How I Worldbuild
This is a continuation of a series of blog posts I'm doing to explore different parts of my writing process and how I put a story together from start to finish. If you want to see earlier topics, you can find them in the writing section of my blog.
Today I'm talking about how I world-build. This is another one of those huge and super complex topics that could take up multiple posts and even multiple books. Today I'll just touch on some useful tips and tools that have worked as part of my own process.
1. Focus on what's most important
I'll be honest: worldbuilding isn't always my favorite thing, both as a writer and as a reader. I mean, I enjoy it, but only to a certain extent. When we start getting into a bunch of nitty-gritty details that don't feel important to the plot or characters, I lose interest and become overwhelmed.
That's not the case for everyone. Some readers love really extensive, in-depth worldbuilding. Some writers thrive on creating centuries-long histories for their fictional worlds and exploring every single culture down to the smallest details. But for a lot of us, it's more of a balance. I've found it helpful to just stick to what's going to be most important to the story, and to do that, I ask myself two fundamental questions. 1) What is going to have the most impact on how my characters think, act, and interact with their world? and 2) What is going to have the most impact on the way the plot, subplots, and conflicts of the story play out?
And sure, there are multiple layers to each of those questions. But when I feel like I'm stuck or trying to decide whether it's necessary to include or devote lots of page time to some piece of worldbuilding, those are the questions I ask myself. If it doesn't have an impact on the characters or plot, I'm probably not going to worry about it as much.
2. You don't need to explain everything
Sometimes you might want to include pieces of world-building that don't directly have an impact on the plot or characters. Maybe you're one of those writers who really likes world-building, and your audience is made up of people for whom much of the enjoyment of reading is found in just exploring new worlds. Maybe you just want to give your world a greater sense of depth and authenticity.
That's totally fine. All of those things and more are perfectly valid reasons to go a little more in-depth with your worldbuilding. But, like everything else in writing, it's a balancing act. You want to get readers immersed in your world without boring them to death. You want to show the things that make your world unique and interesting without sacrificing the story's pacing.
To that end, keep in mind that you don't need to explain absolutely every little thing. You can sprinkle details and hints throughout multiple scenes in order to paint a more nuanced picture of something, and sometimes it works better to leave a few details to your readers' imagination. Chances are, they'll fill in the gaps for themselves in a way that makes more sense to them than your explanations ever could.
3. It's okay to make things up as you go
It would be amazing if we could all come up with perfect, neatly-packaged outlines before we started writing, complete with all the worldbuilding details we'd ever need. But that's not how things have ever worked out for me. I do try to do most of my worldbuilding before I start writing, but a lot of it doesn't come until during and after I've written my first draft. In fact, a pretty good chunk of my revision process is spent on trying to weave those important worldbuilding pieces into the story in a more cohesive way.
And you know what? That's okay! That's part of my process, and it's worked perfectly fine for me across multiple stories. You don't have to know everything about your story's world before you start writing. Sometimes you won't know what's important until you actually have the story written down. Don't let what feels like incomplete worldbuilding hold you back. Just start getting those words out. You can put the other pieces together along the way.
4. Make readers care by making characters care
If there's some particularly important piece of worldbuilding that you really need readers to understand and become invested in, you have to give them a reason to become invested. Often, a reader's investment in a story is related to their connection with the characters. Because of this, one of the best ways to make readers care about and remember something is to make your characters care about it.
This works for two reasons. First, there's the obvious emotional connection you can build for readers when a character they care about is interested in or affected by a particular worldbuilding element. But also, if your characters care about something, chances are they're going to notice it, talk about it, have thoughts and opinions about it, and so on. That means it will probably be something that comes up in the narrative more than once, and when that happens, you're signaling to readers that this is something they ought to pay attention to. This works especially well if the character in question is a POV character, because then we really get to dive in and explore said thing from their perspective. It can definitely work for secondary characters, too; you just might have to be a little more mindful of how best to convey that information and show its importance to them.
Those are all the tips I have for you today. Let me know if you found this useful, and stay tuned for the next post in this series, where I'll be sharing about my process for writing first drafts.