One of the biggest challenges writers face is worldbuilding. When many of us think of the fantasy genre, our minds drift to that other world, that unique setting, like Middle Earth or Westeros. Knowing how much detail to include is often the trickiest part, with many a fantasy writer straying into the realms of the info dump. This worldbuilding guide seeks to address that problem, and importantly, resolve it.
For many writers, creating those fantasy worlds is a huge challenge. Not only do you have to define the physical nature of the world, but we also need to create cultures and histories and everything in between.
This leaves worldbuilders with many questions…
- How much time should you spend worldbuilding?
- How much of your world should you reveal?
- And how much is enough?
A Natural Worldbuilding Guide
In this worldbuilding guide, we’re going to answer the above questions and more.
Over the years I’ve learned a lot when it comes to this creative process. And following the release of Pariah’s Lament, reviewers consistently commented on how much they loved the worldbuilding. So this provoked me to properly examine what I’d done.
And this led to me defining my own approach to both creating a world and revealing it. Something I call natural worldbuilding. A method that:
- Readers love—the proof is in the reviews
- That will save you hours of time spent designing things you’ll never use
- And that will tell you how much of your world you should reveal.
Two of the biggest fantasy writing headaches struck down with one blow.
And it really is quite simple and straightforward. You may even do this already. But I’ve not come across any articles on the web or chapters in books that allude to this method. So this is my definition.
What Issues Do Writers Face When Worldbuilding?
Natural worldbuilding was born from the headaches that come with the process.
Tolkien perhaps set the bar too high devoting 20 years to building Middle Earth. That was his approach. By no means do we all need to follow it.
If anything, such detailed worldbuilding can cause us problems. Rigidly defining a fantasy world before you finish writing the stories that take place there can hamper your freedom if, when writing, your characters take you on a different path.
On the other hand, you may enjoy this structure and weave your stories around it.
It’s a matter of preference, is my point. But some common issues arise for writers when it comes to worldbuilding. And in our moments of frustration and despair, we’ve no doubt all asked ourselves the same questions:
- Where do I start with worldbuilding?
- What should you focus on when there’s so much to choose from?
- How do you create a believable fantasy world?
- How much detail should I go into?
- How do I reveal this world to the reader?
- Should I study lots of resources first, like this worldbuilding guide?
This is making my head hurt just thinking about it. Surely there has to be a simpler way?
Other Worldbuilding Approaches
Before we get into the meat of natural worldbuilding, I wanted to mention Brandon Sanderson’s method. He’s someone I’ve learned a lot from (check out his free college lectures on YouTube if you haven’t already) and what I’ll share with you now is the method of worldbuilding I adopted for years, and still use today. And which loans key principles to the natural worldbuilding theory.
The Building Blocks
The starting point is with the physical elements of your world. Start broad. Ask yourself what is the world? Look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, for instance.
Now we begin to paint that bottom layer upon the canvas. The oceans, rivers, mountains, forests, swamps and climates.
Physical side done, it’s time to create the cultures of your land. Its evolutionary journey, the histories (the wars and conflicts can stir intrigue), belief systems, artistic cultures (songs, poems, storytellers, bards), the food people eat, the societal structures… you get the gist. Everything that isn’t tied to the physical setting falls under the cultural umbrella.
One of the dangers of using this method of fantasy worldbuilding is not knowing how much detail to go into on the cultural side. Sanderson recommends picking four or five key cultural settings, ideally linked and in some cases conflicting, and going into detail on those.
So if your story has a priestess in it, you may develop the religions and belief systems within your story. You may also introduce a magic system or scientific strand that could oppose and challenge the belief element.
The key is relevance. Pick what’s relevant to your story. Maintain the focus. This is one of the key principles of the natural worldbuilding approach.
This does, however, influence our writing process. I mean, how do we know what’s relevant?
If you’re more of a planner than a pantser (someone who creates as they go), then it can help to begin with characters or premise. Learn what your story is about and what your characters want. You can then think about the points of conflict that you can introduce to try and prevent them from getting what they want.
And there before you is the framework of your story. You can see exactly what your story needs. So if you’re wondering where to include details of your fantastical breeds of insects, or the history behind a particular rock or tree, you can see whether it’s relevant. And if it isn’t, resist the urge to include it. Like Stephen King said, kill your darlings, even if it breaks your little heart. Your readers will thank you for it.
Check out my guide to creating a fantasy map here.
It’s from the Iceberg that we get our second underpinning principle—necessity.
