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 โ€” 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.

Writing is like meditation. It’s uncomfortable and hard, until it’s not

It's hard

The number one thing that stops me from writing my novels isn’t a lack of time, opportunity, or ideas. It’s how I feel while I’m writing.

The act of writing hurts.

It goes a little like this. I sit down and spend at least 20 minutes getting into a good headspace. And once I get going, it’s not necessarily any easier. The whole process, from beginning to end, is painful. It’s basically “this sucks this is bad and dull and uninspiring” on loop.

And knowing it’s like this almost every time is depressing because I start to question my life choices. Why couldn’t I have picked a nice, happy hobby, like knitting?

tina bob's burgers

There’s only one way I know to deal with this feeling. Not even to make it go away — just to get around it.

Write often.

Yeah, yeah. Easier said than done, I know. (Trust me, I know.) Because it’s a bit like a catch-22. You have to write often to stop the feeling from being so intense, but the feeling is so intense that it stops you from writing often.

In that way it’s a little like exercising. It’s terrible until you like it (or so I’ve heard). But exercising isn’t a perfect metaphor because it’s not so much that I like it or that it gets any easier. It’s more like meditation. It’s uncomfortable and hard — consistently, no matter how much I do it — until that moment when it’s not.

It happens when I’m maybe an hour in, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. But when it does, I call it falling into the “writing zone” because that’s about the time when my husband is asking if I’m ever rejoining the rest of humanity because three hours have flown by. I get up from my laptop all groggy and wondering where I am.

everything is terrible

As a writer, I can only live for these moments. But it’s like getting in a car and every time having to drive with a blindfold on. You’re horrified and you want to get out because this is a bad idea, but then you can feel you’re on the highway, and you’ve forgotten anything is wrong because you’re one with your car or something. (No, I have not done this. Do not do this.)

If writing is meditation, it’s a struggle of trying to make it from one word, one sentence, one paragraph to the next while machete-hacking through a jungle of my own terrible thoughts. It’s a fight. It’s relentless. And then all of a sudden, I’m in the groove. I’m too deep and too focused to care or even notice I’m in the jungle anymore — I’m just there, slinging the words, too busy to complain about how hot it is or how hungry I am.

This is probably too many metaphors, but you get the idea.

Writing is hard. It’s hard. I don’t know that it’ll ever not be hard. And yeah, most of the time that makes me want to crawl under the blankets and never emerge.

But then I achieve that small moment — and it’s the tiniest indication that everything will be okay. That maybe I can do this after all.

So here I am. Still writing. Still going.

Writing, motherhood, and weird life turns

It’s been almost two years since I wrote my last blog post. And boy, things have changed.

Baby boy, to be exact.

I was feeling pretty down on myself in my last post. I was also โ€” hey โ€” about three months pregnant and constantly sick. So in hindsight, that makes sense. But I was also really stuck on the fact that I’d put a huge amount of energy into writing a novel that was my best one yet, and it wasn’t going anywhere.

So I quit writing. I didn’t have it in me. For all my past talk about “writing’s hard, you just gotta push through” — I couldn’t. All the self-discipline in the world wasn’t getting those words out of me.

Part of me thought, “Okay, this is fine. My mind and body only have energy enough for growing a human being. If I start another novel now, I’ll give birth before it’s finished, and then I’ll have to put it on ice for months as I adjust to being a new mom, and that’ll kill the project anyway.”

That was fine.

this is not fine

I did the thing. I gave birth to a baby boy, seven pounds, one ounce. I enjoyed my maternity leave. Then I grew restless. I wanted to get back to my job. I did.

And then my brain latched on to an idea and it was happening. I was writing a novel again.

As of last weekend, I finished the first draft of my fourth novel, a middle grade fantasy.

It’s a funny thing, life. I guess I only had room for one big project in me at a time. (God forbid I ever have twins.) But I was pretty sure I would never write another novel again. I was that demotivated and hopeless.

But then I did.

Writing with a 10 month old isn’t easy. Time is scarcer than ever. But you get it done. The words are bad, and you hate them, but they go down on the page.

And then you have a novel.

Signs you’re growing as an aspiring novelist

Growing as a writer

Last month, I sent my latest manuscript to one of my closest critique partners. I was anxious to hear what she thought. Anxious, but excited.

This is the third novel that I’ve written. When I finished the first one, I remember my hands were shaking. Pride and accomplishment flooded through me. I HAD DONE THE THING. I HAD WRITTEN A NOVEL. (It turned out that THE THING was only THE BEGINNING because revision is approximately 100 times harder and more work, but hey.)

My second novel is and probably will always be my baby — although it’s more like a car or a house. A shabby, broken-at-its-foundations house, but one that I built myself. I loved it to death, and I kept trying to fix it up (many, many times), but in the end I was only giving it a fresh paint job and dusting out the cobwebs while the porch was falling in and the roof was leaking. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, there’s no saving it unless you build a whole new house.

This novel was different. I didn’t feel overly happy or anything, really,ย upon finishing it. And while you might think that’s proof that the novel is bad, that it’s not emotionally affecting or immersive, I took it as a sign that I was growing as a novelist. This novel wasn’t my “baby.” It was one story out of many I could and will write. The whole of my aspirations and future weren’t resting on it being some sort of monumental breakaway success.

I felt … calm. I felt good about what I had produced. Confident. There are always problems with early drafts, but to me the novel seemed strong at its core, and I was curious to learn how my assessment compared to my critique partner’s.

Writing pencil twirl

It’s hard to get distance from your work and be objective about how good it is — how effective or successful you are at what you’re trying to accomplish. But even when I was doing my first round of revision, I was more focused in those self-edits than I have been in the past.

That focus and perspective, to me, is key. It’s not important how you “feel” about your novel — whether your fingers are trembling as they hover over the keyboard after typing “the end.” Whether the characters are near and dear to your heart. You don’t need to be in love because your personal feelings have little to do with the quality of your work.

Writers are notorious for thinking they’re geniuses one day and hacks the next. If you look over your work in either state of mind, you’re not going to get a very truthful assessment of its quality. It’s colored by what you feel in the moment.

As I waited for my critique partner to respond with her feedback, I suspected I was getting better at putting those emotions aside. That my assessment of my work was more critical and, I hoped, accurate.

And you know what? I wasn’t too far off. What I thought was good about it was what she thought was good. There were no heart-stopping surprises in her feedback. No shockers.

I’m getting better. I find that comforting. It may not be dramatic or riveting, but I’ll take that security over heart-pounding nerves and emotional rollercoasters any day.

How have you noticed yourself growing as a novelist?