Earlier this month, I presented a workshop on world building at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Retreat in beautiful Estes Park, Colorado. It was a fantastic event and an honor to spend time with a talented group of writers from many genres. One of the questions that we discussed was this: Which kinds of stories require world building? While the knee-jerk response is usually Sci Fi/Fantasy, everyone in the group quickly agreed on a better answer: “All of them.” Whether you want to set your story on another planet never before heard of, or a startlingly realistic representation of contemporary Detroit, you have to do the work to bring that place to life. Sparse world building can leave readers feeling ungrounded or unable to connect with your story, even if you have complex, engaging characters.
If you’re at the beginning stages of your novel, there are a lot of great resources out there for brainstorming and outlining your world. One of the most common is the world building checklist, an extensive list of questions designed to help you get to know your fictional world inside and out, so that you can begin to work those details into the story. Here are a couple of my favorites:
(Again, these are geared toward SF/F worlds, but many of the questions apply to world building in general.)
Once you have gone a little further with your story, it’s helpful to know what NOT to do. Here are some tips I shared at the workshop based on the most common world building problems I see as an editor:
FIVE COMMON WORLDBUILDING PITFALLS
Lack of rules or breaking the rules—letting things happen in the story “just because.” If you bend your own worldbuilding rules in the middle of the story, it will come across as lazy plotting or too convenient. “But, it’s magic” is no excuse! In non-fantasy stories, this means staying true to the atmosphere you have built from the beginning. If you’re writing a contemporary romance and the setting is a small town that feels cozy and intimate to the main characters, it can’t suddenly morph into a dismal dead-end town without a very compelling reason.
Planting symbolic figures without a foundation. This is a common problem that happens when world building is mostly surface-level. You can’t throw in symbolic figures just for fun. For example: If the characters in your Sci Fi novel (or even historical fiction) frequently invoke “the Goddess,” readers must be given some notion of the underlying religion or mythology.
Data dump. This is where entire sections or pages at the beginning of the novel are devoted to worldbuilding and/or backstory alone; it’s a recipe for losing readers fast. World building should be organic—woven into the fabric of the story itself as you introduce the main character (show the world through his or her eyes), the inciting incident, etc. It’s not an explanatory section in the opening pages of the novel.
Imbalance of macro and micro. Good world building always includes two layers: the “big picture” and the everyday details. Sometimes there is a clear sense of the macro level (geography, political structure, etc.), but little sensory detail for readers to latch onto. Or, there is an abundance of micro level details (what people wear, the foods they eat for breakfast, how they pray, etc.), but the foundation and infrastructure for these elements remains unclear.
The fantasy world is too similar to the real world. This one is specific to the SF/F genres. If you have a magical or supernatural element in your story, readers will expect to see its effects on the world at large. In other words, the things that set this place apart from the real world cannot exist in a void. Even if your story draws from a real-world referent (e.g. ancient Egypt), readers will be watching for details of what makes the place unique throughout the story, and without enough of this, the story could feel underdeveloped or disappointing.
I hope these tips give you some good food for thought. Go forth and build a world!