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.

Serving Real Life, But Make it Fantasy

Oscar Wilde once said, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” I love this quote because it’s so true, and given its truth, this is why I’m a fantasy writer and not a comic.

There are a lot of people out there that think fantasy is for children, or it’s just a made up world with weird names and magic. But in reality, the fantasy genre has so much more potential than that. Fantasy can actually be real life mirrored back at us but from another realm.

A few years ago when I was 25, I somehow managed to get accepted into the Creative Writing Program at Trinity College Dublin where I completed a Master’s in creative writing. Besides getting one of my best friends out of the year-long program, I also got a wealth of knowledge from my professors, as each one of them was a creative expert in their chosen medium. One of them wrote extensively on the problems facing modern Irish society, yet many of his novels are set in the past.

Why was that?

He had a very straightforward answer when confronted. He told the workshop, “I’m not a journalist. I don’t have to bore you with facts. I’m a writer so my goal should be to entertain you, while helping you draw the parallels yourself.”

It was this bit of wisdom that encouraged me to write strictly fantasy. What he said that day about giving readers the tools to make the connections themselves really stuck with me. As writers we all want to think that our words make a difference to people, or that we’re somehow making a fresh impact on social issues by incorporating them into our work.

And while this is probably true, I have found that setting things either in the past or, better still, in a whole other realm is one of the best ways to drive home a particular point that you may want to make about society.

Especially in this heated political climate we live in, there is so much we can write about and draw inspiration for, for stories. But there are also plenty of opportunities to offend people and draw out the more comments should you choose to set a politically-charged story in modern days on top of making a point to give your direct opinion.

But you know where you can get away with all that? The past. Or better still, a whole new world. Think about big controversial topics like the environment, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, religion, etc. All these can cause a stir if you write about them directly. However, rather than write about them directly, if you create another world where you allude to similar parallels, you can actually have a much more impacting effect.

So, yes, fantasy can be a wonderful outlet if you want to get people to think about the modern world we live in. Some very beloved stories do just that. For example, Tolkien was heavily influenced by WWI and it shows throughout his series of Lord of the Rings where war and conflict and change are at the core of the story. J.K. Rowling is another writer who has strong ties to modern problems in our society. The plight of the house elves and other problems facing the magical world all stem from her experiences working for Amnesty International. Suzanne Collins and her work for The Hunger Games was heavily influenced by the Iraq War, as well as her own father’s experiences in the military. These are probably some of the more famous examples, but you can see my point. These stories each carry powerful messages within them, but they wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if the writers didn’t provide their point a little distance.

So, that is why I am definitely a proponent of fantasy as a walk of reflecting life back to society. Just keep writing and when in doubt, make it fantasy.

Interview with Author Stephen Herczeg

Dragon Soul Press sat down with one of the eighteen Sea of Secrets authors. Known for his horror story, Angels of the Deep, we were intrigued to know where his inspiration stemmed.


If you could have been the author of any book ever written, which book would you choose?

Those that know me know my love for Stephen King, I have a collection of over thirty-five hard cover first editions in pride of place on my bookshelves.

But, my all time favourite author is James Herbert, and my favourite of his books is “The Fog.”

I think it’s the book that inspired me to take writing seriously. It’s a fun ride through a nightmarish hellscape and back, but what I loved about it and what I would love to emulate, if the right idea arrives, is the fact that the first quarter of the book is more or less a short story collection. Herbert devotes each tiny section in the first few chapters to one character whose entire journey is played out before your eyes. Few get out in one piece, and on the first reading you can’t even figure out who the protagonist is until you’re well into the book.

The other aspect is the level of unbridled freedom in the book. This was written in 1975 well before splatter-punk was a thing, but it’s just so intense and graphic. I read it when I was a teenager and it was like reading a Playboy, it felt like I was doing something rebellious.

I try to keep that style of writing myself. I don’t want to be held down by what is considered “correct” for the day. Writing should be a pleasure and not constrained by the tenants any other person’s subjective opinion.

What genre do you consider your stories? Have you considered writing in another genre?

