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I’ve always been writing, but never wanted to write something in a world I create. I already know what direction I’ll be taking my fleshed-out characters, but I’m still wondering whether or not I should be writing a story board first or trying to flesh out the world my characters are in.

I can see Pros and Cons from each side and was just curious as to what the general consensus is on what to do first from writers who have already been where I am!

Edit/Update

This is a Fantasy world-build, and I am so appreciative of the comments and advice! You guys have outlined some important details I was definitely missing out on. Thank you so much!

  • What genre are you referring to? The concept of world-building is different in literary fiction from, say, fantasy. Not having figured out all the details of the latter can have repercussions in your plot and character dynamics not present in the world found in literary fiction (RL, that is) – user16555 Sep 9 '18 at 6:07
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    Hi unnamed author, and welcome! You might be interested in How do I justify spending time to create a world in the first place? over on our sister site, Worldbuilding. – a CVn Sep 9 '18 at 9:07

10 Answers 10

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For me (and for the people who answered before me, I see,) story and worldbuilding go together, with the story in the driver's seat.

Let me give you an example:

Suppose I'm writing a military sci-fi story. First there's the general shape of it - where's the fighting, who's doing the fighting, what kind of military it is, who's the MC and how he experiences the whole thing.

Then comes worldbuilding: I'm writing about military, so I need structure. Let's take something modern, and later tweak as the story demands. I need weapons - let's read up on what's being developed, where military tech is going.

Back to story: the military tech I found goes in the direction of having soldiers fight from afar, with guided missiles etc. But story-wise, that's boring. I want danger, I want battles, I want the smell of gunpowder and blood. So, back to worldbuilding - why is the tech actually limited? And so on.

If, on the other hand, I was trying to write a Star-Trek-like story, it would make no sense for me to sit and balance weapon capabilities. Instead, my worldbuilding would be more along the lines of "my characters land on a planet. What interesting natural or social phenomena do they find?"

Or, another example, a fantasy story this time:

Story: my MC is coming of age. Worldbuilding: what does the coming-of-age ceremony/celebration look like? At what age does it actually happen? How exactly do the rights and duties of a minor differ from those of an adult?

Story: MC goes into the forest, and meets some interesting non-humans who help him in his quest. Worldbuilding: Are the non-humans known to the human population, are they mere legend, or is it a "first encounter"? If they are known, what is known about them, and how does it relate to the truth about them? In what ways are those non-humans different from humans - are they human for all intents and purposes, or are there differences in lifespan, intelligence, magical ability etc.?

And so on. I do not start delving into the intricate culture of mermaids until my MC actually finds himself at sea.

7

In my opinion it is not so clearly differentiated. Many writers including myself start from a single most important thing to their story and adjust or build other things in the way.

You cannot complete your story without knowing the world your characters live in. Similarly world building will quickly become messy, if you don't have some fixed viewpoint character who is going to see the world at some point. One can easily lose their focus and forget the original reason why they are building the world.

World building is not over until your story is completed. World building is not just past events or creation myths, even the actions made by characters, in the course of the story will change the structure of world and contribute for world building (for this novel and its sequels).

7

As far as I'm concerned, story comes first.

That's just because you can almost do endless worldbuilding (worldbuilding.se has countless examples of all the aspects you can consider while doing so) without sketching out a single plot line, or character arch.

It's true that if you are a very descriptive kind of writer you can start your novels with wide descriptions of your setting, but sooner or later you'll need to start the plot somehow.

Worldbuilding surely does back up your story and helps build your characters, but it's the plot that propels the story forward.

Consider a simple plot line:

  • little red riding hood has to bring food to her sick grandma
  • she needs to cross the wood
  • the wolf tricks her
  • eventually, an hunter saves the day

It's really scarce, but it's an example of basic storytelling, and it's what humans have done for centuries. As childish as it is, it works. From the worldbuilding perspective, we could expand indefinitely any of those aspects:

  • Who are those characters? Where do they live?
  • Why does the wolf talk? Do other animals talk, too?
  • What creatures and plants inhabit the wood?
  • What's the background of the hunter?

We could (possibly) spend hours imagining a whole nation containing Red's house, the wood, and the grandma's house, going so far as adding politics, intrigue, magic and so on. But without a basic plot, this is just drawing a map without a clear idea of where you are going. Per se, that's nice. Half the fun of worldbuilding, to me, is imagining what kind of characters or stories my world could support.

But again, even if worldbuilding gives you plenty of possibilities and interesting concepts, you'll eventually have to focus on some plot. If you start a book there is only so much you can go on without giving the readers some hint of what the plot will be. Let's take for example the Lord of the Rings: the first chapters are very descriptive, the story starts slower than we are used to by modern standards, but in the end we get that there's this hobbit and he'll start a journey.

Contrarywise, even the most compelling plot needs a bit of worldbuilding, or you'll risk being a bit unrealistic or not immersive enough. But I dare say that plots can live on their own.

So, to me, if writing a story was like riding a car, the plot would be the engine and the wheels, and the worldbuilding would be everything else. I wouldn't like to drive the most powerful engine without any bodywork, and I wouldn't like to have the most beautiful car without any engine inside.

So, just do both - but if you have a good incipit for the plot, don't let the lack of a complete worldbuilding drag you down.

6

I'm not sure if you will be able to find a "general consensus". That implies that someone has done a survey on a sample population at a specific point in time, and the people in that survey respond. Individual preferences become group patterns.

