It’s an old adage. Nobody notices a clean bathroom, but everyone notices a dirty one. Worldbuilding, in any genre, is this way. Done well, your world will be a rich tapestry supplying the backdrop to your riveting story. Done poorly, your readers will be looking past the action and poking at the painted cardboard of your world to see if it can really hold up. That said, I’m going to offer you my number one rule in worldbuilding. It may sound familiar, but bear with me.
Reduce, re-use, and recycle.
Now I work in fantasy, so I am typically starting out with quite a bevvy of ideas. I’m not saying you should drill down on one and only one idea, or even two. That would hem in your story to a claustrophobic level, so use common sense and don’t over-correct. What I mean here is that when you come up with an idea, you don’t pat yourself on the back and move on to the next idea. You explore the one you just came up with. Fully.
What are the ramifications of this thing or concept or person existing in your story world? How can it plug into or contribute to other major elements in your story? You need X in your story, so look and see. Do you already have an element or character in play that can fill this role for you?
This works with magic systems, new technology, cultural elements, even people. The idea is that instead of a vast number of shallow points of interest, you are creating a web of interconnecting elements that add an unexpected depth and richness to your story.
This is also going to help your readers out a lot. Catching on to the nuances of a new world takes some mental legwork, and we all know that getting past that early learning curve in a story is one the biggest hurdles for our reading audience and, therefore, for us as authors. Transforming, interconnecting, re-using story elements gives your reader a leg up on other things coming up in the book. Kind of like learning Portuguese and then Italian. Surprise! Look at all that linguistic crossover! All that extra work that you don’t have to do to catch on to this new thing I’m showing you.
One of the best analogies I’ve heard regarding this was on an episode of Writing Excuses courtesy of Howard Taylor. He got the idea from discussing geologic survey. In collecting samples, they don’t dig a bunch of shallow holes and assume that will give them a full picture. That ignores the depth of the area. Neither do they dig one very deep hole. That ignores the breadth of the area. And to dig many, many deep holes would be overkill and include much unnecessary labor. Rather, they dig several deep holes across the area and many shallow holes, thus accounting for both the breadth and depth of landscape to give a full picture to their survey.
Do the same with your worldbuilding. Create enough deep holes, or well-explored ideas, to add that richness and sense of realism to your world, but pace yourself. Create shallows holes, too, great ideas that don’t necessarily lend themselves to that need for highly detailed development. Then look for connections between them all to give context. Always keep your story in mind, your character. Make that the backbone that everything else works off of. Don’t bother me with your technique for magical metal-smithing when your story is about an accountant. Put the magic there, in his realm, in his story.
So there it is. Reduce your world to the relevant. Re-use the people and ideas you already have to meet your evolving story needs. Recycle your story and world elements in new and exciting ways to form new and exciting connections, and turn your painted cardboard scenery into a beautiful tapestry.
For some specific tips on how to do this, check out Part II of this article coming in July!