Do’s and Don’ts of World-building

If you’re writing either a fantasy story or a sci-fi one, there is no getting around the world-building. It’s pretty much essential to your genre. World-building occurs when your story’s world deviates from the “rules” of present world that we occupy. So even if your story isn’t set in an entirely different planet, but it’s got a little dusting of magic thrown in, guess what? You’ve entered the realm of world-building. And that requires us to begin looking for and providing explanations for why our fantasy world functions the way it does. 

When it comes to the art of world-building, there are certain things we need to keep in mind. Even though world-building does break the rules of our present space, there still is a certain way of creating your fantasy or sci-fi world so that it reads coherently and doesn’t come off as a big hot mess to your readers. 

So, if you’re grappling with how to create an alternate reality in which your world is set, here are some common mistakes you might want to avoid making:

Spending too much time world-building: There is such a thing as spending too much time building your world. While you do need to build up your world and explain the whys and hows, what you don’t want is to get so wrapped up in creating the world that your book reads more like a history lesson than a story. The way I like to do things is I like to create the entire world separate of the story – complete with a history and a language if there is one – and then just pick and drop in the bits that are relevant to the story. I don’t know how many are familiar with Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, but it’s the theory of omission. There is only 5% of the story on the surface while the rest of it is underwater. And if the writing is clear and concise, then the reader can infer the other 95% of the story. It kind of works like a show, don’t tell sort of idea. But basically, I like to look at world-building with almost the same lens as the Iceberg Theory. If you know the world well enough yourself, you really only need to show the reader the relevant parts while the rest is left underwater. That is why I’ll list out everything about my world ahead of time, but just include what is relevant to the plot. 

Including things that are never used: This sort of touches back to my first point. It’s okay to build an entire family tree for yourself, but unless it’s a vital part of the plot, don’t include it in the book. Same with language. Unless there is a major plot point around an alien language there is no need to include an alphabet or launch into an explanation of the grammatical rules surrounding a certain language. A simple clue that there is another language in the world – like referring to a “common tongue” or a character noting that another character has the accent of a certain tribe – is more than inclusion enough. Don’t over explain something, especially if it’s a part of the world that doesn’t warrant an explanation in the first place. 

Not planning ahead: While there is no time like the present, getting a little ahead of yourself doesn’t hurt when you are world-building. Particularly if you’re creating a series. You want to have somewhat of a long-term grasp of your world. It helps to cut down on future plot holes. 

Lack of conflict: Let’s face it, perfect worlds are boring. Our current world is a festering cornucopia of social, political, and environmental problems the world over. But that is what makes our lives interesting – we all have our own personal struggles to overcome. We’re our own heroes or heroines in the stories of our lives, and we can thank the conflicts we face for that. Your fantasy or sci-fi world should also hold conflicts that affect or influence your characters. That is what is needed to start them on their heroes’ journey. Don’t create a perfect world, create a flawed one and watch the fun unfold. 

Creating a world that has been done before: Yes, we’re all prone to being inspired by other books or movies or TV shows that we’ve enjoyed. But the last thing you want to do is be charged with derivative copyright infringement for creating a carbon copy of a world that has already appeared in another work of fiction. Of course, just because someone has already written a book about a group of students attending a magical school, or someone else has a world in which cars fly, that doesn’t mean you can’t still write your own story. What it means is that if you’re going to have a world of flying cars, or a story about students attending a magic school, you need to put your own spin on it and make your world as uniquely you as possible. 

Breaking your own rules: Readers of sci-fi or fantasy are willing to suspend their belief. But they won’t forgive the writer for breaking their own rules. So, when you are creating your world, be sure to pay attention to the rules that you’re setting in place. If you are creating a world in which witches only discover their magic powers at the age of 14, but then suddenly you’ve got witches practicing magic and spells at 5 years old, your readers are going to be confused and upset by these plot holes. That is why as the writer and the “god” of your world, you need to pay attention to the rules that you have set forth. Don’t break your own rules. It creates a lot of plot holes and angry readers. 

Starting Out Writing Sci-Fi

Given recent world events that we are living through, we may start to feel a little bit like we’re living through an episode of “Black Mirror” or something akin to science fiction. Some of us writers may even be finding ourselves tempted to foray into the genre of sci-fi just based off the fact that we have so much inspiration around us with the current pandemic that is going on. So, if you’re feeling the call of inspiration and want to try your hand at writing either a sci-fi short story, novella, or novel, below are the five elements that make up the genre of science fiction:

1. World Building

Ok, first things first. World-building is a big portion of sci-fi. Very similar to fantasy, people who read sci-fi are ready and willing to accept the impossible as possible – provided there is a plausible explanation for everything. In order to do this, you need to really build your world and make it authentic and believable. Don’t worry about using elements that have already been done – such as flying cars – just be sure to put your own spin on something that is already familiar in order to keep it fresh.

2. Unfamiliarity

Sci-fi tends to take us into a territory of unfamiliarity. It takes parts of our own world that are familiar to us – we’ll use the flying cars example again – and twists it around to make it unfamiliar and new to readers. Of course, this is where world-building really plays a major role in bringing everything to life because in sci-fi, the setting is very much integrated into the plot of the story. Furthermore, the setting also affects the action of the story as well as the characters’ lives.

