3 simple tips for world-building, whether you’re writing fantasy or fabulism

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Jessica Townsend, author of the Nevermoor fantasy series, once said that building a fully realized world is a product of treating “things that are overblown and ridiculous” as “everyday things.” What defines a world like Narnia is as much about the food and where the characters sleep as it is the White Witch.

But you can’t info-dump everything, so which aspects of your world do you call attention to, and when do you glaze over details? How much time do you need to spend world-building even before you start writing Chapter One? Here are three guiding questions to help you find the right balance for your story.

#1: What type of story are you writing?

Genre can determine how much time you need to spend on world-building — and whether a few selective details or more complex descriptions better serve your story.

For example, if you’re writing an epic high fantasy for adults, you’re going to need to touch on many different facets of your world as your characters visit diverse locations and navigate society’s rules, as well as any magic. You’ll need to invent a lot more energy than you would than if you’re writing fabulism (a real world story with fantasy elements), where you can rely more on the familiar and expectations that readers already have about how the world works.

Blogger/author Janice Hardy says you should “describe what will be assumed incorrectly,” as well as “what’s unique to the world or situation.” This is scene-level advice that applies to broader world-building. The more different your world is from our own, the more you need to draw the readers’ attention to those details, because otherwise they’ll fill in the blanks you leave with their own reference knowledge.

But you could world-build forever and only put in 10% of it (the iceberg model), so how do you decide what’s relevant to share? That’s when character and conflict come in.

#2: How does your character fit into the world?

When you write scenes, you’ll want to avoid info-dumping and instead weave in details that are relevant to your character. A good way to do this is to filter everything through your protagonist’s point-of-view. What would their eyes glaze over, and what would they notice and why?

This is a good rule of thumb for taking your iceberg amount of world-building and finding the right percentage to surface in your story, because you should only be mentioning what’s relevant and important. Your protagonist is a good filter because their occupation or hobbies, status in society, and feelings and opinions (what motivates them; what they love and hate) will guide what to focus the narrative lens on when revealing details about your world, and how deeply.

You definitely want to paint in what’s going on around them, but here’s the difference: If a protagonist has visited a market countless times, describe the hustle and bustle in passing, for as long as their eyes would pass over them. If a protagonist is seeing something for the first time, think of how real-life tourists soak in every detail and idle a lot longer. You only need what the scene calls for.

#3: What’s the goal and conflict?

What your protagonist care about is one measure of determining what world-building to do and share. But you also need to consider their goal (focus) and the conflict.

Let’s continue with the market example. If your protagonist’s goal is to find an assassin lurking in the market, they’re going to pay closer attention to everything happening around them, and they’re going to be on the lookout for suspicious people and activity. They may be scrutinizing the actions of others and questioning what’s normal. Because of this, you’ll want to understand the inner workings of the market, because you’re going to need to describe it down to exact details. At this point, the market is less background noise and more the focus of the story.

This can apply to scene-level or story-level goals and conflicts. For example, say there’s a whole league as assassins in your story, and there’s a political conspiracy to kill the king. As the author, you should probably know the intricacies of the court and league more than the market when it comes to the broader scope of your story, because you probably plan on staging more scenes in the castle or assassins’ den than you do the market.

TL;DR

The TL;DR (too long didn’t read) is this: Your story’s characters (especially the protagonist) and conflicts are like a magnifying glass revealing what you should focus the bulk of your world-building energy on. There’s no need to spend hours inventing an agricultural system for your novel if your characters aren’t going to spend any time near a farm or the people who work there. You might need a few details to sprinkle here and there if they’re passing through, but only as much as their attention warrants.

Write what you need for the story you’re telling; forgo the rest.

4 most important skills to master for writing good fantasy

Wonka Imagination

Lately I’ve thought a lot about my skills and what differentiates a good (fantasy) writer from a bad one. Or what makes an original, engrossing fantasy novel versus a bland, boring one.

Now, there is no perfect recipe. And doing anything well is difficult. But I’m becoming more convinced that if I or anyone else can do these four things right, we’ll be in a much better position as writers.

