Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Writerly Wednesday - World Building
Since I started writing, I've discovered a great love of mine is world building, especially paranormal worlds. Maybe it's a by-product of having grown up as a rabid science fiction/fantasy reader or maybe it's just a quirk of my geek desire for rules - or maybe I'm just plain weird.

As a reader, few things will throw me out of a book faster than world building problems, be they illogical or contradictory rules, contradictions of previously stated world rules or just incomplete worlds. If I have to question or try to make sense of something, I stop reading the story in order to do so and then have to try to restart my attempt to immerse myself.

If I only have to take a second and recall a world rule I know or can immediately see a similarity to one I know, I can jump back in immediately and not have to fight to get back in. But if I am frustrated or confused, it's a much longer process. If it's too much, I have been known to just give up on the book.

The very best situation, of course, is to not be pulled out at all because the world rules have been taught to me and nothing has happened to violate or cause me to question them. In that case I don't tend to be pulled out of the story at all.

In my own worlds, I end up following a process I cobbled together that suits the way my mind works. I decided I'd walk through it here in case it either helps someone else or merely discloses how odd my mind really is. Examples are merely what has come to mind as I write this and resemblances to other people's work is unintentional.

Step 1 - Basic Premise
I start with a basic premise. This is usually a little nugget of an idea or concept that I think would be interesting to build a world on. It can be as simple as "vampire funeral home owners" or much more complex. I get these types of ideas all the time and scrawl them down in case I forget them later in my Idea Book.

Step 2 - Basic Plot
Now I have to look at the premise and decide how to turn this into a story. What would cause vampires to own a funeral home? Maybe in this case it's a way for the vampires to attone for those they killed.

I write romances so I need to know where the hero and heroine fit in - maybe in this case the hero is the vampire who is still struggling to atone for the death of a loved one that he caused when he was turned. The heroine is a mourner at a wake/funeral.

What brings them together? The heroine knows a vampire killed her loved one and is seeking the rogue vampire. The hero discovers the body was a vampire victim while preparing him for burial and also starts to hunt for the killer.

Step 3 - Basic World
Now it's time to flesh out the basics of the world this story will take place in. These are the most fundamental rules of how the world operates and how your paranormal aspects work. Thinking about them now will let you deliberately tie them together instead of boxing yourself into a corner all too easily.

In this case, how does vampirism work? Is it transmitted? How? Is it instead something you are born to? How is inheritance done? How is a vampire turned? How does feeding work? Can they shapeshift?

Logic is a requirement. Worlds that don't act or behave logically will drive your readers crazy. So don't have a world where trees are sentient and can talk but they don't say anything when you chop them down.

There are tons of questions you should ask yourself in order to clarify the world. This is never a place I recommend short-changing yourself. Plotter or pantser, the more you KNOW your world, the better you can build the world for your readers.

Step 4 - Expand Plot
Now, unless you are the purest of pantsers, you should plot out the rest of your story or at least get a general idea of any questions that you may not know the answer to yet. It will also help you to recognize where you need to know various rules of your world or the readers will be confused.

Step 5 - Expand World Rules
Fill in any rules you find you still need or details you've thought of that may be intriguing. You should know the rules, even if you never need to present them, because it will help you NOT contradict or violate the rules the reader needs to know.

Step 6 - Write
Now write the story. Recheck your rules and make sure they still make sense. Resist the urge to info-dump your world. Few people will be persistent enought to slog through page after page of pure world building before their story really starts.

I use a technique I call the "train of crumbs" to dribble in world rules and concetpts. I scatter them throught the story, a bit at a time. This allows them to serve as both information AND teasers. If I drop a hint that, say, vampires can get drunk on milk, wouldn't you want to know why?

In terms of world building, the familiar contemporary world is the one that needs the least explanation of how it works unless it differs in some way from "the norm" - like if cars can fly. All other worlds require more effort. Exotic locations do require a bit more work though.

Historical worlds need a moderate amount of actual world building because they are not as familiar to most readers as the contemporary. In this case much of the world can be discovered through research more than built from scratch.

Paranormal worlds require a lot of building because there are so many possible variations of how they function, what exists and what does not.

Science Fiction worlds also require a lot of building for much the same reasons.

Fantasy worlds are the most intensive because you really create the whole world for the reader and need to make it real to them.

My own list of requirements when building a world are:
  1. It must be logical
  2. It must be interesting and different
  3. It must be compelling
  4. It must be effectively presented to the reader

If you can pull your readers out of their world and into yours and keep them there, you'll have succeeded in great world building.


  1. Hey cupcake! Kate Scott is coming to town in 10 days, you want to get together and do something writerly that involves food and beverages?

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