Over the years I’ve created all or part of several fictional worlds, some of which were elaborate and sprawling, others small and contained. However, despite the fact that I know how to do this in practice, when it comes to writing about it I found that I needed to put my thoughts on the topic in a much clearer order. That process turned out to be quite illuminating. Over the next weeks and months, I’ll be going through my take on the world-building process a piece at a time. I hope you find it useful. Any questions, please ask.
An Initial Understanding
World-building is a potentially very complicated and time-consuming process, so I want to start by going back to the fundamentals.
While I was preparing this article, I came to an understanding that I consider a key foundation stone for the whole process, but which I haven’t seen articulated anywhere else. It’s very easy to understand. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity though; there’s some real value in the pondering of it. The more I think about it, the more useful it seems.
This important fundamental is deceptively simple: world-building is not one process, it’s two.
Note that I’m not talking about the many, many skills that you can apply to world-building at a detail level. That’s way more than two. No, I’m talking about how you need to think about the idea from the start. It’s not one process that you’re embarking on, it’s two related ones. Closely related, to be sure, but not the same, and that difference is important. Understanding the difference will make your own world-building easier.
For the sake of argument, let’s call these two types of process Primary World-Building (PWB), and Secondary World-Building (SWB).
PWB starts with a blank sheet of paper and creates a new world. Critically, the only audience for this creation is you (or your team if you have one). The PWB isn’t going to be published anywhere, and some of the information included within it will never be revealed to the public at all. However, that information must still be developed because it’s vital that you, the creator of this world, understands how everything works behind the scenes as well as in front of them.
Writing PWB stuff is relatively easy because you’re talking to yourself. You shouldn’t need convincing that the whole idea is a good one, and you can use whatever form of shorthand, doodles, hieroglyphs, or mime you like to keep your notes (as long as you can decipher them later). This is like writing rough outlines for an encyclopaedia of your new world without worrying about the need to finish cleverly articulated essays on each topic. What’s important here is the quality of the ideas, not the quality of the writing.
Doing good PWB is about understanding those myriad detail skills and applying them to construct a coherent and interesting alternate reality. The primary skills required here are not writing, maths, or cartography, they’re basic research skills, common sense, and imagination. That should be straightforward enough, right?
SWB starts once you have some or all of the PWB done. This is the version of your world that you tell the public in whatever format your end product takes. It’s a filtered version of your PWB work. Note that it isn’t the whole of the PWB world, merely a window into it, filtered by the limitations of the type of story, game, symphony, chocolate biscuit, or artwork you’ve chosen to produce. It’s not the scope that makes the biggest difference though; it’s the change in audience. Now you have the whole world to convince, not just yourself, and that takes a new approach.
You need to have made a fair degree of progress on the relevant parts of the PWB before you can really start on the SWB, so don’t dive in too early. After all, you need to be confident that you know what you’re trying to convey. I know that it’s tempting, but resist. Be strong…
SWB needs to be written well and written clearly because this is where you explain what’s been in your head to someone who lives outside it. If you’re anything like me, that can sometimes be quite a challenge.
While you’re telling the tale of your world to this wider audience, you need to build in suspense, mystery, and clever reveals without succumbing to tedious exposition. That takes skill with words. This ability to write well is the key to doing good SWB work (though it isn’t going to get far if the PWB you did was poor). The process can also incorporate music, art, and other mediums, but writing is almost invariably at the heart.
Why This Distinction Matters
There are several reasons why you should distinguish between PWB and SWB. The main two are:
- It gives you more structure.
- It focuses your effort.
World-building at its grandest is a colossal beast, but also an often vague and sprawling one. Any structure helps. This basic breakdown also helps you to see where your skills can be best applied, and where you might either need to find someone else with a specific talent, or to expand your own abilities. It also helps you see where you are in the process: moving from purely PWB to SWB being the key moment. Are you nearly there yet?
Understanding the PWB/SWB distinction helps avoid wasting effort (most often done by adding polish and detail where it isn’t required). Save your literary genius for the SWB; the bulk of the PWB can be rough notes. As long as you can navigate them, you’re golden.
And with that thought, I must leave you. I hope that idea has given you some food for thought. I’ll be back on Thursday to talk about game design, and next Monday for more on world-building. Until then…