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Coming up with ideas for where I want a plot to go & what I want to happen to my characters is easy, but then I find myself asking all kinds of things, like ‘Why’ or ‘How;’ and as a result, I get tangled up in a mess of questions that either I can’t easily answer or that require me to do a whole lot of extra work creating backstories, understanding a character’s psychology / motives, etc.

I love the process of creating characters & the world they inhabit, but sometimes it can be hard to pull myself out of the rabbit hole; are there any other authors out there, who typically write towards the “hard” side of the “worldbuilding scale” that have any tips or tricks they use for doing so that make it easier or faster? What is your policy for dealing with a situation where you want an event to occur or a character to do something, but can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer to why or how?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand exposition dumps are bad; most of what I come up with a reader will never read about, I do this just so that I can ensure a sense of logic does exist should someone go looking.

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  • what is the 'rabbit hole' you meant?
    – Crimsoir
    May 21, 2022 at 13:55
  • 1
    write and rewrite
    – Stuart F
    May 21, 2022 at 14:25

3 Answers 3

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I ask a question, then brainstorm possible answers in a list. Then I look at how each possibility would affect the plot and characters, or why it might not work. Sometimes this leads to more questions. Sometimes it gives me insights that help me solve earlier questions in better way, or makes connections I wouldn't otherwise have thought of.

I find the structure of question and answer stops me disappearing down the rabbit hole: if something else comes up, I ask a new question. I stop asking questions when I have worked out enough to get on with the story. It's easy enough to come back to a question thread later, if I need to.

Here’s a simplified example from a sub plot (I realise it won’t make much sense out of context, but hopefully it gives an idea of how it works for me).

Plot: SK, the governor of Farul, is systematically getting rid of a certain group of people, by cursing them one by one. A member of the group has realised the pattern and takes action to prevent being cursed by giving away all their worldly goods.

Who is SK cursing?

  1. Merchants. Getting rid of merchants wouldn’t help society and could make SK’s life as governor more difficult.
  2. Mages. They’re not going to curse each other, and there aren’t enough of them for this to work.
  3. Wealthy secret society (e.g. Masons). Could come from different professions and have wide influence between them. But secret societies don’t play any other part in the plot: difficult to introduce coherently.
  4. Religious order. The religious orders don’t focus on material gains, so it doesn’t make sense for someone to give away their worldly goods if the group is already ascetic.
  5. Religious affiliation. Could be wealthy group connected to one of the religions. Would bring more depth to the religious aspect of society. Could also come from different professions. Easier to introduce as already have a religious advisor on the governing board.

And why? What does SK want?

  1. To get rid of the monarchy. Too big a goal to tackle in one book - the monarchy is fundamentally accepted in society.
  2. To have more power as governor of Farul. The governors of other provinces won’t necessarily care, but I need them to be engaged with whatever SK is trying to do.
  3. To reduce religious authority in Farul. Religion has a lot of influence over people and laws. If religions get stronger, SK’s power will be reduced. If SK’s main political rival is affiliated to religion, SK needs to ensure his rival is incapacitated. SK could openly support religions as a cover up.
  4. To do something related to war/defence. He wants to retake land that the King negotiated away in the war with neighbouring country. One religious sector could disapprove of warmongering so if he gets rid of the religious influence he’s more likely to get what wants.
  5. To expand Farul at the expense of the other provinces. There would be plenty of engagement from other governors, but possibly too much – might distract from main plot.

I ended up with SK wanting a war and removing the influence of a pacifist religion through their affiliates, including his political rival.

As a process it still takes a while, but it's more focused and controlled than writing a world-building essay.

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Change Scale

Say you need the Kingdom to go to war, but there's not a good reason yet. Start brainstorming things at different "scales."

Who: A Large Group / Important Individual / Minor Individual

Why: Power / Profit / Personal

How: Existential Threat / Major Crisis / Minor Problem

At one end of this scale, you might have Large Group, Power, Existential Threat: So a conspiracy of bishops pays to have the heir to the throne assassinated in a way that will trace back to the "enemy" in order by lead a holy war against them, gaining Power in the process.

At the other end, the mayor of a small town kills a man in a dual over a petty insult, and the other man is a favored servant of a minor lord in the opposing kingdom. It's a totally recoverable diplomatic issue, but it spirals out of control because [change scale again and repeat until you've got a good war going].

Change Perspectives

If you can't come up with a good reason for Kingdom A to start the war, try Kingdom B on for size. Or even Kingdom C! If C can make A and B fight, they might be able to align with one side and get some new territory for cheap.

Cycle through different actors, trying to see why any of them might work towards your goal.

Mix and Match

Cycle through different actors, and change scale in terms of motives and results, mixing and matching potential actions until you get one that feels right for the characters, and drives the plot where you want to go.

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Maybe you could try making an outline. Develop the main plot then fill in the details. I never understood how someone could write something straight through without ending up with a ton of plot holes and contradictions by the 3rd act.

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