Have you ever started reading a book you expected to enjoy only for the setting to stymie any connection you might have had with the characters? You keep losing your bearings because of weird place names. The info dumps about the magic system make you zone out. And you can’t even pronounce the religion that’s dividing two people groups. Fifty pages in, you’re still not invested. Disappointed, you toss the story onto your did-not-finish pile, where the memory of it fades into oblivion.
Every writer fears that reaction. Unfortunately, the desire to immerse readers in an imaginary realm can drive you to mismanage your time and mental energy. As gutsy as the undertaking may seem, spending two years mapping out a universe down to the smallest molecule is not the epitome of productivity.
So how do you achieve a balance that won’t exhaust your creativity or readers’ attention spans? You refocus your efforts and capitalize on the idea-generators and tools you already have.
1. Center on Your Story
Worldbuilding is a two-part process: 1) Brainstorming, and 2) Implementation. When you begin the first stage, you’ll save yourself hours of research and revisions during (and after) drafting if you give every detail a purpose. For example, a young seafarer who’s on a quest to find her lost brother is unlikely to visit the forest, so why develop the races, customs, and architecture in those villages? Maybe, after repeatedly failing to trace his whereabouts, she’ll expand her search inland, but unless that’s a plot point you’re planning, her domain will be ports and other towns not far from the coast.
What if you’re not sure of the reason behind a cultural norm, though? That’s an opportunity to link the world to your plot or characters. Let’s say your society consists of two feuding factions. The origin of the conflict could be any number of issues, but when you consider the barren landscape, you decide that it’s the scarcity of a specific resource. Maybe you’ve also dreamed up a fantastical creature you haven’t been able to incorporate yet. Combine the two, and the result will be comparable to the sandworms in Frank Herbert’s Dune. The hostile species provides an obstacle for the characters to overcome while also excreting melange, the most coveted spice in the galaxy. Similarly, the Alethi and Parshendi warriors in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings fight each other on the Shattered Plains to be the first to slay greatshells and harvest their valuable gemhearts.
Think through the tasks your characters perform on a daily basis, the problems they face, the people they interact with, and the terrain they cross to reach their destinations. All of these factors expose the areas of your world that need to be fleshed out. And you might discover an opening where you can insert a stray idea that excites you.
2. Draw Inspiration from Your Interests
Worldbuilding is, in essence, a ruse that convinces readers they’ve been transported from a seat cushion to a new cosmos where anything that the author conjures up is possible. Readers see a vast body of land with a beating heart, but it’s actually just a skeleton with skin stretched over strategic locations. Your story’s trajectory determines where your characters go and what they do, but along those footpaths, you have the freedom to sprinkle in pieces of yourself. Remember, writing should be a joy, so introduce topics and activities you’re passionate about when you can.
One of my hobbies is tabletop gaming. I love when my husband bets that he’s going to win, earning me a delicious breakfast in bed the next morning. Unsurprisingly, a board game appears in a few restful scenes of my work-in-progress. My descriptions, though basic, add texture, and the effect reminds me of Captain Kirk and Spock playing three-dimensional chess aboard the Enterprise. Their version imitates many of the traditional rules, except the pieces can move up and down onto multi-tiered platforms. Sometimes the maneuvers seem arbitrary, but that doesn’t matter. The goal of the game’s inclusion is to demonstrate that civilization has not only advanced in travel but also the arts and recreation.
As long as you’re not obstructing the flow of your scenes, you can pour as much of yourself into the story as you want. But for an element to be more integral, you’ll need to tie it to the plot. Maybe you’re an expert at training and caring for horses because you grew up on a farm. Your protagonist could be a stable hand who’s forced to flee her city and take refuge in a foreign country where the natives breed mares for annual competitions. When a character shares a skill with you, her competency as she navigates unfamiliar surroundings will come across as authentic, which will keep you sane and readers engaged.