All I can say is, "some people" (no idea how many people) will probably say they prefer story-boarding and planning and outlining, and "some people" will probably say they prefer world-building, and "some people" will probably say that they prefer to do both at the same time.

If you have a basic idea of the setting, then the story outline should be easy. But if you do not have a basic idea of the setting, then think of it. World-build. Build a world. Once you have a world and a setting, you can create your outline. The fictional world may be derived from our world, or it may be derived from your imagination. But some kind of thought needs to go into it. If you don't know the setting, then how can you write about a realistic character? People are not born inside vacuums; they are influenced by their environments, and their environments influence them.

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Plot, character, and world are all an integral part of story.

You don't have a story, if you don't know who lives it and where it takes place. You may not know all the details when you first have the idea for a story, but you will certainly know in equally general terms who, where, and what happens.

From this first idea, the best approach is to

develop all aspects in parallel

You may want to work on the world for a while, or develop the characters in more detail, but a character lives in a place, and you cannot develop a character without knowing where he lives. So you will always be working on all three aspects of your story – plot, character, and world – at the same time, even if one of them is momentarily more in the foreground.

If you work on the world without considering plot and character at the same time, your story will lose its integrity.


Note how plot and story are not the same. Plot is the structure of the events. Story is what the reader reads.

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I go against the grain to the extent that I've been banned on more than one occasion. Regardless, the age-old argument is "plot vs character" . . . world building is, and has never been, a real issue.

Sci-Fi, Star Trek for example, many may have momentarily marvelled at world's constructed but the relationship between Kirk and Spock is what lives on.

4

You need the broad strokes of the world filled out before you can really start to run characters through their paces. You can know what your characters are going to do long before you have a finished world but in order to have characters interact with the world as well as each other you need to know something about that world.

I usually worldbuild first, probably more than I strictly have to because I used to build RPG worlds and players will always poke at the blank spaces on the map. The world can inform a lot about characters, or not, depending on your exact setting, genre considerations etc... but until you rough in the general outlines you just don't know how much you really need to tell your tale. I'd advise starting with a bit of the world at least, even if only the very broadest stokes.

3

Both is the way to go

Your story will be influenced by the world it plays in. For example, lets say your story starts in a desert. If magic requires eating certain plants that only grow in marshes, your story will look vastly different than if you need to absorb magic from sunlight.

Your story needs to interplay with your world, or else readers will feel a disconnect between them. Therefore, you can't really write your story if you don't know what your world will look like. Sure, general lines aren't a problem - boy can meet girl regardless of the existence of dragons - but down to the details, it needs to fit together.

On the other hand, your world will need to provide what is required for the story to be interesting. If there is a final showdown between Mr. Hero and Mr. Villain, you might want awesome flashy explosions, and the magic/bazooka's need to make that possible.

I'd think it's best to first think of a general, one-page explanation of the world and it's magic. No details yet. Then grab a story and see how it fits in the world. Introduce magical possibilities that you think enable the awesome moments of the story. Then rewrite the story completely to make sure that there's nothing impossible early story but possible late, or the other way around

For example, Harry Potter is a great story - mostly because JK Rowling is just that good at writing a compelling story. However, there are legions of plotholes between different books - things that were possible in book 2 might not be possible in book 7. In my opinion, this is sub-optimal. On the other hand, a writer like Brandon Sanderson pays closer attention to world building, and keeps his rules like a law of nature. There's some awesome blog posts he wrote here and here. (And by the way, checking out everything Brandon writes about writing itself might be a good idea to read, IMHO.)

  • could you clarify your parenthetical? what is the "this" which happens in HP but not in Sanderson? The sentence right before it has two opposing thoughts, so I'm not sure which one you intended "this" to refer to. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 10 '18 at 9:52
  • Attempted to improve and expand on that a bit. Thanks for your suggestion. – Gloweye Sep 10 '18 at 10:01
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This is not really an easy question to answer. It mostly depends on your preferences. Both approaches have good pros and cons.

Building Story first:

The best pro on this is: Your setting is set. You have fleshed out the conflict, struggles and all the characters and everything else from start to end (in the best case). The Problem in this case is, that the prominent part of your world is safe and sound. But maybe it is lacking in the small details and charming parts, that make a world likable.

Building World first:

In this case you have the most of your world safe and sound. You have all the big and small areas fleshed out, you have set all the people in the world, most of the flora and fauna and the religious stuff too. Now you get to the story part and maybe your story don't match all the things you imagined. Maybe you have to cut the story on some parts or have to adjust it, just to match the world. Or you have to alter the world for the sake of the story.

As you see: It is always a decision, what is more important to yourself or what is easier for you. So it is first and foremost your decision of things you like or don't like

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Your world is built on some basic premise: Dystopia, ruled by wizards, doomed or whatever. If you have a hero or heroine (very different things see,Heroism for Girls ) then there is going to be something about it they're fighting, or you as an author want the reader to think about. That's the spring which drives the mechanism of your story.

As you see how your main character evolves you're completely free to invent issues or cheats or weirdnesses. Remember it's their story not your model that matters. If you want to impress us with your intricate model detailing then get the hero/ine to interact with the crystal matrix or whatever.

Like with a play, you only need the scenery that's needed for the story.

Bottom line: (1) Concept (2) Character (3) Motivation (4) Interaction where we get the details and implications of the strange world.

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