The Iceberg is a method of revealing a fantasy world. It teaches us that only a small amount of the details that we create can be revealed in the story, with the rest lingering beneath the surface. The approach involves setting aside a large portion of the worldbuilding that we may have created. And knowing what exactly to include, and how much of it, from our bank of knowledge can be tricky.
So in short, if following the Iceberg we effectively give the reader a half-moon window’s view of the world as opposed to a double bay window.
The guiding principle of this is sound, but there isn’t much direction on how much exactly we should reveal. Sanderson has said to focus on 4 or 5 cultural settings in a story, but how much of those do we reveal? How do we know when we’ve stepped into the realms of an info dump?
What’s missing then is knowing exactly how to reveal the world. How to avoid the dreaded info dump that readers hate so much. And the answer lies in simply revealing the world naturally as the story unfolds.
We’ll go into more detail below, but why this last element is so important is because it serves as a check and balance against the info dump. It guides us to include the right amount of detail. Something that can be difficult to detect on our own.
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Worldbuilding And The Type Of Story You Wish To Tell
There’s another important consideration you need to make before you decide on your worldbuilding approach, and that’s the type of story you wish to tell.
It’s helpful to think of worldbuilding as a spectrum, like this below.
On the left, we have the minimalist approach—a story revealing little about the world, focusing more on characters than anything else. At the other end, we have the choking info dump. In between lies the balance between the two.
Now some types of fantasy and story call for different levels of worldbuilding. An epic fantasy, involving adventures spanning continents, maybe even worlds and dimensions, is going to simply require more worldbuilding than a character-driven story, one which focuses on their perspectives and struggles as opposed to the wider world.
An epic fantasy would sit closer to the info dump end (though hopefully avoiding it), and a character-driven tale would fall more to the minimalist end.
Working out where your story lies on this spectrum can help you decide how much worldbuilding you need to do and how much to reveal.
What Is Natural Worldbuilding?
So we move onto the theory of this worldbuilding guide.
Natural worldbuilding is a method by which you reveal the details of your fantasy world in a way that’s true and therefore natural to the story. Taking the two principles set out by Sanderson of necessity and relevance, we introduce naturalism into the equation.
Necessity + Relevance + Naturalism
These are the core components of natural worldbuilding. Each guiding principle works in harmony with the other to enable you to focus your efforts, limit the time spent building details you’ll never use, and knowing the most effective way of using those details in your story.
The focus on revealing the world as the story unfolds naturally sounds incredibly simple, and it is. The key distinguishing feature from Sanderson’s worldbuilding approach is knowing exactly how much of your world to reveal.
And the starting point in determining that is to determine the type of story we want to tell—see the previous section on the worldbuilding spectrum.
The aim then is to reveal the world naturally as the characters move through it. If they need to go to a new town, only at that relevant and necessary point in the story are we told about it, its history, its people.
Similarly, we don’t need to know about the trade and currency of a nation unless it’s relevant and necessary. And then it should be discussed naturally.
For example, in my Pariah’s Lament, the only reference to the currency of the kingdom arises when one of the main characters is given a riddle to solve—a coin casts a large shadow. At that point only, details of the different coins of the kingdom became relevant and necessary to reveal, and it can be done in a natural way that contributes to and develops the story.
Here’s another example from Pariah’s Lament. I have a scene in which Isy is moving through the town of Haberdam—always a natural way to reveal details of the world. Here’s something I added in that more than a few readers have commented on how much they loved.
“In the center of the square, a group of young boys and girls chased a small leather ball around with sticks, a game known as lingas, and one that often ended with the sticks turned on each other. “
It’s so simple but so effective, and ticks all of the boxes in our equation. The story is advanced in a relevant way and the detail is necessary and revealed in a natural way.
Summarising The Natural Worldbuilding Approach
So when it comes to building our fantasy worlds, whenever we’re faced with the challenges outlined above, we can ask ourselves some simple questions. They serve as a crucial check and balance against the info dumps that readers hate so much—it is, according to research, the second biggest reason why people stop reading a book.
- Is this detail relevant?
- Is this detail necessary to the story?
- How can it be revealed in as natural a way possible? For the avoidance of doubt, a 4-page lecture from some mentor figure doesn’t count as natural.
That great tube spilling glorious detail into the story is unfettered when it’s in info dump mode. We need to add a filter to it. And these three principles are just that.
Some things may be relevant but unnecessary. In such instances, I think it’s nice to indulge a little. Sprinkle a bit of extra detail into your story. Spark intrigue and curiosity. Make it feel alive and lived in. Show the reader the lives of others. Draw them in with curious sights, sounds, smells, tastes. Head here to discover more great examples of the 5 senses in writing.
