Contextualizing Worldbuilding

Q: How exactly do we incorporate a world into a story-line?

There’s a landscape. Let’s say it only has three types of trees. Now let’s say we’re on an island of an archipelago, with two  cities on this small spit of land controlled by a more powerful, overarching government. The island has six harbors and two major inland trade routes.

And let’s leave it at that.

I don’t know about you, but I have a lot more questions. What are the trade goods, what types of ships do they have, what sort of government is there, what’s the climate, types of technologies, what sort of people live here, do they travel a lot, why are there only three types of trees…. the questions go on and on.

This is the worldbuilding spiral. And it’s a beautiful, fantastic, imaginative place. It’s also a whirlpool that will suck you down into the depths of “Writing a lot of nothing”, which is a nice way of saying you’re planning but not doing.

Because in the end, what’s the point of knowing the intricacies of a world if we don’t have a main character to follow around in it?

We have this complex world with a rich background and infinite detail. How do we avoid having an information-scenery-backstory dump?


A: Make sure the world and plot are tied together.

If you say “It’s a love story, but on Mars,” my first question is why is it on Mars? When you build a world, you want it to be tied to the plot in an inextricable way. Otherwise, why are you putting the story in that world at all? It’s like flipping backgrounds when you get a family portrait taken. (Oh look, here we are in the fake Grand Canyon, now we’re in the 1970s, and here we are at a space opera!) You want the world to be more involved than a two-dimensional slideshow.

If it’s a love story, what’s the difference between having it in modern Earth, historical Earth, Mars, An Other World, or a fantastical world?

Make it matter.

Be able to answer the question why now, why here, why these characters?

If the love story is on Mars, maybe it’s a romance between one of the top life-sustaining biologists and one of the human chattel population. Or it’s between a human and martian. Or it’s between the last of a dying species and they have to decide whether to die together or survive separately?

Once you tie the story to the world, the world becomes more than just background scenery. Giving the story foreground, background, and middle ground, and letting your character move freely in that space and interact with it in ways that are important to the plot… that’s how you add depth to a story—figuratively and literally.

Bring some foreground and background in the family portrait metaphor. Or think of it like a movie.

We don’t want to spend too much time taking in the view, zooming across landscapes, and pretending to read the opening credits when we’re really eyeing the distance to the kitchen wondering if we can go grab a soda before the good stuff happens.

Don’t let your readers think about going to get a soda during your opening pages! Readers want to see a character running across scenery and encountering the world naturally.

Show us the picturesque town, but only when our antihero lumbers across the town line with a rattling truck and a frown. Give us that island and those trees, but only when the main character is asked to harvest timber from the south side of the island as punishment for running into the soon-to-be-antagonist.


One thought on “Contextualizing Worldbuilding

  1. Pingback: Plot + WorldBuilding | words — and other things

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