Prose is the undertow that immerses readers, and the deeper they sink, the more truth and beauty they can explore. The transformative power of storytelling resides in the author’s ability to pull readers into an unfamiliar sea and convince them they can taste the salt. Until they believe the waves lapping at their imaginations are real, they won’t set sail—or ever reach the shore of a new perspective.
When you think about the process of worldbuilding, what images form in your mind? Maybe you see a forest of exotic plants and mystical creatures. Or architecture that splices the sky and advanced technology that allows users to perform hundreds of tasks without lifting a finger. Or even a totalitarian regime that controls every citizen, from the rich to the poor. But have you focused on your characters yet?
Horror of horrors, beta readers keep telling you that your villain isn’t scary. You’ve given him a tragic past, control issues, and bloodlust. He even has an impeccable sense of style and color coordinates his weapons and outfits. Why isn’t he memorable?
An idea captures your attention, and after mulling it over for a few weeks, you begin to pursue it. The story flows naturally until you pass 20,000 words and realize you’re not sure why your protagonist made a life-altering decision in chapter one. All of your excitement flickers out. Have you failed at plotting? Every scene now feels contrived!
I often see writers deprecating themselves on social media. Or hesitating to share their work. Imposter syndrome—the belief that you’re not good enough, qualified enough, or capable enough—spoils the victories of creatives across the globe. Do you suffer from it too?
I have a confession to make that may shock anyone who beta read my first novel, which sported a gruff, pipe-smoking wizard, a quest involving a mythical object of doom, and the line “All we have to decide is what to do with the time we’re given.” Despite these uncanny resemblances, no, I’m not Tolkien. I do, however, harbor deep respect and admiration for him, and I hope my own stories will evoke the same emotions as The Hobbit and The Children of Hurin.
Although songs typically appear in epic fantasy, any genre can contain a scene that obligates the author to turn into a composer, such as a character blaring her favorite band on the stereo, a gathering around a campfire, or a mother comforting her child. Imitating three of Tolkien’s practices can equip you to fill that role without disrupting your story.
I’m addicted to flash fiction. I enjoy the challenge of compacting a story into a thousand words or fewer—and watching other writers do it too! But flash fiction is more than a method for writing quick, poignant stories. It’s an incredibly useful yet overlooked tool for refining your skills in general.
I tend to procrastinate about worldbuilding because it overwhelms me. I’m expected to design an alternate reality that’s as complex and nuanced as my own. Considering the thousands of cultural customs, geographical differences, and historical events attached to every inch of Earth, the task seems too infinite for my finite imagination. Where do I start? How do I determine when to stop? Which ideas should appear in my story, and which should remain archived inside my brain?
Although writing may feel isolating, you’re not stranded alone in a desert that spans from page one to “the end.” As Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, once said, “Every writer I know has trouble writing.” All writers go through dry spells, and renewing your love for storytelling is possible. The solution is simple: write even when you’d rather sink into the sand instead of pushing through it, and you’ll stumble upon the oasis you’ve been searching for.