09 Dec 2020

Are You Obsessing About World Building?

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I’ve talked to many writers, started a writing critique group, and participated in many group discussions about writing. Something I’ve noticed about many writers, although by not any means all of them, is they spend a lot of time working on back story, world building, and characters before beginning their book. In fact, sometimes world building and characterization is done before an outline is even started.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Sometimes it helps to define the world in which your story takes place before you start writing, and it can be useful to define your characters in advance of anything else.

World Building Starts With the Outline

I start with the outline, beginning with a single line per chapter that defines what happens in that section. Once I have that all mapped out, I go a little deeper and put more details under each chapter header in the outline.

For example, my outline for one chapter might look like this:

  1. Wake up the Marines from deep sleep.
    1. Jessica orders the Marines awoken from their 10,000 year sleep.
    2. She confers with the officers of those Marines once their awaken.
    3. We focus on one and show how he can sense things much more than regular humans.
    4. Stress that they are 100% obedient to Jessica and will do whatever she asks regardless of the threat to their life.
    5. Answer questions about the operation they are tasked with.
    6. Establish that the rest of the crew is respectful and slightly fearful of them.
    7. In the chapter by ending the briefing, and have our point of view Marine discuss with Jessica briefly some details about the mission.

I do that for each and every chapter as fast as I can. Just quickly sketch out the whole story on an overview basis. I know the story will change and will not be faithful to the outline, but this gives me a place to start and to find some structure for writing the story.

After that, I create a blank document, and define one page for each character and location in the novel. For the above outline, I would have a page for Jessica, the point-of-view Marine, and the room where the briefing takes place. I proceed through the entire outline, creating a page for each and every character and location, noting any details as I go.

Now I’m ready to begin writing. Notice that I haven’t done any real world building or definition of characters yet, other than the overview points that came from the outline. I don’t generally work off a world building checklist or a world building worksheet. I just start writing and create the world as I proceed.

You can start with some world building questionsAs I write the book, those pages for each character and location get filled in with any details that I’ve written. This includes character descriptions, psychological traits, attributes, desires, hopes, weaknesses, talents, schooling, work history, and anything else that comes up. For locations, This might include a description of the area, and what can be seen or sensed and under what conditions.

You see, in my view, background information is not included in the book and is not part of the novel. Therefore, it’s only purpose is to help me keep things straight and consistent as I write.. World building serves no other purpose other than consistency from chapter to chapter and from book to book in the series.

Since readers never see the background information, it’s not necessary to include any more than that.

One of the problems that I see many authors run into is they spend an inordinate amount of time writing descriptions of characters, historical details, religious concepts for their world, descriptions of scenery, and all kinds of other information. Why is that a problem? It slows down writing the book. It’s one of the reasons why some authors take a long time to write a story or novel. They’re spending a lot of time that they could be writing their story explaining the background to themselves. They’re not explaining it to their readers – they are talking to themselves.

Obsessive world building can be a way to procrastinate on writingSometimes writing background information and character details are necessary steps towards getting your thoughts straight before you start writing. With complicated plots that have a lot of twists, red herrings, and subplots, it may be necessary to go into much greater detail about the world, characters, and other things before beginning writing. Even so, considering that none of that information is actually part of the story, it should be kept to a minimum.

In other words, why waste time writing vast amounts of text that nobody will ever see?

Of course, there really is no right way or wrong way to go about writing a novel as long as the novel gets written. If spending the time in advance to write deep backgrounds about worlds, locations and characters is what you need to do, then by all means go for it.

Just don’t use world building and defining characters as a way to avoid writing your novel.

By the way, Fantasy Worldbulding Questions is a great resource with a fantastic fantasy world building guide.

Remember that the ultimate goal is to finish your novel, get it published, and get going onto the next one. As long as you keep that in mind, and set yourself up in that direction, you’ll do fine.

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