I mostly write in the horror genre. It’s what I’ve always enjoyed reading and especially writing. I mostly blame my grandmother for introducing me to the horror genre. I lived with her from a young age, and on Friday nights when my mother was out, we’d sit down and watch the Friday night horror movie of the week. Between the ensuing nightmares about werewolves and Frankenstein’s monster, I developed a taste for it.

I also let the story decide where in the horror genre it lives. Some tales lend themselves to abject depictions of gore, while others move themselves into the more gothic and atmospheric side of the genre.

I have dabbled in some dark Sci-Fi and even a little bit of fantasy.

Lately, I have found that I’m a dab hand at writing Sherlock Holmes style pastiches. I was lucky enough to be involved in a Sherlock Holmes / H.G. Wells crossover anthology and that has opened a new world of crime fiction where dwells an insatiable lust for new Sherlock Holmes (or similar) stories. I’ve so far managed to have around eight stories accepted, both within the Holmes canon as it’s called and as part of various cross-over anthologies. My latest work-in-progress, in fact, is a Sherlock Holmes / Edgar Allan Poe cross-over involving one of Poe’s earliest stories.

What book that you have read has most influenced your life?

This may seem crazy, but it’s not a book but a series of comics. I love Batman. I grew up reading comics, mostly DC (Batman, Superman) and 2000AD (Judge Dredd, etc).

As I grew into adulthood, those things that I loved most about Batman, (i.e. he’s human, he’s trained himself to be the best, he never kills, he’s the world’s greatest detective, etc), are probably what influenced me the most.

I’m an unashamed IT geek, not nerd – let’s be clear on that and I’ll explain in a minute.

I work in a world where detective skills are paramount to being on top of your game. I started out as a programmer, investigating bugs in programs and using detection to get to the bottom of problems. As I’ve journeyed through my career that set of detective skills has stayed with me.

I now sport a Batman tie clip and cufflinks, drive a black car (it’s a Ford Focus ST, not quite the Batmobile but it goes fast), and I’m a Third-Degree black belt in Taekwondo (hence why I’m a geek, because nerds don’t have black-belts in martial arts).

So apart from the extreme wealth, I’m almost there.

What is the most amusing thing that has ever happened to you?

Possibly, the most amusing and most amazing thing (apart from being married and having kids, that is) that has ever happened to me was “I won a car.”

Not just any car, an $80,000AUD Mitsubishi Evolution VII.

And not just in a raffle either.

Back in 2002, I was living in England and watching a rally on the TV. An advert popped up for a competition. I logged onto the super-fast internet of the day, watched a video of a car driving a rally course, chose the track map that I thought it was following and thought nothing more about it.

Two weeks later I received a big silver envelope inviting me to Cardiff to vie for the chance to win a car.

24,000 entered, 24 were chosen.

We spent a day at the Rally of Great Britain, meeting the Mitsubishi team, dining out at a nice restaurant, and generally having a good time.

The next day, complete with hangovers, we fronted up at the permanent track in Cardiff. There, all 24 of us were given a “how to drive” lecture and undertook four events:

  • Simulate changing a wheel during a stage of a rally;
  • Co-drive for a proper rally driver around the Cardiff track;
  • Do some actual driving in a modified rally car; and
  • Drive the Cardiff track on the simulator.

Each event was given points depending on how well you did.

At the end, my name was announced.

I won the car, I was on the Telly and I appeared in Rally XS magazine.

I drove the car around Europe, visiting sixteen countries and heaps of racing circuits. I brought it back to Australia with me and kept it for fourteen years.

I’ve dined out on that story for seventeen years and never get tired telling it.

Sadly, I sold the car three years ago. It was getting old, much like its owner.

What gives you inspiration for your stories?

To be honest, anything.

I try to look at the world with one question in mind “What If?”

My very first published short story “Death Spores” was based on the opening scene of my screenplay of the same name, and had its origins in me walking around at lunch time and asking myself “What would happen if someone was walking along and their head exploded?”

From that simple question came a rollicking tale of a galactic fungus that crashes to Earth and turns all and sundry into flesh eating zombies.

