World-Building Tips from the Masters

Five celebrated speculative fiction authors give their best world-building tips, demonstrating how different approaches can work.
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Five celebrated speculative fiction authors give their best world-building tips, demonstrating how different approaches can work.

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One of the critical pillars of speculative fiction is world-building—an author must craft a world the reader can believe in. Done well, world-building can transport readers into an entirely different realm. Done poorly, a story can fall flat before it even has even begun.

So it is no wonder that science fiction and fantasy authors spend great effort on the art of world-building. Yet, like any aspect of creative craft, there is no single right or wrong way to do it. Even the top names of the genre often have different takes on what makes a world great and how to create one.

Here is some world-building advice from five celebrated speculative fiction authors. These world-building tips demonstrate just how different world-building approaches can be—a good reminder that every author finds their own way to this important aspect of writing. Perhaps one will even spark some new ideas for how to tackle world-building your next story.

1. Brandon Sanderson

“The idea is that you need to give the illusion that there is an iceberg there. You don’t actually have the iceberg.” (Brigham Young University Writing Lecture #4, YouTube)

In Sanderson’s 2016 writing lectures at Brigham Young, he explained the iceberg metaphor for world-building: there is the part the writer sees, above the water, and there is the rest that exists beyond that, hidden below the water.

A key component to making a world feel real is the impression that, however much a reader encounters through the story, there is a lot more under the water. But Sanderson says it’s up to the author how much of that hidden world you really create—as long as the reader is convinced it is there.

2. Margaret Atwood

“I like to wonder what people would have for breakfast–which people, as their breakfasts would be different–and where they would get those food items, and whether or not they would say a prayer over them, and how they would pay for them, and what they would wear during that meal, and, if cooked, how … Breakfast can take you quite far.” (How Margaret Atwood Creates Scary-Plausible Future Worlds, Fast Company)

In Atwood’s world-building approach, a seemingly simple act quickly becomes a frame through which a world’s values, systems and customs are distilled. In this way, a careful focus on a single activity reaches beyond that one moment and begins to fill in the world’s broader dynamics.

3. V. E. Schwab

“I look at world-building and setting as a character. Not only that, I look at it as the first character ... The thing I develop before I develop anything else in my story, is the world.” (On world-building, YouTube)

Once the core elements of character and plot are identified, Schwab stops everything to flesh out the world in greater detail. She considers her characters outsiders, and as she says, “to understand outsiders, you have to understand insiders.”

In other words, it’s important to know what a world’s norms and cultural expectations are, and how a character’s behaviors, ideas and desires relate to those norms.

Once she understands these aspects, she aims to keep world accessible for readers, filling in details only as they are relevant to context and character perspective.

4. Chuck Wendig

“Look at the components of the story you hope to tell: it’s got these characters, it’s about this idea, it makes a particular argument, and from there you start to see that the world can organically accommodate and reflect those things.” (25 Things You Should Know About world-building, Terrible Minds)

For Wendig, story comes first; then, world-building supports the story.

Practically speaking, this means that the writing process starts with character and plot, and the world-building elements are filled in within that framework. Wendig argues that when world-building leads the story, it can become unwieldy and hold the story back; whereas a story that is driven by action keeps readers hooked.

5. Leigh Bardugo

When a reader enters the first chapter of your book, they’re trying to get their bearings. It’s our job as authors to give them the signals they need in order to be able to navigate that world.” (Unstoppable: YA Fantasy Author Leigh Bardugo on World-Building and Having Faith in Your Abilities, Writers Digest)

Bardugo’s approach to world-building focuses on the reader’s ability to digest it—do they have the context necessary to follow the story? Will this way of presenting information about the world overwhelm them? When selecting the details of the world to share on the page, this is the lens through which all else is considered.

In fact, Bardugo says she finds that providing just the right amount of information to the reader is the hardest part of world-building—not creating the world itself.

Your World, Your Rules

World-building is critically important for any speculative fiction story, from flash fiction to an expansive series. But authors’ approaches to world-building are as varied and complex as the fictional worlds themselves. With practice, experimentation, and some world-building tips from the greats, you’ll find the method that serves you best.

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