Everyone who writes knows what world building is and does it to some degree. Most authors simply build a world up front or flesh it out as they write. Authors sit at the opposite ends of the spectrum of preparation but there is a hybrid approach that may be helpful for both. The first step is the traditional world building rush where the author plans and plots the world, its features and inhabitants. After that, the author breaks away and then begins to plan a story set against the world while revising and fleshing out the world. Finally, during rewrites, the world is made to be self-consistent after the various edits.
World building is awesome. It’s fun and can be a little exciting for an author as they flesh out new worlds, peoples, governments, magics and sciences. Entire genres are defined by their worlds and settings can even dictate what kind of a story is going to be told. An author creating that world has, for a brief moment in time, the ability to control the spark of all creation. Sometimes, authors find world building to be so much fun that they decide to shift gears and start developing worlds for RPG settings. There are tracks into getting published, but the market is a little more restricted than novels or short stories. I’m not going to tell you what elements go into world-building as that seems to be what 90% of authors do naturally and write at length about for the rest.
They key point is that mainstream fiction tells stories. Readers need world and setting like diners need salt during a meal. If there is too little in the finished product, it is bland and feels unsatisfying. To risk extending the metaphor to breaking point, the world is the plate upon which the meat of the story is served. Spend too much time on the world and the reader is also unsatisfied. When an author has a satisfying world ready for the story, it is time to begin plotting.
While going through the outlining and character development phase, or when discovery writing, gaps in the world can become apparent. Normally the urge can be to press forward with writing and fill the gaps in the world, and this can work, but performing a high-level outlining effort during the world building phase can benefit both greatly. When deciding why a character is a certain way, or how government works, putting on the world building cap can lead to interesting twists and turns that enrich the story.
Instead of simply filling a plot hole with a bit of hand waving, an author can impress readers by providing novel answers to fill the hole. This is best done by re-engineering the world to close the hole in a way that the character doesn’t even see the possibility of a hole. When sitting with a world outline on one side of the screen and a plot outline on the other, a direct set of links can be created that identify sections of the world that need to be fleshed out as deliberately as the rest of the world. It can also highlight areas that are not used and show that those sections have crossed the threshold for enough effort. Finally, placing a time limit on world building and switching to plot can help discipline the author to actually move on to the storytelling phase.
As an alternate to developing a rough plot outline during the world building phase, a discovery writer, or pantser, can start writing stories about the inhabitants of the various set pieces. Write a short story about a clerk who works in government, a warrior or soldier in the army, a doctor in a small town practice, and anyone else who has perspective that can flesh out the world at large.
A good world is one capable of supporting a single story. A great world can tell many. If the goal of the author is to write a series, the world notes should be kept up to date during the revisions phase to capture any changes that the world makes in concession to the plot. These notes can be used in the sequel and beyond and need to be consistent.
But that’s looking pretty far ahead compared to where you are. You’re busy falling in love with a world, a character, a storyline, or an idea. Build a world and serve your story on it.