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World Building 101 - Introduction

November 16, 2017

I originally had this series posted on my wattpad account, and it was reasonably popular so I'm re-posting it here for anyone who wants a primer on world building. Enjoy!


Fiction stories are interesting things. A writer takes the ideas, characters and story that reside in their own head and tries to put the same story into another person's head. The goal is for the writer's story to be entertaining for the reader. The setting is a crucial part of this story in that it gives a stage for the characters to play out their actions and, in doing, entertain your reader. The design of the setting (or world) can be minimalist or very comprehensive, usually depending on the type of story that is being told. If the reader is  familiar with the setting then the writer can take shortcuts by making assumptions. With some genres this is easier. With some genres, like high fantasy for example, the setting is sometimes only familiar to the writer and many details need to be communicated to the reader for the story to make sense. With this article I'm going to try to detail how much detail needs to go into World Building and some tips on how to effectively World Build without writing a historical document. Stay tuned if you find this interesting!


Q: How much is enough? A: Just enough!


World Building is a tricky business as that you need a certain amount of it for your story to make sense, but at the same time too much of it drowns your reader and they'll move onto green, more interesting pastures. A writer might argue that they just need to get all the world building done up front, and then the reader can sit back and enjoy the rest of the book but nuh-uh! Info dumps of any kind early in a story, before a reader is invested, is poison. Unless the reader is your mom, a bored reader is going to yawn and pick up something else. Studies show that readers form their opinions quickly, usually in the first few pages of a story so while a couple lines of setting description is completely fine, three pages expounding the political struggles of two imaginary empires is likely going to be as dry as a history textbook. 


Before you begin writing your story, and this is extra special true of any spec fiction where the story world differs greatly from the real world, think about what is necessary for the reader to know. Vampires are a good example. Everyone knows vampires right? Burn in sunlight, drink blood, prey on virgins and generally mope around. but not all vampires are created equally. The Twilight vampires are decidedly different from the Vampire Diaries vampires and the original Nosferatu was so far away from the current stereotype as to be almost unrecognizable (no young high school maids swooning for THAT guy). So when you're writing your vampire story, think about what makes your vampires different than all the rest. What makes them special? What does the reader NEED to know about YOUR vampires in order to make the story work. Put those details on and move on. Remember, the world you're writing in, even though it might be super detailed, is ultimately a backdrop. 


After you've got your list of need to know details about your world, take a look at the story you're trying to tell. Think of some of the scenes you want to include and some of the adventures your characters are going to get up to. This is your story so you can pull the strings to make it work. Think of ways to drop these little world building nuggets into the story. Your goal is to maintain the pace, keep the interesting action going (most important at the beginning of the story) and keep your reader informed about your world on a need to know basis. Sometimes that means changing a scene, sometimes that means having a character introduced sooner than you expected. It should amount to a well rounded story with a fully created world where the writer focuses on story telling.


Techniques for World Building 


This section is probably mostly directed towards writers of spec fiction, science fiction and fantasy, where the story worlds are drastically different from the real world. Magic systems, weird science and strange civilizations abound in these stories and part of the fun for the writer is showing these things to a reader. But, BUT, the rules above should still apply. Worlds are backdrops, however interesting they are, and story telling should be forefront. So how do you give the reader all the details of your meticulously create story world without boring them? You show them. Here's my tricks.


The ages-old favorite is to have a teachable character. Tolkien used a teachable character in Frodo and Sam, Rowling used Harry and so on and so forth. The idea is very simple: have a character that is as naive as the reader and have the character learn in their adventures. The reader, by default, learns along with this 'teachable' character. To be fully effective the character's world at the beginning of the story needs to be familiar to the reader or at least the differences should be able to be detailed in a couple of lines of description. Then the teachable character ventures out into the unknown world. This also models Joseph Cambells "the Hero's Journey" ('s_journey.htm ) which can be seen a definitive template for almost every story ever written. Hey, if it's not not broke, amirite?


Another method for world building is to almost forget about it. The ends justify the means in a lot of cases and some stories don't benefit from an embellished world. Does your Wizard throw fireballs? Great! Does the reader need to know that your wizard's magic is dependent on the phases of the moon and a complex recipe of herbs and beetle shells? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. That Orc fighter is still going to get a face full of flame d'orb and maybe that's what matters the most. This technique works best in a fast paced story where the action is the important aspect. Maybe you go into detail about certain scenes that are exciting,  but the history of the giant hamster powered clock your final scene is taking place in might be irrelevant. The man eating hamster trying to claw at your two characters is likely more important. 




World building is important. The thing to remember is that it's not the MOST important. Good writers can tell a story as they world build, showing the reader aspects of their amazing settings through the eyes and experiences of characters. Depending on what you want the story to feel like, more or less world building is necessary. More world building AKA exposition will almost always slow down the pace of a story while less world building makes a story lean and fast. End of the day, these decisions are yours to make to make the kind of story you want to tell.

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