3. Plausible Foundation

Believability is key when creating your world. It’s sci-fi, it’s based in science, therefore your world has to make sense. You can’t introduce futuristic technology without plausible scientific explanations for how it works. For example, you can’t write a story where humans colonize Jupiter and walk around the planet without spacesuits because it wouldn’t be believable – your audience would know that’s not possible. Of course, if you have explained that over thousands of years of terraforming, humans managed to change the atmosphere of Jupiter enough that they could get away with walking around sans spacesuits, then you have a much better story forming. Of course, in order to plausibly explain everything in your sci-fi story, you’ll probably have to conduct a bit of research. Additionally, you’ll probably also want to create a timeline of events in order to keep track of everything that happened in order to be able to avoid plot hole popping up in your story because let’s be real…setting a story 1,000 years in the future is going to have a lot of history happen in between that explain why and how things are the way they are in the present point of your story. Therefore, creating a timeline for yourself will very much help keep things linear. Of course, you don’t have to add in all 1,000 years worth of history to your story (you’re not writing a pretend history book) just the bits that make sense to add because they explain certain technologies or elements in your story.

4. Scientific Principles

Sci-fi isn’t really a genre that leaves much wiggle room for breaking laws and rules, more like gently bending them. If you do bend them, you need to be able to back it up with a plausible scientific explanation to explain it. For example, you can’t break the rule of gravity on Earth. However, you can bend the rule that Mars in uninhabitable to humans. What you need to remember when writing your story is to adhere to the scientific laws of physics and chemistry in order to ensure that the world you create can be plausibly explained in theory.

5. Character’s Reactions

Just like when you write any story, you want to do more showing, rather than telling. Of course, when you have a story that is set in another world, it’s hard to stay away from the tendency to want to explain everything. But a great way to show what is going on in your world rather than tell your audience about it, is to use your characters. Your characters using a teleportation device as easily as they would an elevator is a great way to show that teleporting has been around for a while, rather than telling your readers that it’s been a thing for years. Using a character’s reaction is good for gauging what’s old technology in your world and what’s new without explaining things to your audience. It’s a story you’re writing, not a history book.

Creating a Soothing Writing Space

With the current trending news climate, many of us may be experiencing a little more time at home than normal. For writers, this is a golden opportunity to get through all the projects that we’ve started and been meaning to finish. Personally, I’m plotting out my Camp NaNoWriMo while also planning to finish two short stories and make some changes to an old manuscript that was submitted as my master’s thesis.

However, our quest for solitude might not be as easy as we think. A global pandemic might mean that we’re not alone in our own space. Children might be sent home from school, spouses may be working from home, a whole 20-pack stack of toilet paper may have moved into our office space, Netflix’s delightful programming might seem even more delightful – there’s plenty of possible distractions.

So, what can we do about these distractions in order to get the most out of Armageddon? Well, through trial and error I’ve come up with a couple ideas to create a calming writing area to get stuff done.

1) Turn Off or Limit Social Media

Social media is a great platform to market yourself as an author and promote your books, but it’s also a black hole of panic – especially when it comes to world affairs. While yes, the memes coming out of the thing are hilarious, there is also a lot of misplaced panic and misinformation being spread as well. Therefore, for your own mental health and focus, it’s a good idea to take a step back. Not worrying about the latest trending hashtag helps you get into a writing frame of mind: calm. In addition, it also helps you avoid that late night social media spiral that keeps you up and leaves you unrested and irritable the next day.

2) Take a Walk

Before you sit down to write, it doesn’t hurt to get out of the house for a few minutes and take a walk around the block – especially if you’re feeling a little cabin feverish. As a very cliché coffee shop writer, I’ve been finding myself having a difficult time not going to my favorite coffee shop with my laptop or a notebook to write. So, I’ve been doing my best to recreate the coffee shop setting at home. However, I’m not going to lie, the cabin fever has gotten to me a bit. That is why I’ve found that going on a short jaunt around the park across the street kind of helps to get those jitters out. Fresh air definitely helps. If you have a garden you don’t even need to go out for a walk you can just enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of your backyard. It will help get you into a relaxed frame of mind where you can think about writing.

3) Recreate a Chill Space

Like I said in my previous point, I’m a writing cliché, I love to write in coffee shops come the weekend. However, since recent global events have left my part of the world on lockdown, I need to find alternative ways. So, in my quest to carve out a place of my own to write, I decided that since I couldn’t go to my coffee shop, I’d bring the coffee shop to me. That meant that I cleared a little nook at the dining room table where I lit a rose-scented candle, played a little café jazz music on a playlist, and brewed myself a cup of coffee. In these uncertain times, it’s basically all about the little joys in life. So, carving out a portion of paradise for yourself is just what you need in order to keep writing during this time. Whether it’s your living room couch, bedroom, kitchen counter, or elsewhere, pick a place in your home where you can set up a nice little nook for yourself. It doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly like mine, but it should make you feel good and safe. So, that could entail putting yourself a vase of fresh flowers, setting out some yummy writing snacks, playing your favorite music, wrapping up in your coziest blanket – whatever relaxes you and inspires you to write.

Hope you’re all keeping well and staying safe! Happy writing!