It’s happened: You’ve had an amazing idea for a story. You know some key things about your main character, you know where the story starts and where you want it to end up, and you know that it’s set in a world unlike the one we live in.
But then you sit down at your computer and the white page is daunting. The questions are coming at you faster than you can comprehend. What is the environment in which your main character lives? What government do they live under? What kind of technology is available to them? What kind of magic is available? Online guides can be frustrating, overwhelming you with lists of hundreds of questions to answer. The question remains: What do I need to know for my story?
This is what you’ll have to answer before you dive into the larger components of world-building. Before you do, you’ll either find yourself spending too much time on details that end up not mattering or you’ll discover halfway through your first draft that you’ve left out crucial aspects of your world that your readers need to know to understand your plot. Instead, use these five questions as a way to narrow your focus, keep you on-task, and give your world-building some direction.
1. What is the scope of your story?
This is the first thing you need to hammer out because it will guide the rest of your plotting as well as your world-building. Are you writing a political thriller that involves a rebellion or war between two countries with your characters as vehicles to explore these themes (like the Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin or The Forever War by Joe Haldeman)? Or are you interested in a more character-based narrative where the story follows one specific person or a group of people (like The Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater or the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett)?
An easy way to pinpoint your focus is by identifying the key themes you want to explore in your novel. Are you interested in exploring how sexuality and memory factor into a person’s identity (like More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera)? How about the ultimate struggle between good and evil (which is one of the main themes of the Lord of the Rings series)? Once you know what theme you want to explore, you’ll have an easier time understanding what tools you’ll need to flesh out for the reader to fully understand the plot.
2. What genre/subgenre are you interested in writing about?
This may seem obvious, but if you’re choosing to write a Victorian steampunk novel with elements of horror, you’re probably going to be diving into a very different type of world-building than someone who is writing urban fantasy or a futuristic dystopian novel. Even something as basic as, “I want to explore themes of political corruption and rebellion” can look wildly different if your setting is Narnia as compared to planet Vulcan in the late-24th century.
I like to think of finding your theme as the “what” of your story and the genre as finding the “where.” Once you find your “where,” it will be a lot easier to pinpoint things like technology, magic systems, and countless other details that will be necessary to bring your world to life.
3. Is your story centrally located?
This one is easy: Are you writing an epic heroic journey that will take your character through many different towns, cities, or countries? Or are they sticking in one central place and the larger world comes into the story in more subtle ways?
A good example of a wide-ranging narrative is The Hunger Games series. We start with Katniss in District 12, but soon find her traveling to the capital city of Panem where there are different rules, customs, and even access to food. All of these play an important role in Katniss’s personal journey as well as the political plot she finds herself swept up in later on down the line. Readers get to experience the various districts through the symbols their tributes bring with them into the Games.
However, your readers don’t need to travel to different lands for your setting to feel like it’s set inside a larger world. Think of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. While we do see a few different areas of the world (like life in London versus Lower Tadfield), we understand the larger context of heaven and hell through the characters of Aziraphale and Crowley. We don’t need to have long-winded scenes set in these other places, because their characters accurately convey what it’s like there through, well, everything that makes them them. The story’s conflict arises from the fact that both of them aren’t exactly who they’re supposed to be, and in that conflict, we understand more about them and where they come from.
4. Where do your main characters come from?
This question feeds off the last. Is your character leaving the world they knew and entering an unfamiliar one? Or are they sticking to one location but the larger world is encroaching on them in some way? Understanding where your characters are coming from and where they’re going will help you to figure out how much detail you’ll need to put into the world.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a wonderful example of a story that needs a journey to incite the character’s growth. While I think we all wish that Patroclus and Achilles could have stayed on the mountain with Chiron forever, they would not have been able to, even if Achilles’s destiny hadn’t called them away—there would be no story there. Likewise with Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lauren Olamina in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In these stories, the characters need to leave the world they know to fully explore the novel’s themes and develop their characters.
However, a book like The Shining does the opposite: The Torrance family leave the world they know to stay at the Overlook Hotel, only to find that they’ll experience more trouble there than they could have imagined. Likewise, Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor is set in the town of Night Vale where there are always strange happenings … but then the characters are confronted by even stranger happenings.
5. Does your story have magic, science, or some kind of supernatural element?
This is a big one, but if your answer is “no,” it’s one you can skip over. But if you’re using elements of science or magic or Something Else and the source isn’t integral to further your plot, then you know you won’t have to spend countless hours coming up with exactly how everything came to be. But if your plot hinges on the reader being able to at least understand how some of this world came to be, then you’ll be doing a lot more research that needs to be pointed and concise.
Let’s dig into some examples. I am a writer who loves to utilize the reader’s suspension of disbelief. I’m also that way as a reader. Do I need to understand exactly how Luther Hargreeves became a human-ape hybrid in The Umbrella Academy series? Nope—he got hurt and then he was injected with a serum created by his father’s research with apes and now this is how he is. That’s all I need to know! But that plot point isn’t integral to the story as a whole, and not knowing the finer details doesn’t create a thread that, once pulled, unravels the rest of the plot. It’s a fine line to walk! Another great example is the medication given to puberty-age children and adults in Lois Lowry’s The Giver. We understand that this medication is given to people to stop the Stirrings and to keep people in order, thus keeping their utopia intact. Because Jonas, the main character, doesn’t need to know the exact science behind that, we don’t feel like we do, either.
On the other hand, there are a lot of speculative fiction worlds in which readers need more information before we can accept the world as it is. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton comes to mind—that mosquito in the amber is iconic! The Martian by Andy Weir is another science fiction book that couldn’t exist without the extensive scientific explanations (I mean, I suppose it could, but we probably wouldn’t love it as much as we do). Because these stories are centered around scientists, it wouldn’t be realistic for them not to care about the science behind the plot. Veering from science fiction, a great fantasy example of a more detailed magical structure is the Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. It wouldn’t be the same kind of book if we didn’t know exactly how the Trials (and the mutagens used in them) turned Geralt into a superhuman monster hunter or if we didn’t understand the monsters themselves.
Again, this list isn’t meant to help you hammer out all the details of your world-building. Instead, I hope you find it useful to begin interrogating your themes, plot, and the general backdrop you want to explore in your narrative. Every story is unique, and you want to ensure you’re on the right path to do yours justice. Getting the broad strokes down in your notebook will help narrow down your field of view and keep you from being too overwhelmed by the little details to actually get to the important bit—the writing.