What are the most important parts of worldbuilding that may have a big impact on the story or narration? I want to focus on the part that would have the biggest impact on the story or narration so I can spend as little time as possible worldbuilding. Do you have any insight on this?
Q: Can worldbuilding affect my story?
A: Yes, if you have no clue about the story you want to tell.
It is entirely possible that you like the idea of world building. You set up your world and then start exploration writing to try and find a story. Chances are that you corner yourself in some paradox, or in an unresolvable conflict because of the way you set up your world.
Is that an issue? Usually not. See DWKraus's excellent answer about the fact that the story defines the world and not the other way around.
If you still wonder whether there are particular elements of worldbuilding that can corner you, the answer is 'dogmatism'. If for whatever reason you insist on sticking to some hard rules and don't allow yourself the flexibility to adapt the world to your narrative needs, then you are going to hit a corner very quickly. Worldbuilding se is full of such instances: for example, the attempt to write space opera using hard science.
Q: Can worldbuilding affect my narration?
A: Most certainly yes.
Any choice that will affect how characters perceive the world or how they are supposed to behave will impact your narration. On the other hand, choices on inanimate objects, or about items that are not actors in your story will have no impact on your narration. I give you some illustrative examples:
choices in terms of geopolitics and cultural flairs will affect how your characters talk, which will show in the dialogues you will write.
telepathy or widespread knowledge of sign language paves the way for extended dialogues, which are not merely 'vocal'.
the senses available to the characters will affect your descriptions of the scenes. For instance:
- don't describe colors in a universe in which there is no sense of sight.
- if sound exists in the void of space, then there is a whole lot of telltale signs that spaceships or meteors are passing by
- if time does not exists in the fabric of your universe, chronological order also does not exist when telling a story, and characters may relate facts by ordering them according to some other dimension
Again, the limit is your imagination.
It Doesn't Work that Way:
Worldbuilding is not just a step in writing, where you need to complete the task so you can get to work on the real job of writing. In many ways, the world is like an additional character, who lives and breathes through the story. Make the character two-dimensional, and the story lands flat. You add complexity to make the story rich, and the worldbuilding interacts with the characters as you go along.
A writer can change the world simply because it would be really cool for a character to have an excuse to interact with their dire enemy whom they would never talk to. But hey, it's the feast of Amathasia, and you always reach out to your enemies in friendship or risk offending the gods.
It also depends greatly on the nature of the story. How close is a story to the modern world? The closer it is, the less work you need to do describing it. Is your setting fantastical? It will require worldbuilding to explain it. Is there a magic system? worldbuilding controls what your characters and their enemies can and can't do.
All this doesn't mean your worldbuilding has to be all-encompassing. You can have a fairly vague idea of how things work, and "fix" reality to what is expedient as you go along. I keep adding details as I go along, and with modern writing, you can always go back in the story and foreshadow how you've now made the story. Until you publish, the world isn't permanent - anything can be changed. You suddenly realize your story is paralleling Aztec twin brother mythology? research the story and change reality in your work to fit the new idea.
I disagree with the other people saying that starting by world building is putting the cart before the horse. You don't need to begin conceptualizing a story by world building - but you have to start somewhere. Beginning by thinking about your setting is a perfectly fine way to do this! And, in fact, I've created several stories using this approach myself.
The way to decide which elements of your world to figure out first is the same way you decide anything else in a story. I'm surprised I don't see more people talking about this particular idea, but it's one I've noticed over and over again in the best writing I've read: Compelling stories have deeply interconnected elements.
In an abstract but real sense, stories are made of narrative aspects - characters, thematic focuses, individual scenes, conflicts, plot dynamics, and of course elements of the setting. If you can craft your story so that as many of these elements impact multiple parts of your story at once as possible, you'll get to the point where every detail comes alive with rich, multifaceted implications and whole worlds of layered subtext.
That's all very abstract, so here's a concrete example. At the climax of Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke turns off his targeting computer and uses the force to guide his one shot at the Death Star's weakness. This moment is one solitary decision, but it's one of the most loved scenes in movie history. And that one decision ties in deeply to many other aspects of the film:
- It is simultaneously the climax of multiple story threads: the attack on the Death Star, Luke's struggle to connect to the force, and Luke's journey into the dangerous new world of the galactic rebellion.
- It subtly ties into the beginning of the film, where Luke is frustrated that he is obligated to be a farm boy instead of living his dream as a fighter pilot. This scene is the realization of his dream.
- Obi Wan's spirit encourages Luke to trust the force, giving Obi Wan a gratifying send-off.
- To allow Luke to get to this point, Han Solo needed to chase Darth Vader off of Luke's tail. This represents the culmination of Han's character arc, finally fully willing to believe in something greater than looking out for himself, and an early triumph for Luke in the franchise's personal conflict between Luke and Vader.
- The Death Star itself represents the Empire's ability to carry out planetary holocausts with imputiny. Destroying it is a major victory in the franchise's overarching conflict. It is also cathartic after the Empire destroyed Leia's home planet out of spite.
