World Building: In depth or in focus

April 23, 2020 in Publishing, Writing

Some brief thoughts on worldbuilding adapted from a note I wrote to a writer friend this morning.

Nota bene: I describe myself as world driven writer. I would cheerfully write travelogues about worlds that exist only in my head if I could get paid for it. Since I can’t, I’m a novelist. I ADORE world building. It’s also not what writing is about. So…

World building more generally. There are three main ways to crack that problem from where I sit.

1) You can do what I do, which is more or less have a big chunk of world jump into your head in one go, and then sit down and extrapolate how that plays out and how you got to that point with a thousand years of alternate history that literally no one will ever see taking up space in your head. This works really well for me, but that’s more or less a side effect of how my brain is wired, and while I do a pretty good job of focusing down from there to find the actual story, it’s not a great plan for most people.

X) A brief digression. Any writing advice that helps you advance the story you want to tell is good advice. Any advice that causes you to freeze up, feel despondent, or otherwise does not help you move the story forward is bad advice and should be discarded without a second thought.

2) Bullet point the big things in your world building. The ones that really matter. In this case: what happened to cause your apocalypse? Ignore the rest until you need it. When do you need it? When it directly impacts the story as you’re telling it and when it’s something your Point of View characters would know and can express within the needs of the story.

3) Don’t world build outside the confines of the story at all. Tell the story. Focus tight on the bits you think are important, the emotional context, the family struggles, the really cool setting, independence, overcoming the post-apocalyptic landscape. When you need something outside that focus to serve as a lever in the shape of conflict or peril, write the scene with [fill in world detail here] and don’t worry about what needs to go there until you see how the story unfolds and tools you need to make it happen.

World building isn’t really a goal in itself. You need a world in which your story can happen, but it doesn’t have to be a big bold fully fleshed thing. If that stuff makes you happy, go ahead and write it. If it doesn’t, you can think of the action of the story like the action of a stage play. Focus on what has to be painted on the canvas walls or set on the prop table to make the story work in the enclosed space of the play. The fact that it’s all just happening in an enclosed and artificial environment surrounded by what is essentially a big empty block of space painted black doesn’t really matter to the action of the play.