When do you stop worldbuilding and start plotbuilding?
It’s a question every writer of alternate realities must face, and it can be paralyzing. If I’m being honest, that question is one of the reasons I’ve been writing non-speculative fiction for the past few years.
Coming to Terms
Worldbuilding and Plotbuilding are both kind of self-explanatory, but I think it’s worth taking a couple of minutes to explore the terms and how these two creative actions can be very different endeavors with way different skillsets.
Worldbuilding is the process of coming up with entire nations, races, technologies, cultures–heck, even universes. You can literally spend years just running down the minutia of your world, drawing maps and making yet another religion or dynasty instead of moving on to the next phase of the writing process. Many fantasy writers embrace this philosophy because they want to be like Tolkien–but many get stuck there. Others just assume a standard Tolkien/D&D fantasy-with-elves or spacefaring-military civilization with a few names changed and move on to the plotting.
If you can create a good-enough world with just-enough fleshed out cultural info to move on to creating characters and story arcs, you’ll hit the sweet spot. Brandon Sanderson is great at this, as are writers who started out as gamers like Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, Ed Greenwood, R.A. Salvatore, Pat Rothfuss, and G.R.R. Martin. You could also count George Lucas here–he created just enough of a world for his Campbellian monomyth in space fantasy.
Plotbuilding is just creating plot outlines and story arcs in the same way you create kingdoms and magic systems. You can completely eschew this process and focus on discovery writing, you can create elaborate matrixes of many-character arcs over an entire series of books (looking at you, Jo Rowling), or you can do like most people and land in the happy medium between the two. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, you’ll need to have at least the start of a plot at some point.
You can certainly start with prewritten fantasy worlds and create a plot without coming up with any major worldbuilding lore (D&D, Star Wars, and Star Trek fiction does it all the time, as does fanfic), but part of the appeal of speculative fiction to me as a writer is getting to create my own sandbox where the rules work the way I want them.
The allure of other’s worlds is there, but the straitjacket of canon story bibles is too high of a cost for me to bear, I wanted to create my own world, and I stalled out once the analysis paralysis took hold.
What’s the problem
About three years ago, I got the idea for a new fantasy world–I wanted to explore themes of colonialism and faith, and started putting together many files detailing a fantasy world with a technology level circa 1600 A.D. where some old world cultures had formed seafaring empires, one specifically built on conquest and subjugation and another built on mutual self-interest. Magic was essentially nonexistent in the old world, but the new world was full of it, and full of people looking to exploit those who wielded it.
Like most any fantasy world idea, it’s a bit cliche, but like most any story, the quality is more in the execution than in the root idea.
I still think it could be a compelling setting, but at the time I had no overarching plots or characters to reign in my worldbuilding to a manageable level. I found myself at an impasse, and I moved on to other projects, and I’ve been writing mostly literary fiction set in a contemporary setting or in a 20th-century setting after moving on from that logjam.
My current strategy
A little over a week ago, I found an interesting thread on Reddit where a small science fiction journal was seeking sci-fi short stories up to 3K words centered around the theme of exploring humanity. It paid a decent rate (6¢/word) and promised good feedback, so I started exploring sci-fi concepts to use for such a story.
Another one of the worlds that’s been slowly congealing in my head is a Fallout-esque future post-apocalyptic world with multiple societies. When the skies were chocked with ash for years, some of them went underground, some of them relied on technology to survive, and others began rapid biological experimentation. This world had never really gotten past the initial concept stage, but it felt like a good fit for the journal and I began exploring it a bit.
I wanted to have a story on the edge of these two futuristic cultures, where an individual of one culture meets an actual member of the other culture (now a race) for the first time and are challenged to see if their initial prejudices hold water or not. I knew I wanted one society that survived using rapid genetic experimentation/bio-grafting augmentation and another that used a lot of exoskeletons, drones, and similar tech because I wanted a theme the gelf side seeing the mecha side as ‘less than human’ and vice versa.
Because I was writing a story and not an epic novel series, I was able to focus on one small piece of worldbuilding–here’s a place near the edge of these two cultures where one group has something of value and someone from the other group wants it. I worked out just enough of each culture’s backstory to approximate how they had both fared in the aftermath of the apocalyptic event to the setting of the story, and came up with two characters with conflicting goals.
I created a a female mecha sentinel whose job is to guard a forward observation base to earn the right to start a family and wants revenge on the gelfs for killing loved ones. The other character is a male gelf who isn’t a soldier but who must sneak into the base to get a medicine to cure his wife’s disease. If they met over a beer, they’d probably have a lot in common, but because of the situation they have conflicting goals and motivations.
Once I had created fake people who lived in my imaginary lands, I began to have a bit of skin in the game. How had such cultures shaped their values and their way of seeing the world? How were they at odds with each other officially but yet could connect at a level of shared humanity? Answering these questions provided 75% of what I needed to construct the plot for my short story.
I’ve now plotted out the full story and have written the first section. I’m excited to see if it stays on course or decides to go off the rails. I like to plan out the decisive moments in advance, but sometimes the characters will buck my outline and go make their own destinies. As it should be!