World-building is like cooking. There are people who cook and follow a recipe to the letter. Their food usually sucks. Then there are people who look at a recipe, know what they have on hand and what they don’t, and their food usually comes out amazing. These individuals are masters of the substitution, they improvise on the fly and they recognize that cooking, like writing, is an art form. Here’s how you can be like these creative individuals and start serving your world like a boss.
1. Know your basics and build on your prior knowledge to make a perfect dish
A good chef knows their basic cooking skills and builds on these. You should do the same with your writing. Know all the ins and outs of your world before you start writing the meat of your novel and then see where the story takes you. In today’s whiplash society, no one has time to read a nine-page narrative of who begat whom. No one cares. Start with your main characters and get to their conflict relatively soon. Does that mean you need to go home and throw out your character family tree, trash that language you built, and throw the map you made of your kingdom into the compost heap? No, it does not.
2. Your background materials are your flavors
All that background material that you’ve created is in you now, let the flavors ooze out into your writing. Make it real for your reader. Arm yourself with everything you think you need to know about your world, and then tell us a story. Don’t give us a history lesson. Tell us who your characters are, where they are in that moment, and what a day in the life is like for them. Do it subtly. Finesse it. These details are like spices and you need to sprinkle them along the way to add interest. Tell the reader what the weather is like as your main character is pondering their dilemma. Tell us about their skin as they absently rub their arm and trade dialogue. Make the reader care without overwhelming them. You are taking readers on a journey into your home. You are the host, don’t bore them or serve them something lame. Surprise them with the unexpected, but hold their hand as you do it.
3. Learn to improvise
If you’re world-building, be the improviser, don’t be the recipe-follower. Know that life is messy. Life does not go as planned. Factors like weather, lack of ingredients, and missing cooking implements will screw up your dish, but you need to roll with that shitake and make things happen. People are hungry for your creations, don’t let them down. If your plot is not going as planned, use that as an advantage and make it work. Think of a way to mirror the messiness of life–traffic, inconveniences, forgetfulness, illness, forces of nature–use these tools to make life difficult for your darlings. Readers relate to this because their own life is just as messy.
4. Don’t waste time on a side dish
Be careful and don’t spend too much time crafting an amazing backstory for a character, a setting, or a plot that is so interesting and beautiful it out-shines your main story, leaving your main course looking like leftovers. Save that backstory for a side project, a special feature for your newsletter readers, or a short novella companion piece. Always keep your main story the star of the meal. Side dishes are compliments and they need to stay that way.
Writing, like cooking, is an art form–when you get it right, the ingredients will sing and stand on their own. Now go channel your inner Julia Child, pour a glass of wine, open your laptop, and get cooking.