The screenplay came top ten in the 2012 Horror Screenplay competition, and the short story was published in “Sproutlings: A compendium of little fictions.”

The way I approach it now is to map out the closing dates for submissions to anthologies that I’m interested in and use the themes to inspire my mind.

“Angels of the Deep” was no different. The “Sea of Secrets” anthology had hints of the sea, creatures from the depths and fantasy about it.

I wanted to stay away from the standard creatures, i.e. Sirens, Mermaids, Kraken, etc, and researched strange and unusual myths associated with water. From that I discovered the Rusalka from Russia.

They were said to be the spirits of drowned women who were scorned by lovers and had turned malevolent towards humans. I already had my “mermen” creatures from another story and came up with the concept of a group of men in the worst possible situation (stranded at the bottom of the sea) being attacked by beings that resembled their loved ones. It is virtually a Greek tragedy played out during World War II at the bottom of the ocean.

What tactics do you have when writing?

I’m a planner. In fact, I’m an over-planner.

I start any new story with the germ of an idea, then I create a mind-map in a software tool, to which I keep adding more and more ideas. Fleshing out characters, their arcs, their interrelationships with other parts of the story.

When I’m planning a story, the mindmap is generally open on my computer desktop (at work), and any flash of inspiration goes into the map.

I also have a small database, that I wrote, which keeps a log of the characters and their place in the story. It can map the overarching character arc of the protagonist. It has a name generator, which can then link characters to the story.

I spent several years writing feature length screenplays, and through that I came across the Syd Field method for screenplay writing. A lot of the same concepts can be applied to prose, and I have used them from time to time.

The main thing I always keep in mind, is using the concept of “Setup” and “Payoff”, especially in Holmes story. Any little nugget of information that is needed at the end of the story must be planted somewhere along the journey.

Though I must admit that the level of planning is dependent on the length of the story. I do hate it when I start to plot out the bones of a story and end up having more words in the crib notes and internal dialogue than ends up in the finished story.

Have you written any other stories that are not published?

Tons.

I started writing in earnest back in the early 1990’s (yes, I’m that old). I still have some of those early stories, and the two shortish length novels that I hammered out as well. I cringe when I read them now.

I figured my problem was I couldn’t get the stories down quick enough by writing prose, so I then spent the next twenty years writing feature length (and a few shorter) screenplays. I’ve finished sixteen in total (with a couple unfinished). Four of them have won awards in various International Screenplay writing competitions. I managed to win the 2017 International Horror Hotel competition in the Sci-Fi category with “Titan” and came second in the horror category that same year with “Dark are the Woods”.

I also spent about seven years and several thousand dollars trying to get my ghost-serial killer film “Control” made, but at the end have nothing to really show for it other than a lot more experience. That whole raising money to make a movie thing is a lot harder than you think.

In terms of my recent prose writing, yeah, still have heaps of stories that haven’t found a home. Some I revisit when I see a submission opportunity that might suit, some I rework into shorter or longer versions, some I just forget about.

I think I’m up to about eighteen rejections for this year with various stories, so there are a heap in my “bottom” drawer, so to speak.

In fact, “Angels of the Deep” grew out of a different story that I wrote that never found a home, where the creatures are awoken from their icy slumber by a meteor strike. I’m seriously considering turning that one into a full-length novel.

What do you love most about the writing process?

Just the getting down and doing it.

I don’t mind the planning, I don’t mind the research, but I just love getting lost in the creative process when the juices are running hot. I’ve had days where I’ll sit down, with the intention of writing for half an hour or so, and by the time I reach a natural lull in the process I find that two hours have flown past and I’ve put several thousand words down on the screen before me.

It’s like a drug when that happens. It’s similar to the narcotic effect that long-distance runners feel.

Even at that stage, when you know you should be getting on with the dull day to day activities that make up life, all you can think about is going back to the computer and pushing ahead with the story.

I find that with some of the Holmes stories, I’ve done so much research and planning that the story just screams out of my brain, through my fingers and up onto the screen.