3. Tease Readers with Small Amounts of Information
During the first few drafts of my fantasy novel, I concentrated on exploring its potential, which enabled the structure to emerge organically. The downside is that my lack of direction translated into extraneous worldbuilding I had to trim later. When you’re in the throes of creating, you’re liable to forget, as I did, that readers won’t be as fascinated by minutiae as you are. Instead, they’ll become fatigued after paragraphs of exposition. Or, even worse, they’ll interpret the intrusion as foreshadowing that ultimately never leads anywhere. If this happens too frequently, you’ll lose credibility.
The clichéd mantra “less is more” applies here. You don’t consume a whole loaf of bread in a single meal. You eat a slice or two, probably on a sandwich—and you don’t wolf it down in one bite (unless you’re a cartoon character). That’s how you should invite readers into your world. Drop savory crumbs that’ll awaken cravings for the revelations ahead.
In Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, you don’t have to read past the prologue to stumble upon the first morsel: an innkeeper “who is waiting to die.” The gloomy atmosphere is intriguing on its own, but that one line raises a question about why he’s resigned his life, and you chase the trail into chapter one. Now five men, the “usual crowd,” sit drinking at a table, and one tells of a hero imprisoned in a room where “the lamps on the wall were burning blue!” His tale hints at the magic system and the mysterious antagonists, the Chandrian. A few minutes later, he mentions that the hero escapes because “he knew the name of the wind,” a clue to the meaning of the novel’s title.
After chewing on these tidbits, you’ll wonder how someone could speak to a gust of air, what’s motivating the villains, and why no more than a handful of customers ever gather at the Waystone Inn—all because of your interest in the innkeeper who’s eavesdropping on the conversation. Throughout the novel, Rothfuss continues to arouse curiosity before revealing information. He leads readers along crumb by crumb, never chucking a loaf at their heads.
When you answer before readers ask, you forfeit the chance to stir up anticipation. While Rothfuss is famous for his masterful worldbuilding, he also insists that “the key to good worldbuilding is leaving out most of what you create.” As captivating as your world feels to you, readers won’t care about any of its marvels if you don’t feed them digestible portions.
4. Rely on Authentic Dialogue
Sometimes an explanation that would be cumbersome in the narrative can be conveyed through dialogue—not as a lecture but as verbal shorthand, like the nautical jargon in C. S. Forester’s Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. If the POV character stopped to define different terms and procedures during an altercation between ships, it would bog down the story. Instead, Hornblower calls out instructions to his crew: “tail onto those tackles and sway it up,” “brace the after yards to larboard,” and “get aloft, some of you, and set the mizzen tops’l.” Even when I wasn’t sure what he was referring to, I could infer enough of the action from the context to move on.
When the protagonist in The Name of the Wind encounters a scrael, the creature’s appearance is largely communicated through the various characters’ remarks: “it’s not a spider…it’s got no eyes,” “it’s got no mouth either,” and “it’s smooth and hard, like pottery.” Since description tends to slow the pace, dialogue can help you maintain momentum in tense scenes.
Remember the Source
If we fixate on where our creativity comes from, the prospect of inventing complex worlds to house our stories becomes much less daunting. Imagine God’s delight as He cast stars across the void or watched cheetahs race for the first time. He designed us to bear His likeness, with traces of His fingerprints on our hearts, and thus we share His enthusiasm for the fusion of truth and beauty in the birth of new things. The creativity He’s given us can be a form of worship and communion with Him. Our cobbled words may not be perfect, but the process can be fun! When in doubt, follow Brandon Sanderson’s Zeroth Law: always err on the side of awesome.
Rachel Gilson has been writing stories since she found a dusty old typewriter buried in her parent’s basement at the age of nine. What started as a love for writing whodunit shorts (that she never finished before starting new ones) developed into a love for writing fantasy and science fiction.
Currently she’s working on an epic fantasy novel exploring sibling dynamics, free will, and hordes of flying, burrowing, and galloping creatures ready to kill or be killed. With her stories she hopes to glorify her Creator, who definitely holds first place for being the most impressive world builder ever.
When she’s not writing with her golden retriever Nova nestled at her feet, you can find her tabletop gaming with her awesome husband, out in the garden picking berries, or reading fables to her daughter in the hammock. She loves traveling to explore medieval castles and talking all things writing craft.