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This Writing Life: World-Building on the Fly

22 May, 2014

If you’ve been reading my recent posts, you’ll see that I recently self-published my first YA fantasy novel. It’s been a long time coming, and I’ll admit it’s shaken up my usual routine a bit, but it hasn’t changed one very important thing: I’m still writing. And, as usual, I’m attempting to write – or at least plan stories in – multiple different fantasy worlds, which I endeavour to keep as different from one another as possible (for my own sanity, if nothing else – both to keep myself interested and not get them confused). As a result, I’ve found myself thinking about world-building.

Now, that partly means poring over all the nitty-gritty details that can go into building a world, be that a fantastical one or a version of our own (every novel, no matter how ‘realistic’, portrays a different version of the real world, past or present). However, I’ve also been thinking about my process when it comes to world-building, and I’ve realised I’ve become drawn to creating settings ‘on the fly’, with as little prior planning as possible, simply to get myself into the meat of the writing quicker.

I usually have some notion of where a story is set, of course – it would be very difficult to write something without. However, I usually keep this quite vague e.g. Medieval Europe-style fantasy world, ruled by a single monarch, and with magic in the form of shapeshifting. Or, as another example: Medieval Japanese-inspired society, primarily within a vast forest which was once home to numerous other civilisations. Both of those are rather simplified versions of settings I’ve written in recently, and whilst the worlds have become more complex in the writing, these very basic synopses are the sort of vague starting points I began the stories with.

There are both pros and cons to this approach, of course. Of the latter, getting halfway through the novel and realising you really haven’t done much world-building is one, meaning your edits are going to be heavy on filling in the details of your world. However, it’s very, very difficult to write a story without building the world around it, even if you didn’t mean to. All the events – every conversation and conflict – have to take place somewhere, and whilst you may not go into great descriptive detail, the setting is still there and present in everything you write.

And the pros? World-building-itis is one of those syndromes that budding writers, particularly fantasy ones, often fall into. They spend months doing research, then more months meticulously crafting a world; when they finally come to write, their novel becomes more historical treatise than story as they struggle to fit everything in (if you’ve described every single bit of your setting in your novel? You’ve probably put too much world-building in at the expense of characters and plot). Developing your setting as and when you need to – what does this city my characters just rode into look like? who runs it? does it have any interesting customs or festivals that could become relevant to the plot? – saves a huge amount of time, allowing you to focus on writing rather than planning.

As ever, ‘on the fly’ world-building won’t suit every writer, just as the endless ‘plotting vs. pantsing’ debate rages on. However, next time you find yourself spending days working out every detail of a culture or location just to finish a single scene? Try world-building as you write, seeing what enters the story naturally, and save some of that brainpower for finishing the story!


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