How Much World-Building Should I Do Before Writing?

honing the craft inspiration world-building May 23, 2021
Title slide asking

Post written by Andrew Wall

When we asked our Instagram followers recently for questions about world-building, we received this excellent question: “How detailed does my world-building need to be?” While we would say that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, I want to address the question at the root of this problem: How much world-building should someone do before they start writing?

A Problem of Perception

As writers, we can get hung up on world-building for a variety of reasons. For those who tend to spend a million hours planning out everything, world-building could eventually be seen or experienced as an infinite maze within which we can get easily lost. On the other hand, writers who tend to throw their worlds together as needed might avoid world-building prior to writing because they view world-building itself as an obstacle to writing.

In either of these cases we don’t want our world-building processes to be so onerous and intricate that we lose the purpose behind doing the world-building in the first place (i.e., we want to tell a story!) nor do we want to feel as if we haven’t done enough world-building and that our story lacks its needed depth to connect with readers.

We end up with the problematic perception that world-building itself is a problem.

Faulty Assumptions

The trap that is set by this perception of the “problem of world-building,” and even the question of how much is too much, is one that deprives world-building of its joy and thrill (yes, trust me, it can be very thrilling!). There are a couple of problematic assumptions behind this faulty perception that we need to identify in order to move forward.

Assumption One

The first assumption is that world-building is, at its most basic level, creating or planning the details to a greater or lesser extent. This is a completely soulless definition of world-building. While world-building certainly includes making up objects, places, and people in our worlds, it is much more than this. The question of “How much world-building is enough?” is one that tries to attempt to quantify something that isn’t really quantifiable.

Assumption Two 

The second assumption is that there is an easy way to measure the sufficiency of world-building. As much as it pains me to admit it, no one can truly dictate the precise amount of world-building that is necessary before you begin writing. Depending on your particular project, your personal ambitions, and the like, you may need to do more or less world-building. It really comes down to a case-by-case basis. 

Both of these assumptions set writers up for disappointment, overwhelm, and impatience when it comes to world-building. 

The True Goal of World-Building

As a writer, then, it is your responsibility to confront these assumptions and discard them! Yet in order to do so, you need to be able to replace them with a new perspective, else the old will just keep creeping back in. So what, then, is the goal of world-building?

The ultimate goal of world-building, in essence, is to end up with a world that feels real and believable. This means that it adheres to its own laws, that it maintains internal integrity, and that it displays complexity and dynamism. It is the sense that these things are true that makes the world real and believable to both you as the writer and to your readers. 

Building a World Right

So if creating a world that feels real and is believable is our goal, how do we get there?

Well, the first step is creating the objects and places, societies and culture, people and events that are most crucial for your world. These are the things without which your world would be totally different. Details of sentient species, magic, technology, kingdoms and their politics, basic economics, geographic layout and anomalies, and such represent your basic ingredients.

You may be thinking, But wait, didn't you just tell me that creating and planning these details is not what world-building actually is? You are partially correct. What I was trying to get at above is that creating these details is not the sum total of world-building. Instead, this is merely the first step.

Where the art of world-building truly comes in is in the weaving of all of these details together into a complex web of relationships, ensuring that you understand the cause-and-effect patterns of your world. You need to be able to see where natural tensions and alliances arise, how various cultures clash with or complement each other, what the ripple effects of an event over there does to the people living over here—everything is connected. This can be done with more or less detail. As I said before, the quantity of specific details may largely depend on the given project. Yet the quality of the interrelatedness of things in your world is indispensable to achieving the goal of world-building. 

Traps to Avoid

Of course, you need to be sure you don’t fall into the following traps:

  1. Making a complicated world instead of a complex one. Complexity has rhyme and reason and is based on the relationships you forge in your world-building. If your world is merely complicated, it might have a lot of detail and information, but lack the sense of coherence that is needed in a world. 
  2. Going too small too fast. Resist the urge to jump into the tiny details of culture up front. Start big with the rules of your world in general then work your way to more specific details one step at a time. 
  3. Letting your impatience get the best of you. This one is hard. It can be easy to want to just call it “good enough” and move on. In order to truly be able to measure if you are done with world-building, you need to be good at stepping into the shoes of a stranger visiting your world. Try balancing that more objective perspective with your own subjective one. Both bring good insights to the mix. 

The Answer to the Original Question

All of this has been to attempt to answer the question: How much world-building should I do before writing? As I have said, this is something that will depend a lot on the project. Ultimately, you will be able to say, “This is enough world-building” when you can answer this other question: Does my world feel alive yet? Maybe you can achieve this with significantly less “world-building” than I could; maybe more. Whatever the case, the goal is for the world to feel real, to feel believable, for it to be captivating in its complexity and in how its moving pieces relate to one another. 

Reality Check

Of course, there is never really a being “done” with world-building. You will most likely need to add and tweak things along the way as you work out your story. The hope, however, is that you will have a solid foundation, a firm scaffolding, on which to build and from which your story or stories can emerge. 

Want to learn more about world-building and how to best approach it? Check out our minicourse One-Month World-Building

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