Stop giving a shit about the rules

You should absolutely learn the tenets of good writing practices, from everything involved in creative writing to grammar. You should also study story structure.

But when it comes to writing the first draft, you should forget all of it.

Okay, here’s the thing. Writing rules can constrain you to the point that you don’t take risks, and that’s bad. For example, I’ll get so obsessed over not using “to be” verbs that I slow myself down when I’m first-drafting because I’m always searching for that perfect verb. Or I get so worried about showing and not telling that I struggle to put words down at all and end up distancing readers from a character when I could be putting the reader in their heads more. I’m holding myself back, and I can feel it.

Lower Your Expectations Writing

Do me a favor. Crack open a book you like and flip to a random page. Now count the verbs like “was” and “is.” You’ll probably see a lot of them. Or actually analyze a scene and count how many times the writer tells instead of shows. Often this is hard to do because you get sucked into the story — and that’s what really matters. Nobody will care how many times you use “was” or “were” if you can succeed in getting them in the characters’ heads and investing them in what’s happening.

I absolutely recommend outlining before writing so that you at least keep yourself on track. And yes, you should absolutely care about using stronger verbs and showing more than you tell. That’s good writing. But you probably don’t need to worry about it as much as you are, especially when you’re first-drafting. Turn off that editor brain. Get messy. Indulge your whims. You’ll have a better story for it.

Put a twist on everything

It’s important to take risks not only with your prose but also with your world and characters. When I think about stories that captivate me and make me jealous of an author’s imagination, I think of stories that do things differently.

The Fifth Season is a book I’m reading right now that’s an excellent example of this. There aren’t towns, there are “comms.” It’s not another stereotypical medieval fantasy world with land surrounded by oceans, it’s a world of shifting tectonic plates, where earthquakes are the normal way of life and everything — from how society functions to how magic works — builds from that one idea. It’s brilliant, really.

But author M. K. Jemisin is just pulling stuff out of her ass. She’s a writer! She’s supposed to make stuff up! You can invent as crazy and new and different of a world as you want!

Adventure Time Jake Rainbow

Yes, you need to create a consistent, logical world with constraints and consequences. But otherwise you can do anything you damn well please. My new goal: Think of something I’d assume would be “normal” in a fantasy story and challenge it by putting my own spin on it. Even if it’s something small, if you do that enough times, you’ll have a book brimming with originality much like The Fifth Season.

In a way, it’s hard to give ourselves that kind of creative license. Fantasy writers are very much influenced by The Lord of the Rings, cyberpunk writers by Neuromancer, supernatural writers by Dracula or Interview with a Vampire, etc. etc.

But guess what: Those writers made shit up. You can make shit up, too. There’s no law saying you have to follow their rules, and if you don’t, you’ll be all the better for it.

Make everything harder, and force characters to act

Conflict is at the root of a good story. But again, easier said than done. It’s hard to 1) constantly up the ante because we love our characters and 2) put them in a position where they have to do something and then actually go do it. Our characters should be those people we yell at in horror movies who go through the door when why would they be so stupid as to go through the door.

Think of it this way: If a crazy killer broke into your house, you’d probably be tempted to hide in the closet and cry and hope they go away. Or maybe you’d call 911 and then play it safe until the police arrived and handled it for you. But the more interesting stories are those where the character is so much braver or more foolhardy than we’d be, and they just start doing things. Because without them taking charge and taking risks and trying things out, it’d be pretty boring to watch. This goes for all of your characters. They need to actually move to move the story forward.

Alien Movie Ripley Action

Same thing applies to intensifying conflict. As writers, we have to be willing to get our characters in a pickle and then do the hard work of figuring how the hell they’re going to get out of this one. But that’s what will keep people reading.

Nail their voices

You know that test that goes, pick a passage of dialogue at random, and if you’ve done your job, you should be able to identify the character without looking at the dialogue tag? That’s maybe a little excessive, but the general idea is right.

Voice is being able to tell, how does a character speak that makes them unique from the others in my book? Voice is reading their POV and having all the writing filtered through not the author’s style, but the character’s style. Reading their chapter should be an experience in itself.

