Worldbuilding and plotting are two separate processes, right?
Wrong. Like every component of fiction, story world and plot are interlinked. Or rather, they can be. When you make the effort to use worldbuilding to deepen your plot, your book will feel intentional and whole. Otherwise, worldbuilding can seem extraneous. To mesh world with plot, you must start by understanding the heart of your fictional universe.
The Heart of Your Story World
In many successful story worlds, a main worldbuilding element or guiding principle affects nearly everything and everyone in the story. It’s one of the central differences between the story world and the real one. The concept of a guiding principle can be found in our worldbuilding questionnaire in the resource library. A guiding principle is a unique facet of your world that changes every (or nearly every) aspect of the world. Examples include the Rings of power in Lord of the Rings and dragons in How to Train Your Dragon, which not only distinguish these worlds from our own but also radically shape the plot.
A guiding principle can originate from two places: your planet’s creation or an event that transformed the world’s makeup. The first can take the form of abnormal laws of nature or a magic/power system. The second is often an unnatural addition that altered the globe, like an apocalyptic disaster or the introduction of new technology. Either origin can work as long as you know what route you’re choosing.
Before you decide how your guiding principle influences the plot, however, you must establish what your plot looks like.
Two Types of Plots
Most stories (especially ones with high stakes) tend to follow a preventative plot line or a reversal plot line where the protagonist is striving to either thwart or undo a catastrophe. In a preventative story, heroes attempt to ward off a looming disaster, like the Avengers trying to stop Thanos from collecting and using the Infinity Stones in Infinity War. In a reversal plot line, characters counteract preexisting circumstances, like overthrowing an evil government or group of scientists in every dystopian trilogy ever.
Though these two types of plots abound in high-stakes fiction, they’re not the only way to structure a story. Ultimately, the story line is determined by your protagonist’s and side characters’ goals. But evaluating these two primary plots will provide a starting point from which to connect the plot and your story world’s main element.
Integrating Story World with Plot
To fuse worldbuilding with plot, all you need to do is discover an inherent problem in your story world’s guiding principle. This problem might originate from creation or be caused by mankind’s hand. Perhaps a scientist has released a virus that must be cured before the population perishes. Maybe an antagonist has learned how to manipulate magic for evil and must be stopped from wreaking havoc. The problem’s solution will become part of your protagonist’s objective, which impacts the overall plot.
In Marvel’s Spiderman: Homecoming, the existence of superheroes and aliens is the core of the story world. A problem arises when leftovers from alien and superhero battles are recovered by the film’s villain, who uses the technology to build high-tech weapons he sells to criminals. The conflict springs from that world’s main worldbuilding element.
Guiding principles can direct subplots as well. Although one of the main plots in How to Train Your Dragon deals with destroying the dragon’s nest and driving the creatures away, the chief subplot revolves around Hiccup’s dragon training with Gobber and the island’s teens. Since dragon fighting is commonplace in the Viking world, having a training program for youngsters is only logical. Hiccup’s actions in the ring color every important relationship and subplot in the film, including his interaction with his future girlfriend and his father. The smaller implications of the overarching problem generate and steer its subplots.
Make sure each character holds a belief regarding the main problem. Characters’ different stances can greatly affect subplots. Pivotal turning points in Hiccup’s relationship with his father and Astrid hinge upon their views concerning the story world’s main problems.
Relating subplots to your story world’s heart isn’t required, but it helps readers feel immersed in the fictional universe. It reaches into the protagonist’s everyday life because he must wrestle with micro manifestations of the larger issue.
A benefit of tying plots to a guiding principle is that the protagonist must heavily interact with, or even master, that portion of the story world. If he doesn’t, he won’t have a solid grasp of the problem or the solution. In Kung Fu Panda, Po must master the art of Kung Fu to stop Tai, the villain. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup must tame dragons to show his village their peaceful nature and eventually defeat a larger, maleficent dragon.
This helps you avoid unnecessary info dumps. Since your story world’s magic system or other anomalies are no longer extraneous, details about the world seem necessary—and even interesting and pertinent. Revolving the plot around the problem inside your story world’s central element gives the protagonist a reason to understand it, familiarizing readers with the world.
See? Plotting and worldbuilding aren’t independent after all. With a little effort, you can create a guiding principle that not only influences your plot but is your plot. The two processes become inseparable in a complementary relationship that readers can lose themselves in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 6, 2018. Updated October 11, 2021.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.