- And, of course, this moment is only possible because the careful world building that went into making it possible for the audience to follow along with such a fantastical sci-fi battle. There's a ton going on in this scene mechanically, and all of it had to be made easily understandable to the audience beforehand: The Rebels' X-Wings and the Empire's TIE Fighters, the cannons mounted on the Death Star itself, the fact that the Empire has an effectively limitless supply of fighters to throw at defense while the Rebels have only so many pilots on their side, and the weak spot on the Death Star and why it's a vulnerability.
That last bullet point gets into the kinds of details you want to prioritize when starting a story by considering your setting. The question to ask is: What kinds of details will make it possible to to craft the most important scenes?
You can approach this in two different ways. On one hand, you can craft a setting that you find compelling in and of itself, then ask how you can create a story that ties in deeply to that setting. Which types of characters would have the most interesting stories to tell here? Which kinds of conflict will be made the most interesting and intense in this setting? Are there any thematic ideas that are inherent to the setting itself? If you take this approach, the world building details you focus on are the ones that you're the most interested in yourself. Have fun with it! Develop the parts of the setting you enjoy thinking about and don't sweat about the parts you find boring or tedious. But as you do so, keep a part of your mind focused on how your world gives rise to a story with characters, conflict, and meaningful decisions. When that story idea becomes clear and concrete, you've done enough initial world building. You'll continue to tweak the setting as part of the writing process, but you know enough about your world to start giving life to a story.
On the other hand, you can start with a general idea of both the setting you want to build and the story you want to tell in it, and then let your story concept mold your world. Which specific setting elements tie into the themes you want to focus on? What would your characters need to exist in this world - and which of those needs do you want to deliberately withhold in order to drive conflict? Speaking of conflict, what kind of world would naturally give rise to the conflict you're interested in seeing? With this approach, you decide which world building details to focus on by asking yourself questions like these. Sometimes this means getting into the weeds of some world building you aren't particularly enthused about. But I've found that crafting a story is even more fun than crafting a world. A setting is a static thing, an aether for other things to be placed in but incapable of change by itself. In contast, a story is alive and dynamic. The same character is a different person at different parts of the story. Conflicts change, ebb, bleed into each other, and become more and more acutely unbearable leading to the climax. Thematic ideas are presented, developed, undermined, deconstructed, reconstructed, and explored from inventive angles before finally settling on a coherent overarching message - or pointedly falling to do so. If you can have fun world building, you can have fun crafting a story. And this second approach lets you focus on the story ideas you enjoy the most, even if it means flushing out some parts of your world early on that you aren't inherently interested in.
That's where the advice I can give you ends. It's hard to give concrete examples of how this works because stories are presented to us in their final forms, so we're rarely privy to how they were created. But in the end, I think the best thing you can do is to set your nose on following the scent of a story whose pieces interlock with each other tightly. Ask yourself how your world can be made of details that tie to the rest of your story, and you will craft a setting broiling with potential and soul.
The most important parts about world-building: Consider your world in general, and then each environment or setting that your heroes are in, a character in your play; it is hostile, friendly, or possible just present for realism (like a store clerk, waiter, or taxicab driver).
The essence of the story is conflict, and the particular environment of the place can be an antagonist or an ally.
For example, in "Castaway", Tom Hanks is stranded on a deserted island; the setting is an antagonist: It is too far from civilization for him to escape (until he builds a ship). It is so isolated and lonely his mental health is at risk. There is no medicine when he gets sick.
But the setting is also an ally: The writer (William Broyles Jr.) did not make it a barren rock wracked by constant storms; he chose to make food, water and shelter relatively plentiful; so Tom can survive indefinitely there.
I've seen similar movies where the environment plays a villainous role, lethal and violent and unforgiving, and is often the only villain; people stranded in ice and snow and a blizzard, people stranded in the middle of the desert, "The Martian" where a guy is stranded alone on Mars, guys trapped underwater in a submarine.
In Indiana Jones, the environment is nearly always a villain and provides a big chunk of the conflict: Indiana fighting Rats, Spiders, Snakes, rolling boulders, automatic arrows, collapsing caves, poisonous jungle critters galore. Or people stranded on a space station or in a disabled spaceship with resources running thin.
Your world can be a host of characters, often antagonistic, often neutral, and sometimes an ally. A safe haven against a human villain. or it is easy to dig a pit (as opposed to rocky hard pack). or it is easy to find the wood and trees you need, or hunt/gather/buy the food and water you need (vs starvation), etc.
The essence of your story is for your heroes to struggle and be heroes in the face of adversity, problem solvers, puzzle solvers.
Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, stories can be written without any human villain at all! The environment around them can provide both the adversity, and the resources they need to overcome the adversity, if they are just clever enough, and persistent enough, to see the opportunities mixed in with all those dangers within the environment.
The most important parts of world-building, IMO, that have a big impact on the story and narration, are just this: Is the environment for a setting an aid to the heroes, or an obstacle to them?
You want to balance your conflict. You might want to make a setting an aid if you have a human villain that is particularly powerful. You might want to make it an obstacle to create conflict if there is no human villain, or the villain is off-stage for awhile, because you don't want your heroes to waltz through the world with friendlies finding their supplies, funding, allies, etc.
I'm not saying everything has to be difficult, but when the story looks too easy, readers get bored.
This is another reason, btw, I do 95% of my world-building on the fly; to make sure my hero never has it too easy, but does get some deserved respite in a safe haven once in awhile.