Die Hard GIF Bet Your Ass

Again, easier said than done, right? What helps is to create a quirk or trait that is all their own, as well as a core value that defines their life philosophy (or “misbelief,” an often imperfect worldview). That’s going to help them stand out from the other characters.

Now think of those couple qualities as a straight line. Constantly, when you write their character, you need to write around that line. You can veer in a zig-zag, snake-like pattern around it as you reveal new facets of their character and personality and story, and as they falter and grow. You don’t want to stick purely to the straight line because, well, then you’ll have a boring, one-dimensional character. But if you keep who they are in mind and return to that throughline, it’ll be easier to write them differently than other characters — not only in dialogue but in their actions and narrative voice, too.

All in all …

The more I write and acknowledge weaknesses in my writing, the more I realize how important all these things are to do. And “do” really isn’t the right word. These are goals, and I should always strive to meet them to the best of my ability.

And that ability is growing, little by little, story by story. It takes time and practice and experience, and sometimes you gotta get the “bad” stuff out of you before you can drill down to the really juicy stuff. But if we stick with it, we’ll get there.

What do you consider the most important skills to master in writing an awesome, original story? What makes a good book “good”?

Cool Story

How to write something longer than a short story

Writing novels GIF

You’d think if you struggle with word count, you should forget about novels and just write short stories, right? Nope. YOU CAN WRITE A NOVEL. Take it from me. Underwriting is practically my middle name.

If you get stuck after 2,000 words, maybe you’re not planning enough. Maybe you’re “pantsing” — or sitting down to write without much more than an idea and seeing where it takes you.

But 50,000+ word beasts don’t get written that way. Novels require outlines, or you’re gonna get stuck a lot. Now, everyone’s pre-writing stage is different. And there is such a thing as doing too much brainstorming and not enough of the actual writing, so you need to determine the balance that works for you.

Here’s a glimpse at my outline and “story bible” for my WIP. I have five major buckets:

Ideas:

  • My original brainstorming of my seed idea, along with the trigger moment where my story begins and the key scenes in my protagonists’ pasts that shaped their worldviews.
  • A rough sketch of the defining scenes that I knew I wanted in my novel.
  • A bullet-point outline of my whole book. I’ll slot in new scenes here and there, and I refrain from plotting out the next act until I’m done writing the previous one.
  • Main plots and subplots, with chapter-by-chapter developments. This helps me see how each thread is developing and whether any lack substance or depth. Occasionally, I’ll add new subplots while writing the book.
  • Stuff for agents: my query, theme, paragraph summary, elevator pitch, professional synopsis, etc.
  • Notes on the voice of my characters, as well as any slang and sayings unique to my world. I worry about this more in later drafts, but I like to have something to consider as I begin.
  • An ongoing list of things to fix in revision. While I’m working on the first draft, I’ll put stuff here if I’m worried something isn’t working so that I remember to come back to it later.
  • Acknowledgments (so I know who to thank should my book be published).

Characters:

Profiles on each of the central characters. Details about their physical description, personality, moments in their pasts that sparked their “misbelief” (worldview), and ideas on how they will fail and succeed throughout the novel.

As author Lisa Cron says, you can’t “write about the most difficult, life-altering series of events in the life of someone [that you] know absolutely nothing about.”

Rules of the world:

This is where I do my world-building! I take notes on my world’s history, cultures, creatures, religions, locations, and anything else that comes up in my story.

This adds dimension and can be beefed up as you go along, but it’s good to have a decent idea of how things work before you dive in.

Actual research:

Real-world research to lend credibility to different aspects of my story or to inspire fictional elements.

Examples: plants used for healing, types of geography/terrain, how archery or blacksmithing works, and so forth.

Scenes in development:

This is where I keep my scene cards, track my overall progress (chapter/act word counts and what I accomplished each week), and “guiding principles” — memos to myself about bigger picture considerations to keep in mind as I write.

In my pre-writing process, the scene cards come last, and I develop each immediately before writing that scene in my novel.


