be different from our modern world. So if I invent a new corporation, or a new style of car, I give one specific detail about it that tells the audience what this thing is, and how it fits in my world. This gives the audience something to latch onto for visualization, and something to define this “new” thing by.
As a side note, I also use this for minor characters and such in stories. I give them at least one specific detail about them that stands out, be it physical, personality, or history. It helps personalize each character, and make them their own.
- DON’T spend more time world building than writing
I’ve heard more than a few stories about writers who spend years building the world of their story. They think they need maps, and history, and every species planned out, and religions, and etc. While this kind of thing is a version of storytelling in itself, if you aren’t actually ever getting to write the story, you aren’t writing.
The key, as mentioned above, is to figure out what is important to the story and plan those things without going off on any side tangents. If you really feel you need to develop more of the world in order to deepen your story or to solidify the world for yourself, that’s fine, but set limits. Tell yourself you can plan out 3 or 4 main things that are the core of that subject (religion, politics, geography, etc), then force yourself to move on. If it’s not the core of your story, then you don’t really need more than that to get writing.
- DO remember to touch on the big things
Even though I say don’t get sidetracked by things that aren’t necessary to your story, there are several big things that should be touched upon if you are creating a new world. These things are things that are a part of every society, and even if your story works without them, it’ll be more realistic if you have some mention (even minor) of them.
The big 5, I think, are: politics, religion, culture (fashion, music, art, etc), transportation, and commerce (agriculture, industry, production, markets, etc). There are more, but these are the ones that no matter where your character is, there will always be touches of them present somewhere.
They don’t require an in depth expository segment on them, they just require the small details being integrated throughout your story wherever there is an easy opportunity for them. Your character passes people in a hall, we’ll see touches of their culture in clothes and appearance, and maybe even faith in jewelry or tattoos and such. The passing details can tell us a lot.
- DON’T compare
Don’t go the easy route and say anything that can be summed up as “unlike the world you know, this world works like this.” If you’re creating your world, our world probably doesn’t exist in it. Now, if you’re writing a character who is from “our” world and goes to another, then of course this doesn’t apply. If, however, you’re writing your completely original world, then it doesn’t make sense for your narrator to talk about a world they shouldn’t even know about.
You can use things from the known world in your world, that’s done all the time, just don’t point them out as being from our world. Your narrator is the one telling the story, so stay true to how they’d describe things. If their world doesn’t have bicycles, don’t describe something that looks like a spoked circle as being “like a bicycle wheel.” You have to stay true to the narrator.
All of this kind of sums up to one major point. Do only as much planning as necessary to develop the basis of your world, and try to avoid overindulging in the development stage. A lot of the world building can happen as you work.
Personally, I develop what is necessary for the plot first, then start writing. While I write, I keep a Word document with new details I add. If I name a gadget or a city as I go, I write it on the Word document so I don’t forget what it’s named. It’s something I keep open as I write so I can reference and update it as needed. As with the post on researching, the thing to remember is that all roads should lead to writing and telling the story, so try to world build with that in mind.