Other details may be necessary to the story but the relevant moment either isn’t there or hasn’t cropped up yet. In such cases, you might have to write in sections or just exercise patience and try not to forget to include it. That does happen!
When a bit of worldbuilding crosses the first two filtration thresholds, it comes down to finding that natural way to disclose it to the reader.
How do we do that then?
Little and Often
One of the most effective methods of revealing a world in a natural way is to drip feed details into the story little and often. Like in the examples I’ve used above from Pariah’s Lament, I introduced snippets (a sentence or two) of details at relevant points throughout the story, like with children playing the fictitious game of lingas.
Following this approach is a great way of avoiding the dreaded info dump, which characteristically involves long passages of dull information.
There’s one exception to this rule and that applies to the earlier chapters of the story. Little and often is good here, but worldbuilding should be pared back, with priority given to introducing and developing the characters. Gradually, as the story progresses and the pace slows a little, details can be introduced more often.
How Do You Reveal A Fantasy World Using Dialogue?
Dialogue is a pretty effective way of revealing a fantasy world in a natural way, though again it can be abused and may lead to an info dump. You may be familiar with the kind I have in mind—that classic mentor figure spewing the history of the world in precise detail.
A more natural use of dialogue here can come in the form of conversations between characters—a much more dynamic and engaging way of learning more about your fantasy world. Characters can discuss facts and details, maybe even dispute or criticise them. A character who displays emotions tied to the world can help make it feel more lived in.
Another way of using dialogue to achieve natural worldbuilding is in the use of sayings. So, for instance, “What in Soria?” features quite a bit in my story. Similarly, songs and poems can also reveal more about the histories and cultures of a world without clobbering the reader over the head. Some fantastic books have made use of these, particularly Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire and Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle.
Explorations and Adventures
As characters embark upon their adventures and quests, one of the most natural ways of revealing the world is to do so as they progress through it. Explain the stories behind towns and villages as the characters pass them by—it’s relevant, necessary and done in a natural way.
If you come across any significant landmarks, that’s another great opportunity to reveal the histories and cultures of your land at a relevant and natural point in your story.
The key to this approach is to simply place yourself in your character’s shoes. Understand what they know and think about how and when those details would come to mind if you were that character.
This is perhaps my favourite method of revealing a world. By introducing characters with very different perspectives, perhaps from different parts of the world, we can naturally reveal more about the cultures. For instance, you may have a priestess character within the story and also a mage of some kind. Both could have very different perspectives, which you can explore in a natural way, and one that’s interesting too, particularly if there’s a conflict between the differing points of view.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. They’re the things that work best for me and, it seems, what readers enjoy.
What Are The Downsides?
We’re approaching this objectively and as helpfully as possible, so it’s always important to acknowledge and discuss the limitations of any method. And with the natural worldbuilding approach, perhaps the biggest issue is the lack of detail a world may have. While we’ve discussed the benefits of this above, there are downsides to it.
For instance, Tolkien created a genre-defining series of works with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. He devoted great energy and time into building Middle Earth and the cultures and histories, even created an entire language in elvish. That all shone through in the story. You felt like you were there because of the richness of the detail. It’s a fictional world that feels alive, and that’s our aim as worldbuilders. To create a fictional world that feels as real as our own.
For more discussion on natural worldbuilding, check out my free workshop on how to write a fantasy novel, which you can watch below.
Get More Help With Worldbuilding
The subject of worldbuilding can be an absolute minefield. One sure-fire way to counter the info dump is to work with fellow writers. Get their feedback, discuss solutions. In the process, you help each other.
That’s what my writing community is all about. We gather in a private Facebook group that you can join when you join the community. Just click the button below to learn more. And for another more detailed worldbuilding guide, please see the section below.
Another Fantasy Worldbuilding Guide
Thank you for checking out this natural worldbuilding guide. I love this topic. It’s the reason I love fantasy—its most distinguishing feature. I’ve got a few other guides and resources on the subject you may find useful too.
- The complete guide to building a fantasy world.
- How to create a fantasy map
- A guide to fantasy armour
- How to study a masters degree in worldbuilding
Fantasy Worldbuilding Guide – Podcast
We cover a wide array of topics on The Fantasy Writers’ Toolshed podcast. One of our favourite episodes and, in fact, our most popular one is our worldbuilding guide.
Thank you for checking out this natural worldbuilding guide. I hope you’ve found it useful. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please share in the comments below.