If you have ever wanted to write a Fantasy or Sci-Fi story, you’ve undoubtedly wondered when the perfect time to write the story would be. You may know the story you want to tell, but maybe you’re not sure about the ins and outs of how the story will interact with the universe you hope to create. Sometimes, this can cause what some writers call “Worldbuilding Hell,” a rabbit hole that many authors fall into that makes it hard to get back into the real story writing. So, how can you avoid the worldbuilding trap while still telling the story you want to tell in an appropriately designed world of your choosing? Here are some steps to consider that might help guide you through the process.
Step 1: What Kind of Writer are You?
First off, you should try to understand yourself as a writer as best as possible. Most people fall somewhere on a spectrum between being an outliner and a discoverer. Outliners, which I tend to be more closely aligned with, spend much of their time outlining the story, adding information about scenes and chapters long before writing the first sentence of the book. Discoverers prefer the freedom of letting the story take them wherever it makes sense based on the conditions of the characters and the world around them.
I won’t say one style is better than the other, because while Brandon Sanderson is an outliner and George R. R. Martin is a discoverer (he uses the terms architect versus gardener), Stephen King is a discoverer and he’s just as prolific as Brandon Sanderson. Figure out through your writing where you fall on the spectrum, and understand the strengths and weaknesses of your particular style as soon as possible.
Once you understand how you work best, now you can consider your next steps.
Step 2: Take Inventory of Your Ideas
If you’re about to embark on a potentially years/decades-long journey into a world of your own creation, you will want a baseline understanding at least of the ideas in your head before you get started. This is where you will make some decisions, but relax – you can change them as much as needed until your work is published.
The topics you should understand and write as much down about and expand on later are as follows. Some sample questions are listed to get you thinking about your creative work:
- Who will we be following?
- What type of story/stories are you trying to tell in your book? (Refer to How to Tell the Four Types of Stories to get more information on this.)
- Are there any genre expectations that you need to consider including or subverting?
- Will this be a stand-alone book or part of a greater series?
- Why is this story so important to be told?
- World / Universe Setting
- What is the universe like? Is it generally a good or bad place to live?
- How important are cultural, racial and religious differences in the universe?
- What major events have shaped the world in which your characters live, for good or bad?
- What types of government systems are there?
- What are the social structures like in the world? (Caste systems? Feudalism? Modern/Futuristic Government Systems? Tribal rule?)
- What is the day in the life of a random, unimportant character like in your world?
- What dangers lie in the world that the people who live there should know about? What shouldn’t they?
- Does time flow the same in this universe as it does on Earth?
- Is there a difference between the physics of your world and the Earth?
- Magic System / Technology
- Is there magic in the universe?
- What are the limitations of the magic?
- How prevalent is the magic? Who can use it?
- What is the source of the magic?
- Do the people who live in the world understand the magic and its limitations?
- What kind of technology is in the world?
- How did they get to this point as a civilization?
- What differences, if any, are there between the technology of Earth and your world?
- What things are normalized in the world?
- What’s not normal, but still possible in the world, based on your rules?
- Does anyone oversee the use of the magic/technology in the universe?
- Is there magic in the universe?
- Target Audience
- Who do you want to read your story and why?
- What considerations should you understand to make your story as well received as possible for your target audience?
- Is your story genre/target audience popular right now? Does it make a difference to you?
Step 3: Preparing For Your First Draft
Now that you’ve given adequate thought about the world and what kind of story you want to tell to your target audience, you may or may not be ready for your first draft. At very least, you should understand where you might need to think more about the elements of your story and world. So, how do you know when you’re ready for your first draft?
The answer is different depending on what type of writer you are. If you’re a discovery writer, it’s typical that you will be ready to start writing sooner than an outliner. I’m an outliner, so the next step for me is to use a writing software – I love Scrivener, as it allows me to outline my story scene by scene, move scenes around, write notes, and ultimately compile my novel into many different formats.
For me, there’s nothing better than doing the work of figuring out the logistics before I begin my journey. When every leg of the journey is carefully considered, calculated and chosen, it makes the driving much less stressful. I outline my scenes with who will be involved, what major plot elements should be in it, and any other things I want to make sure I include. When I get to writing that scene, it makes it much easier to do, knowing that certain things have to happen. The art there for me is how I make it happen naturally through the decisions of the characters.
Discovery writers often like to start writing, and their first and second draft often have major structural changes to them as compared to the outliners. They tend to find out who their characters are based on the situations they put them in, and from that they drive the plot. This is an exciting way to write, as you often write something significantly different than you set out to write, but it can lead to problems later on.
One thing I recommend for all writers is to know your ending before you start writing. I cover that topic here, so you can check that out.
The most important part to understand as you’re writing your first draft is that you’re going to want to make more drafts, especially with Fantasy/Sci-Fi genre novels. So, don’t go too hard on yourself as you’re writing. Get through your first draft and keep it to yourself for now.
Step 4: Lessons Learned from Draft 1
Now that you’ve finished draft one of your book, take a long break from writing if you can. Especially if this is your first book, you will want to make sure that your story is bullet-proof. I’m not talking grammatical or spelling errors. I’m talking major concerns with the first draft that you might discover by writing and later reading it over.
One thing I realized after writing the first draft of my book Pancho’s Fall which is still a work in progress, was that the worldbuilding just wasn’t there. On top of that, I realized that several characters who I wanted to be mysterious just ended up reading like flat, boring characters. The spark I was going for in the romance of the book just felt… weird. On top of all of that, my writing itself progressively got better as I wrote the story, so it was inconsistent as hell and a bit of a mess. It was obvious to me shortly after finishing the first draft that this, while a big accomplishment for me to celebrate, was not anywhere near ready.
So, what did I do? Well, I started this blog in order to start fleshing out my world better as I figured out the other issues in my book. Suddenly, I wasn’t in a hurry to get the book off to be reviewed by agents and editors – I now had time to work on the book without actually writing the book itself. It’s fairly common for authors to create a wiki as well, in order to write down information similar to what I’ve written in this blog.
Regardless of how you want to do it, you should take a big step back after finishing your first draft, determine what additional work you need to do for your worldbuilding, and then give yourself plenty of time and freedom to do so. That way, when you have sufficiently filled in as much of the holes you are missing, you may be ready for draft two.
Step 5: Draft Two and Beyond
Now that you have this process down, you can apply everything you’ve already learned to finish your book. You simply have to do more of this as you go. If you have addressed all the major issues you had with draft one, then draft two should be pretty fun for you, even if it is a complete re-write (which I recommend whole-heartedly.) If you give yourself enough time and build up your world sufficiently, you should be ready at this point to make what may be your first peer-reviewable draft.
Have some trusted people read your work and give you visceral, honest opinions about it. Find people who like the genre, and some who don’t. They will give you different feedback, and that’s a good thing. Ask them to just react to the book in this phase, don’t worry about proofreading. That comes much later.
Write as many drafts as it takes to make your best book. Take worldbuilding breaks as often as you need. Reconsider the rules of your world if the story demands it. You work so hard on your story; don’t short-change yourself or try to speed it along when you really shouldn’t have to do so. Work that block of clay until it’s something you can really be proud of. Then, you can start shopping around for editors/agents/publishers to help you get your book out there.
And then get ready to start book number two, if that’s your thing.