Happy Sunday, writers! Today we are going to talk about worldbuilding, or, The Thing You Spend Ungodly Amounts Of Time On And Then Try To Make Invisible In Your Story.
Worldbuilding is just what it sounds like. It is the act of creating the world in which your story takes place. You will have to do it regardless of what kind of book you’re writing (mystery, contemporary YA, romance, historical fiction, you name it), although some genres require much more of it (*coughSciFiFantasycough*). Your approach will also vary greatly depending on what you’re writing.
For example, if you’re writing a contemporary YA novel set in Suburbia, USA, your worldbuilding is going to be centered on your main character’s town, possibly his or her school if your book is set during the school year, local hangouts, etc. You might get down and dirty with it and create a map of the town, which is awesome because, let’s face it, I fucking love maps. But unless there’s some sort of global crisis that directly affects your main character or his or her surroundings, you’re not going to worry about the world at large. You also won’t need to worry too much about things like transportation, technology, religion, because your book is set NOW. You can look at the world around you for those things without having to research/recreate them (if you’re working on a story set in a specific historical period) or create them from scratch (if you’re working on a science fiction or fantasy story). If your character wants to go somewhere, she can hop in the car (if she can drive) or take the cablecar (or whatever those moody cats do in those YA books of theirs). Now, if your moody teen is involved in a cult, you might want to create a cult or research cults. You get the idea: it depends on your story. John Green’s worldbuilding is very different from Stephanie Meyers’s worldbuilding.
Things get a little trickier if your book is set on a different planet than our own. That’s when us obsessive compulsive writers reaaaally come out and party…at home, by ourselves, staring at our screens for hours and hours. Woo! You’re going to have to consider what kind of life forms live on your planet, what kind of atmosphere it has, what kinds of natural resources. You’re going to want to think about the dominant species. Do they have a system of government? How technologically advanced are they? Have they mastered space travel? What kind of currency do they use? What kinds of garments do they wear? Do they have social classes?
Here are some amazing resources for worldbuilding, because if I were to try to cover every question you could possibly need to ask in order to create your world, I’d be here for days, and I have revisions to do. So, here you go:
And, my personal favorite, Chuck Wendig:
The most important thing to know about worldbuilding is that YOU NEED TO KNOW WHEN TO STOP. And by that I mean: know when to stop worldbuilding and start writing, AND know how much is too much to put into the book.
There is an extremely fine line in both cases. In my above contemporary YA example, it’s going to be easy (YOU GUYS HAVE IT SO EASY YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW *cries*). You’re going to name your town, name your school, name the local hangouts, maybe even name the main streets. Then you’re going to move on. You won’t have to worry too much about overloading your reader with worldbuilding in your book, because (unless you’re crazy) you’re not going to take the JRR Tolkein approach (sorry, JRR) and write “Once there was a teenage girl who lived on Apple Lane, which wound all the way down until it turned into Apple Court, which became very confusing to people who had just moved to the town. They were constantly getting lost. Apple Court, by the way, used to be called Cherry Court, back in the 1950’s when cherry trees lined the road. Those cherry trees were uprooted by Mayor Pumpkinbaum, because they all got a tree disease known as tree-mumps. Tree-mumps were eradicated shortly thereafter, but not before the cherry trees were all cut down and apple trees planted instead.” YOU ARE NOT GOING TO WRITE THAT.
My SFF nerds (and even my historical fiction nerds) have it much harder. It is so easy to get lost in creating your planet, your galaxy, your solar system (or in researching your chosen time period), that you look up 5 years later and realize you have notebooks full of facts and details and no novel. Hell, at this point you’ve forgotten what the story WAS. And, when you finally sit down to write, you bore everyone to tears with a description of every single thing you came up with when you were worldbuilding, or every single weird fact you found about girdles.
Know when to stop.
Personally, I worldbuild until the very end of my very last draft. I figure out as much of the world as I’ll need to in order to write the Shitty First Draft. Then, when I’m doing revisions, I figure out what I need to flesh out (does the reader need to know more about the mechanics of magic for this to make sense? that sort of thing) and then worldbuild some more. I add slowly to make sure I don’t go crazy with it. It’s like “salt, to taste” in a recipe. You aren’t going to start with a tablespoon, because that shit’s strong and too much can ruin whatever you’re making. You’re going to start with 1/4 teaspoon, taste, and add more if you need it. That’s my approach, anyway.
It’s hard, and it just takes practice. This is what readers are great for. Make sure your readers are HONEST with you about what bored them and bogged down the story. If you get enough feedback, over time you’ll develop an instinct for it yourself. It’s also possible to develop that instinct by reading published works. I learned so, so much about what details NOT to include when I was forcing myself to keep slogging through “The Lord of the Rings” (sorry, JRR).
As Chuck Wendig says in the above links I provided, “Worldbuilding should be a slave to storytelling, not vice versa.”
When I’m working on a novel and am in the worldbuilding phase, I try to focus on the details I’ll need in my story. For example, if time travel exists in your world but the main characters never use it and it’s not crucial to the plot, you’ll want to know the rudiments of how it works and WHY it exists in your world, but you won’t need to type up a 40 page Manifesto Of Time Travel In The Country of New New Mexico. However, if your characters are time travelers going back in time to make sure the main character’s grandmother doesn’t eat the last biscuit, you’re going to want to figure out the mechanics a little bit more.
Then, when you WRITE your book, you are only going to include the details that matter to the story. So, in the first example, if time travel exists in the world but none of your characters do it and it doesn’t really matter to the story, you aren’t going to explain it. At all. I don’t even know what you were thinking, to be honest. In the second example, you aren’t going to go into the details about when time travel was invented or all of the insane technological thingamajigs involved in making it work (unless maybe your main character is the scientist that invented it…even then, be careful about overloading the reader). You are going to tell us how it works and why, and you are going to describe what it feels like, and that’s probably about it.
Obviously, find the ratio that works best for you. I love me some Georgie R R Martin. Personally, I don’t really need to know what everyone’s house sigils and mottos are, but some people I know go fucking CRAZY for that stuff. And Georgie, as we know, is doing very well for himself. So what do I know?
Worldbuild to taste. A pinch or a pound, just make sure you wield it well. And if you describe every twist and turn in that fucking stream and what mountain range it passes through and what elf is currently tiptoeing through it looking for dragonflies, I am going to find you and punch you (sorry, JRR).