Some Worldbuilding Thoughts
Recently, I had a fun conversation with @sansjoshiki, who sent us a question on anon but then followed up with my request for more information. (Thanks for doing that!) It’s exciting to be able to answer questions to the best of our ability because we have all the information!
Anyway, a lot of the stuff I said was not specific to their world, and I think that some of you may enjoy and benefit from it, so here’s some general advice on putting worlds together and incorporating details into your stories!
So, having a single concept (or a few unrelated concepts) and building a world and story from it is completely doable, and can be a lot of fun! But it can also be totally overwhelming and difficult to decide just how much to build, what to focus on, and how to incorporate all of it.
This process is easier if you have a plot or a character in mind, because you can use that as a lens to decide what parts of the world are important to focus on. For instance, if your character is royalty, do they care how the peasants get water? Will that factoid ever show up? Probably not. With that in mind, it’s fine to have no detail or vaguery in regards to things that aren’t relevant, so don’t strain yourself trying to explain every little thing.
Using guides to help you come up with your world can be extremely helpful to cover all the relevant bases, but no guide will ever match exactly what you need for your story in particular. I think that possibly the best thing for you to do is to start thinking about your character and/or plot. If you don’t have a plot, think about elements in the world that are especially interesting to you and contemplate ways to get those involved in your plot. If you do have a plot, then start thinking about particular aspects of your world that will definitely be involved. If your plot/character(s) are involved with the government, you’ll need to have a pretty solid idea of how that government functions, but if not, that’s a detail you can probably gloss over with only basic details.
If your plot is detailed, start thinking of particular scenes that you want to write in it. For instance, if you want a scene to take place in a store or market, you’ll need to think about how that’s laid out. Is there just one store that sells almost everything? Do most shops specify? Is there an open-forum market with lots of small vendors, or large department stores? How does the currency work? (Actually, “how does the currency work” is a question you should probably answer regardless of whether economics will be a focus, unless the average person on your world doesn’t use currency).
With this in mind, build the parts of the world that pertain to a scene until you can get a sense of what it would be like to be there. Think about real-world situations that are similar; what does it feel like to be in a government building? In a bank? In a convenience store? In a high-priced and specialized boutique? On a farm? How would these things change based on the ways your world works? For instance, if your world no longer employs people to run cash registers and instead uses something like Walmart’s self-checkout, how does that change the experience of going to the store?
Once you have a basic sense for the scene, start writing! You don’t need to know every detail by this step; in fact, don’t try to know every detail. Just place yourself with your character in the scene, and think about what you’d notice and what’s important.
However, be careful about glossing over “unimportant” things, or at least keep in mind that you did. If a detail is irrelevant in an early scene, but then becomes important later, you don’t want to contradict what you’ve said before. I’m guilty of this; I write along willy-nilly, and sometimes when I’m rereading, I realized that a detail I develop well in chapter 5 is contradicted by something I handwaved in chapter 2. This is fixable, of course, but you might save yourself a little headache by thinking about it beforehand. Having to rewrite what used to be the perfect scene because one detail changes everything is annoying.
Also, don’t be tempted to start from the very beginning with this method of worldbuilding a single scene; think of scenes that are critical to your story and what they’ll entail, and work backwards to the ones that are less critical.
Ultimately, don’t forget that worldbuilding shouldn’t get wholly in the way of your writing. It can be lots of fun and create a great story, but if you find yourself never starting because you don’t have all the details in place, relax.
Sometimes, “Just start writing” can be the best thing when you’re stuck with worldbuilding. If a detail is needed to make the story work, or to make the world believable, you’ll realize that as you go, and then you can pause, figure it out, and then carry on.
As for putting an adequate amount of world detail in, we’ve done a few posts about that in past. I’ll say a few words about that:
Putting detail in can be tricky, because you know all these things about your world and many of them might be working together to create a scene. However, you don’t want to annoy or bore your reader, so you have to limit yourself. Having a beta reader can be great for that, because they can let you know when you have too much or too little detail. Personally, I think that erring on the side of too little and then having your beta reader tell you so is best. If you’re confusing your readers, you’ll need to put more detail in, but people are less likely to tell you when you have too much detail. Try to keep in mind what’s essential for the world, and also what’s abnormal. Your character isn’t likely to be thinking about how the space-age toilet works (unless they work in the sci-fi equivalent of plumbing), and even though knowing what happens to the waste can be important to the author, it is unlikely to come up in a story. Put yourself in that situation, remind yourself that everything you’ve built is the norm for that world, and then think about what you’d actually notice.
If you have abnormal things going on, those are easier to explain and make it make sense that you are explaining them. This can also be used to show what the norm is: “Instead of just going into the vaporizer like it always did, [character]’s urine was sitting in the receptacle, making the bathroom smell bad.” Bam, now we know that toilets have vaporizers and that this one is malfunctioning.
Thanks for reading, and happy building! -Werew