It’s one of the age-old questions of fantasy writing – how much worldbuilding should you do before you start writing?
Despite this knocking about a while, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. Not until today, at least.
In this guide, we’ll explore the answers to this question. Yes, answers. Because while frustratingly there is no definitive right answer, thi can be a good thing for the fantasy writer.
Why Invest Time In Worldbuilding?
Now, this is a fair question. I know many a writer, including myself, that wants nothing more than to dive straight into the writing without doing any groundwork first.
When I’ve plunged into the unknown like this, it’s thrown up some interesting results I very much enjoyed. But more often than not I’m left in a confused, frustrated mess.
Worldbuilding for me is very much a big part of the planning process, especially when it comes to writing fantasy. For many writers, it comes before the conception of the story—creating a stage upon which a story can be played out.
I know writers that devote years (Tolkien!) to building every facet of a world, from its magic system, the races, cultures… everything down to what the common tongue is.
This process of building a world allows you to immerse yourself in the setting. It’s these secondary fantasy worlds that readers love and we want to give them the best experience possible. So it makes sense then to create and populate our worlds with details readers will love.
To do that we have to invest time in worldbuilding. But there are other benefits too.
One of the big ones that you may find is that the writing of the story is much easier. Given your familiarity with the setting and its details, you’re less likely to get stuck as the story progresses.
And lastly, in devoting time to think analytically about your world and the cause and effect of your designs, you decrease the chance of plot holes forming or things not quite making sense in a compelling way. Such things can be fixed, of course, but it’s worth considering from the off.
So that’s my argument for why you should invest time in worldbuilding. The pantsers among you may still disagree. Now let’s take a look at different approaches to worldbuilding and how much time you could invest in each.
The Different Approaches To Fantasy Worldbuilding
How much worldbuilding you do before you start writing is largely dictated by a number of factors.
Firstly, your attitude and approach toward worldbuilding is naturally going to dictate how much time you invest in. And it also depends on the type of story you want to tell. The fantasy genre is made up of scores of subgenres and lovers of each one have their own expectations.
For example, it’s expected that with an epic fantasy, like Lord of the Rings, there’ll be grand adventures through a unique land, like Middle Earth. But with urban fantasy, you may not need to build the world beyond the immediate town or city.
So the type of fantasy story you want to tell matters, and so does the type of storyteller and writer you are. Below, we’ll take a closer look at some of these approaches.
An usual term, especially if it’s new to you. A pantser is someone who ‘flies by the seat of their pants’ meaning they’re quite aloof when it comes to planning.
This may mean no planning at all or very little at least.
For someone who quite likes order and organisation, the idea of pantsing a story is intimidating. Maybe at first it was for me, but as we’ll see below, I found that planning to the last detail brought with it frustrating rigidity.
And that’s the benefit of pantsing. You’re not bound by plans or ideas. The story writes itself, almost.
Another benefit this can bring is that it makes it more unpredictable for the reader. They’re forever kept on their toes, led down unexpected routes—unexpected to you too at first maybe—and this can make for a more engaging read.
A third benefit—depending on which side you’re on—is that you have to do very little worldbuilding. Build as you go and see what happens.
There are flipsides to pantsing. You could run into dead ends, the plot could go flat, and sometimes picking a direction without any idea where it leads may not be the right decision. You could choose to take your story down a path you may not have thought enough about. Again, it could lead to dead ends.
The planner is someone who enjoys detailed worlds. They can write books on the worldbuilding side alone. Perhaps go into even more detail than the real world!
The danger you have with such planning is that you may never start writing. JRR Tolkien famously spent 20 years building Middle Earth before actually writing Lord of the Rings.
The risk you run is that you may go over the top in a fashion, and build parts of the world you may never visit in your story, may never even refer to. And the amount of time you spent investing in building that world you could have spent actually writing.
But planning serves a vital purpose. For many of us, we need to know which direction we’re going before we set off. I’m one of those people too. It gives us confidence, removing the shroud of the unknown. And we can make sure we cover all ground.
One of the downsides of planning meticulously is that the story can become formulaic and too predictable for readers. But it depends on how the story is told, ultimately.
If you’re a planner, it’s this approach in which you may find yourself spending a lot of time world building, or at least much more than the other approaches.
Another approach is to meld the first two together and adopt bits and pieces of each. This is the camp I’m very much in and the one I used when writing Pariah’s Lament. Like I said earlier, I’m someone who likes to be organised, so planning is something I enjoy. But there are times when I just want to get on with the writing—I’ll figure things out as I go along.
So now my default approach is to plan what I need and see what the story and characters throw up. Because it’s the characters more than anything that can help decide the course of the plot.
In terms of worldbuilding, this approach suits me too. As much as I’d love to, I simply don’t have aeons of time to redesign the birds and the bees, so I build what I need, sometimes taking broad strokes, and refining things as I go along. This way I can balance my time well between writing and worldbuilding.
How Much Worldbuilding Should You Do Before You Start Writing?
So, how much worldbuilding should you do before you start writing?
Well as we’ve seen above, the approach you take to worldbuilding can dictate how much time you invest in it.
If worldbuilding isn’t quite your thing, don’t worry. We live in the age of connections and communication. A scary prospect for an introvert. But one that brings opportunities.
Many writers out there are collaborating to tell stories together. That’s just what we do at Of Metal and Magic Publishing. We write in a shared universe. And we each populate this universe with our stories, while doing our best to weave them together.
But knowing many writers who love to build worlds and draw maps, I know how easy it is for the worldbuilding bug to take over. I’ve succumbed in the past. When all you do is think of new things to design. New histories to forge. Cultures to create and origin stories to craft and explain it all. You find yourself locked in a W-hole (the worldbuilding equivalent to a ket hole). You live and breath the world and yearn for more. Of course the reader needs to know how these special leather straps are made. Duhhh.
When it comes to the actual writing of the story you find yourself using surprisingly little. And if you do add a touch more detail than you should, you may draw the wrath of the info dumping gods.
But that’s not to say that time has been wasted. Not at all. Every little detail empowers your storytelling. Down the line, there may come the perfect moment to reveal that the candles in the castle are in fact made from the wax of a dragon’s ear. But forcing that detail when it’s not necessary or wanted can ruin it.
In the previous sentence, I used a word that for me has come to define my approach to worldbuilding – necessary.
What details are necessary for the purposes of the story? Remember this and you can’t go wrong.
More Fantasy Worldbuilding Guides
Thanks for reading today. If you’d like to learn more about how much worldbuilding to do before you start writing, I’ve included links to some other guides you may find useful below:
- A detailed guide to fantasy worldbuilding
- How to create fantasy armor
- A guide to archery in fantasy
- If you’d like to study worldbuilding, head here
- Head here to find a big list of world building prompts, including ones for characters and societies
- Check out this massive collection of worldbuilding resources here
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