Building an alternate universe for your story to take place in can be super fun, but also overwhelming if you have more ideas than reasons for being. Or maybe you have a foggy idea of what you might like it to be, but don’t feel motivated to flesh out this new world. Either of these problems can feel super daunting, and if left unchecked, could make you jump ship altogether. But you don’t have to – there is always a way to attack your idea from a different direction. Maybe you manage to put a new spin on an existing idea so it becomes something totally new.
Have an idea but feel overwhelmed by the details? Here are some do’s and don’ts to make sure you don’t miss the forest for the trees. Or, if you’re into science fiction like I am, the spaceship for the bolts.
Get wrapped up in things that don’t matter.
If you find it boring, your reader will too. Let your plot drive the pacing and content of your world. This is why everyone always hates info dumping. It’s simply unnecessary if it’s not moving the plot forward.
As an enthusiastic pantser myself, I know the temptation exists to just sit back and let your story develop on its own. And while that often works decently well for plotting, the same can’t really be said about world building. To avoid writing yourself into plot holes, make sure you spend some time daydreaming or journaling to describe this new world to yourself first. Once you feel you have a strong grasp on it, you can start to build your story within the parameters you’ve built.
Add random difficulties just for fun.
Everything you decide really must contribute to your plot somehow. If it doesn’t add something to the story, it’ll feel like a cheesy vanity piece. Make your choices matter by figuring out what ways your unique ecosystem or government can affect the protagonist’s story.
Ignore your desired genre and demographic.
This goes without saying, but it’s especially true here. For example, if you’re writing a YA dystopian, leave the in-depth technological descriptions and complicated military politics out. Young readers don’t typically gravitate toward those things, even though you feel they may be crucial to your story. For more about what Young Adult readers like, see this article HERE: What Makes Young Adult Novels so Appealing? If you must include them, shift your focus to the demographic that would be most appropriate for your vision.
Rely on your five senses.
This is a great tool I tell anyone who’s aspiring to write any kind of science fiction or dystopian thriller. Sure, any genre would benefit from this, but world building is particularly dependent on sensation. What can you see, hear, taste, feel, and touch? This grounds both the reader and your characters deeply into your world, so that everything feels real.
Stick to a need-to-know basis.
If a character accepts a given fact as absolute truth, there’s no need to flesh out an exact reason for the reader. Remember – the reader is to become engaged so deeply within the plot, that they understand what the character does. Avoid voyeuristic nuances whenever possible – unless that’s the chosen style you’re writing toward.
Bring in other myths and stories.
My personal favorite of this element is the Greek mythology as seen in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. In his stories, he takes academically understood tales of real cultural narratives and re-writes them with flair. Now, they’re suddenly relevant to his narrative while blending in their historical context in a whole new way. The only potential pitfall is that if not done with purpose and proper sensitivity, it could seem offensive to certain people. My best advice is to proceed mindfully and use bestselling work like Riordan’s to keep you on track.
Let yourself dream.
To successfully build a resonant world that readers will want to really sink into, you’ll need to live in it yourself first. Imagine what your life might look like living there. Would your clothing, family, and home look different? What sorts of friends might you have? Would your dream occupation change as well? Fall back into the inner recesses of your mind. Become your own character before inviting others to join you.
At the end of the day (or the writing session), world building is what you make it. So do what you can, be kind to yourself, and above all else, have fun with it!