Writing catI don’t necessarily do all this work upfront. My real-world research, for example, I complete as needed as I’m writing the book, and I may come back to the character profiles to flesh them out more if I’m feeling stuck with a character.

But that’s pretty much it. It’s a growing, organic document, and pre-writing spawns a lot of ideas for plot, subplot, and character development.

I keep all these files in Scrivener, but some people prefer a binder and paper. It’s your choice.

What does you pre-writing process, outline, and “story bible” look like?

My favorite books this year were all by women

Kristen Bell sloth

It’s December, which means soon we’ll have a whole new year of books to look forward to. What’s your favorite book that you read in 2016?

Without a doubt, mine is …

Uprooted

Okay, Uprooted is from 2015, but … sigh. It’s so beautiful. And powerful. And enchanting. It’s the best fantasy literature that I’ve read since Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle (my favorite series). I don’t often encounter genuine page-turners, but this is one of them. GO READ IT PLEASE.

Also, yay for positive female friendships!

I also have to give a big shout-out to Liane Moriarty, who’s my new favorite author that I discovered this year (her books are secretly amazing), and Ava Jae, who’s my new favorite debut author (go read her too, please!).

I finished my Goodreads challenge this year. Did you?

A land without its name: a review of Tigana

Tigana

They don’t seem like conquerers … They didn’t seem like men in the midst of a triumph. They just looked tired, as at the end of a very long journey.

I haven’t sat down and read some good, thick fantasy in a while. Tigana was an excellent homecoming — rich in lore without being too fanciful, and hundreds of pages long without being indulgent.

Summarizing Tigana is difficult without revealing the heart of it, and perhaps that’s what gives Guy Gavriel Kay’s language, his story, its magic: Two tyrants, both sorcerers, are vying for domination of the world, but those who have been wronged by them — who have fallen from the grace of their beloved Tigana, a land now cursed so that none can hear its name except those born there (or with magic in their blood) — are gathering together to kill not only he who cast the spell but the other tyrant as well, so that neither shall rule.

This mutinous group, led by the dethroned prince of Tigana, does more sneaking and meddling than war-making, gathering their forces in secret and manipulating the tyrants from afar. Felling one tyrant is difficult enough, so I was eager to see how Kay would go about having them do away with two in a plausible, believable way. I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel isn’t riveting, but it is deeply enjoyable in that simmering old way of classic fantasy. Read the language carefully, and you can appreciate the fine craftsmanship that Kay put into it. Tigana is full of lengthy chapters but never lingers on one perspective for too long a time; it keeps the tension taut by introducing strange new characters and interweaving them into the plot, mounting ever higher the grand and fragile house of cards that Kay is building, all centered around the tyrant Brandin who cursed Tigana and the future of the lands.

The characters surprise you. One who stands for all that is hate and vengeance becomes a symbol of good and redemption; another who vows to destroy her enemy comes to love him. Moreover, a controversial scene in the opening chapters left me uncertain of my feelings about one of the central protagonists and caused me to wonder whether the author was mistreating another character for the sake of scandal, but Kay never let that event tarnish the respectability of either or let it govern their fates.

I only thought one character was done injustice: the tyrant Alberico, who is little more than a two-dimensional, exaggerated villain whose ill deeds and manner lack the complexities of the fellow tyrant Brandin’s.

The others, despite their role in the story — a hindrance or a help to the freeing of Tigana — I cared for equally. The ending is bittersweet: both happy and tragic, with a reveal of a secret that was brilliantly concealed and saved for the final moments. The story ends how you suppose it will, but not how you hoped or predicted.

Kay weaves together many small stories, consequential or seemingly trivial, without losing sight of their place in the conflict that’s brewing or forgetting to convey the sense of time it took for it all to come together — years and years, with the ache of centuries and an unmistakable weariness hanging on each word.

The magic here is old, and trembling, and monstrous. It’s used carefully, for fear of repercussion, which always comes. And it’s not restricted to one form but to many: to wizards who hide their power to save their life, to those who walk in a dream realm at night, to those who heal and others who torment and are crippled by their own sorcery.

That magic is never quite enough to fill you. Tigana leaves you yearning.

Grade: A