World building, implied by its name, is no small feat. The term itself can be daunting. Me? Build a whole world? By myself? It’s so daunting, in fact, that I hesitate to use it even in the context of my own work. When I think of world building, I think of some of my all-time favorite examples like the terrifying dystopia of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. Or perhaps the hard-science of the glittering world in Tony DiTerlizzi’s The WondLa Trilogy.
These examples of intricate worlds are built not molecule-by-molecule, but rather letter-by-letter on a page. I discovered, through my own writing, that despite its connotation, world building does not have to be big.
Let me elaborate on that. If you have a small idea, even just a spark, build on that and see where it leads. You don’t need to spend hours poring over scientific journals and theorizing about a possible new set of physics for an alternate universe. You can make your idea as intricate or as simple as you want. The best thing about world building, at any size, is that there are no rules. This is also the worst thing about world building!
How can you break your world building rules if there are no rules?
Touché – but hear me out. The most fun and liberating thing about world building is making rules with full intent to break them later. If you can get your reader to have these societal rules drilled into their subconscious mind long enough, then when your character inevitably breaks that rule, things will start to spin out of control. It’s a great way to get your plot moving faster. Once that ball is rolling, it’s near impossible to get it to stop.
How much is too much?
That’s not up for me to tell you. It’s something you’ve gotta figure out for yourself. But if it’s boring for you to write, then the reader may be seriously tempted to flip past it. For example, if you’ve got a really amazing forbidden futuristic time-travel romance brewing (always a winner in my opinion), but then you switch to a very detailed analysis of the very unique and creative asexual reproductive tendencies of the particular species of bacteria that grows on the spaceship’s bathroom tiles, that might be just a tad too much. Heck, I just yawned while typing out that hypothetical.
Beware of writing yourself into a hole.
If I could throw a bunch of New England commute-style pothole caution signs here, I would. Even if you keep things relatively simple, you run the risk of contradicting yourself, or worse, leaving a gaping logic hole where there should have been a bridge. When tackling something potentially overwhelming, I’d advise you to keep detailed notes while writing. This can be as simple as chicken scratch on a notepad, or as complex as a categorized chart. Whatever you do though, keep it real, and keep it probable. The only time it’s okay to leave things unanswered is if you purposely want the characters to be left in the dark about something. And even then, you must have a good reason.
This isn’t a problem just for world building. We can write ourselves into a corner with any kind of complex plot action. Here’s a post on finding your way back if you get lost: Have You Lost the Plot?
I’m placing this directly after the previous point because I want to leave you with something encouraging and motivating, so here it is. Build your world with the idea that you can “live” in your new place, and you can make it literally whatever you want. If you’ve had a case of wanderlust lately, but haven’t been able to go anywhere due to the unfortunate current state of things, then maybe it’s time to retreat into your imagination. The best ideas come from free-flowing thought, so give yourself, first and foremost, the freedom to word vomit.. You can always clean up the chunks later.