What is World Building?

World building is something I’ve been interested in lately because of the science fiction fantasy novel I’ve been writing. Such a genre requires an extensive amount of world building, and I wanted to make sure I was doing it right. In that endeavor, I took a workshop at Context about world building presented by fantasy author Elizabeth Bear. This post answers the question of What is World Building, and next week’s post talks about the Seven Deadly Sins of World Building. Both posts are the accumulation of notes I took for the incredible workshop. Enjoy!

“Fish do not talk about them swimming, but about the state of the water.” –Elizabeth Bear

World building is not just reserved for the actual world and the elements inside that world. World building encompasses all of the following (and more)…

  • Character
  • Plot
  • Setting
  • White space
  • Implication
  • Material culture
  • Economics
  • Point of view
  • Narrative
  • Atmosphere

What world building is not is…

  • Endless exposition
  • Long prologues
  • Two characters discussing what they do everyday

How to world build…

  • The moment something changes is a great place to start a story.
  • Learning to write good nonfiction is imperative to writing fiction, because it helps to acquire argumentative prose.
  • Give the reader a hook to keep him going and do this until eventually you give them enough information that the reader figures it out themselves. This invests the reader and gets the reader involved in the story.
  • Including- write the scene with the assumptions of world building in mind. If you put the pattern in the sky (figuratively speaking), the reader will be able to figure things out themselves.
  • You have to lead the reader to where you want them to go, but you want the reader to think it’s their own choice.
  • Readers like to be invited to feel clever. Don’t tell the reader how they should feel about a scene.
  • You can break any rule you like, as long as you make it entertaining. And you know what rule you are breaking and understand why you are breaking it.

To make world building textured…

  • Layers
  • Complications
  • Contradictions
  • Revelation
  • Ask the next question

Building the technology (for science fiction writers)…

  • Don’t tell me how the FTL drive works, tell me how it feels when the FTL drive is working.
  • Have the cool thing (technology) and expand on the consequences.
  • It doesn’t matter how something works unless it is a specific part of the character’s story.
  • It’s okay to throw out ideas that don’t work.
  • Set your rules and use them consistently.

What world building does for the story…

  • World building allows you to have events happen in the story without having to stop and explain. That is because you have already done the work ahead of time by setting the stage for what will come.
  • World building provides atmosphere and tone.
  • World Building is on going from the first page to the last page.
  • World Building takes place in the reader’s heads.

Some important questions to ask…

  • How does the world work?- this sense of mystery is important to let the reader see it for himself.
  • Why should the reader care?
  • What does the character want?

Other important things to remember…

  • Remind yourself that you don’t have to show your work to anyone. Keep it to yourself and let it grow and become what it should be. Don’t think it has to see the light unless you want it to.
  • Feel free to change stuff. To experiment. To do crazy and wonderful things.
  • You train yourself to get better and faster with coming up with new ideas.
  • Give clues through nontextural details.
  • You need to be aware that people/aliens not from our culture will have different culture prospective.
  • The character is going to notice things that seem off to them or different.
  • The power of small details. Everything put on the page can help world build.
  • World building is the art of implication.
  • Show the space around the orchard for the reader to see the orchard.
  • World building needs to be more that one question deep.

Examples of good world building…

  • Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth shows a good opening and how world building needs to be used as soon as possible to give the reader a vivid picture of where the story is set.
  • Jurassic Park is a good look at people who have different views.
  • Read Elizabeth Bear’s fantasy series The Eternal Sky to get a good look at how to do variety in cultural differences.

Want to know more about world building? Check out my next post next week The Seven Deadly Sins of World Building.

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3 thoughts on “What is World Building?

  1. Cynthia,
    Loved this post. Thanks. Really like the concept of not saying how a drive system works, but how it FEELS. Sci-Fi is still fiction, so should still be experiential. BTW- LOVE the world of Pillars of Earth. An excellent example to end on.

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