Are you writing a story or building a world?

Several years back, I tried my hand at writing what I planned to be a five book epic science-fantasy series (that I might still write some day, so I won’t share too many details here to avoid spoilers).

Because this was my first serious attempt at writing an original story (up until then I had written mostly fanfiction), I was determined not to go in blind. So I took a long time to worldbuild, crafting world after world, character after character, culture after culture, all with the intent of making the best imaginary universe I could for my series. It would be even better than the Star Wars universe or the Star Trek universe or any of the other countless detailed fictional universes out there. Okay, maybe not better than any of those, but it would certainly be great.

When I decided I had done enough worldbuilding, I sat down to write the first book in the series. And I did; I wrote a few drafts, changing details that didn’t make sense to me, doing what any writer does when working on a novel, the usual stuff, you know.

And then, after the third or fourth draft, I just lost interest in the series.

I still have the drafts, still have all the worldbuilding notes. I haven’t tossed any of it away and frankly I don’t want to because I might still return to it someday.

I just don’t want to write it. Even though I couldn’t wait to write it before, it has been years since I last wrote about any of the characters or worlds I made (although I have borrowed a few ideas and names because I liked them a lot). Why did this happen?

I believe this happened because I lost sight of the series’ heart. I got so caught up in worldbuilding that I forgot this very essential, basic fact: That I was writing a story, not building a world.

To be sure, worldbuilding is highly important in speculative fiction. I don’t disagree with that. It’s just that I forgot that I was creating a world for the story, not the world for its own sake. As fun as worldbuilding is, to the speculative fiction writer, one must always ask the question, “Does this help the story?”

Some people worldbuild for the sake of worldbuilding. And if that helps, sure, go ahead. Have fun. I have a lot of fun doing it, too, at least when I’m on a roll.

But not all of us find worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding so wonderful. Remember what we’re doing here; we’re writing speculative fiction. Not world guides. Not gaming manuals. Not Wikis. Not histories. Fiction. Stories. Adventures. Art. Life, even, if you want to go that far.

Worldbuilding is a tool and should be treated as such. In my inexperience, I lost sight of the story for the sake of making more and more detailed worldbuilding notes on subjects that weren’t even important to my story. I unconsciously treated worldbuilding as an end in itself. And it killed my series as a result. Or at least put it into a coma that it has yet to awaken from.

My advice to all speculative fiction writers out there, to beginners and veterans alike, is this: When you find yourself getting lost in worldbuilding, ask yourself, “Am I writing a story or building a world for its own sake?”

The answer will determine what you should do next.

What about you, my readers? What have your experiences been with worldbuilding? Do you like worldbuilding? How much worldbuilding is enough and how much is too little? Post your thoughts in the comments!

-Tim

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9 thoughts on “Are you writing a story or building a world?

    • It doesn’t matter what you start with. Some writers get story ideas by thinking about or looking at certain locations and then add characters later, which is fine as long as the characters are written believably and are not shoehorned into the story as a last minute addition.

      What I was trying to say here is that the story should always come first in speculative fiction. I think I wasted a lot of time worldbuilding for that science-fantasy series I mentioned, time that could have been better spent actually writing the damn thing, and I don’t want any other writers out there to copy my mistake. That’s all.

      Worldbuilding is fine and necessary in speculative fiction; however, setting does not automatically make story. It can enhance story, can create conflict, can create atmosphere, but setting alone is rarely enough, at least in my opinion. You need characters and plot and all that other great stuff you find in every story, too.

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  1. I had this very argument with a (non-writing) friend this week.
    His side was essentially that Tolkien was the best writer of all time because Tolkien had made the most meticulous fantasy world. My point was that Tolkien bored me and I couldn’t care less about the elf family histories as they had no bearing on the story.
    For him, reading about another world is like looking at a model train set. He wants to see how all the pieces fit together in ridiculous detail.
    For me, Tolkien may as well be a romance writer giving too much detail about a character’s appearance: I just don’t care.

    In regards to building a world of your own, when you say you were on your third or fourth draft, do you mean, the third or the fourth book in the series, or the third or fourth draft of the first book? Because I can imagine you would lose huge amounts of momentum if you kept rewriting the same draft, and lose the idea very quickly. If not, then I’m sorry to hear you came so close to finishing the series before you lost sight of it.

    Going to write a novel of my own here in your comment section, sorry.

    About five years ago I wrote the drafts for my spec fiction series, the Fallouts. I wrote all four drafts before picking up the first one and typing it, and then I worked really hard on it and beta’d it, put it out for publication last year, when I finally picked up the nerve. It was picked up for publication and so there was more work to be done on it, but nothing major, and so I figured I should finish off the rest of the series. I’d already typed the second book in the interim.
    Typing the third one was almost impossible. Nearly four years had gone by since I’d finished the draft. I was living somewhere else, I was doing other things; I felt like a different person. And the draft needed serious work.
    In the end I decided for my own sake to shunt the third and fourth books together, to save adding unnecessary details, and by doing a detailed plan of what needed to happen and when, and working on it every day, I eventually got back into it. It took a while, but I really enjoyed writing it. The feeling when I finished was incredible. And even though I know it still needs work, that foundation is done. And that is intensely good. But I kick myself all the time because I never did world building, so a lot of my effort was spent back-writing world detail.

    Apologies for the huge response. I hope you can break it into chapters and get through it. Great article!

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    • Tolkien is interesting because he wrote “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and his other Middle-earth books mostly to show off the world he made. I also find it interesting that most Tolkien fans will gladly sing the praises of his worldbuilding and themes, but are mostly silent on the plot or characters. Maybe that’s why I found “The Lord of the Rings” boring when I read it.

      As for my series, it was the fourth draft of the first book. I did start the first draft of the second book, but I didn’t even finish the first chapter, unfortunately, although I still it have it saved on my USB drive with everything else. Again, I may return to it someday because I don’t want all of that work to go to waste, but it will probably be when I have more experience.

      Right now, I have another novel idea I am going to write for NaNoWriMo this year. I haven’t done much world-building so far, aside from a few basic things, which is how I like it. I prefer exploring my worlds through the stories I write about them, which is generally a lot more fun than sitting down and figuring them all out beforehand. It’s important to have some worldbuilding done before you write the first draft, in my opinion, but not too much or you’ll get bored with the idea before you type the first word.

      And thank you for the detailed reply. Always appreciate people who take the time to leave comments like yours 🙂 .

      -Tim

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      • Oh, thank you! Glad to hear I didn’t put you to sleep. It was evidently a thought-provoking post. 🙂

        Yes, I can’t quite understand the adoration of Tolkien. Obviously he’s really pushed on people as the go-to man for fantasy, but writers in his era who were writing a kind of fantasy (Mervyn Peake springs to mind) were verbose without ever being boring. There were human faces behind the names.

        Agreed with world building. It certainly pays to have some. Too much and, as you said, you end up writing about a place instead of the characters. And it’s the characters that people want – as much as people insist they like to be bored by setting.

        Good luck with your NaNo project! How many more sleeps? Eight? Can’t wait!

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  2. Agreed with you on characters. Most of my ideas start with a character(s) or if they don’t, I soon find a character(s) to put in them. I love writing characters, which I guess is why I am an organic writer instead of an outliner.

    Thanks for your encouragement regarding NaNo. Are you entering this year, too?

    -Tim

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