In fact, I find that when I type “The End” it’s almost like coming off a drugged out high. There’s a moment of denial, a feeling of being let down, and you almost have to drag yourself away in case you go back into the work and try to add something just to regain that feeling. Those moments are when you need to let the work sit in its first draft state until you’ve regained enough composure to revisit it with a clear mind.

What do your friends and family think of your writing?

My wife and kids are a little non-plussed. They see the anthologies arrive in their cardboard boxes. They help me take a photo with them, but they’ve never read anything I’ve written.

I’m hoping that Stephen King had the same problem when his kids were younger, not so much now I assume. To be honest, I wouldn’t let my kids read half the stuff I’ve written anyway.

I did manage to convince my daughter to participate in a Sherlock Holmes for younger readers anthology. I helped her come up with the idea and plot it out, but she did most of the writing. It gets published later in the year, though I think I’m more excited than she is.

My Mum loves my writing. She waits on each Facebook post and shares them with her friends. She’s also bought a few of the magazines and anthologies herself. She recently visited for a week and spent most of the time going through my vanity shelf and reading my stories.

Friends and work mates are simply amazed when I tell them I’m a published author.

It’s sort of the same reaction you get when you tell them you’re in a band (which I’ve done) or you’re a Black-belt in a Martial Art. To the average person those things are pipe dreams and supposedly unachievable, so it’s always nice to prove to them it can be done. I’ve been lined up to present a talk on story telling in the workplace later in the year. Have no idea what to talk about, but it’s an opportunity to promote my writing to my colleagues.

Where can we find you online? 

I must admit I’ve been really slack in setting up a Facebook page or a website to promote my writing.

It’s on my list of things to do but is stuck behind the ever-increasing list of submission opportunities that keep presenting themselves.

I have set up an Amazon author’s page and a Goodreads Author’s page.

Creating Worlds of Wonder (3 of 3)

In the previous two posts (One and Two) regarding world-building, we discussed the rules on maintaining consistency and the tools you’ll use to craft your world in order to keep it all straight. But what if you’re in the middle of your series, and then suddenly you’re hit with an awesome inspiration, but it requires a fundamental change?

Here, we discuss what to do when you need to make a change that essentially violates the rule of consistency in your world-building.

Evaluate the damage if you just make a change and not expect the reader to notice. For example, if you have some far-off country named Ko-Astera, you’ve never used it in your series other than make a couple of references to it, will your readers notice if you introduce a character who is from Astera, not Ko-Astera? It depends, if you’ve been providing the reader a glossary and it specifically names the nation and inhabitants as Ko-Astera, you’ll need to come up with a justification. You can write the minor change as part of a dialogue:

“Hey, I thought you were called Ko-Asterans?”

“You thought wrong, fool. We changed and dropped the name of Ko the Usurper back to its proper name. We are Asterans. Get it right before I take my blade and butcher you like I’ve done my cows at home.”

“Excuse me, wolf-biter. It was just a dancing question. No need to get bloody Six Flames bent over it.”

Then, in this book, you’ll have a revision and a note about Ko-Astera now changed to Astera.

You’re literally changing the look/feel of a particular species. This one is a bit harder to do. Say for example you have a race of demon-touched humans who you never really took the time to describe other than they are humans with demonic tendencies, but you saw a super-awesome picture of a succubus with demon horns, furry goat legs, the whole nine yards. You want your demon-touched people to have this look and feel. Congratulations, make it part of the plot. Bad Stuff is happening and guess what—it’s changing the demon-touched more like into actual demons. When the book is concluded, the process is not reversible.

You need to add a new magical ability/spell/power. Just add it, and make it seem like it was part of the plot/story arc all along.

You need to “break” a rule in your world because you realize it will be totally awesome. You’ll need to work this into your story as part of the dialogue or an event. For example, you have a water mage and you want them to cast fire spells. You need to work out a method or something in the plot so it makes sense you have broken this rule. In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, it was long established men could not channel (use magic) without going insane, so the theme of one of the books was to overcome just this problem.

In conclusion, when you discover you can writing something really cool and awesome, but it will violate the rules regarding consistency, a bit of creativity and stepping back to alter the direction of the story can be yours.

Happy writing!