This is in response to a great question an aspiring writer asked in one of my recent panels.
I spoke at Scarefest in Lexington, KY the weekend of September 11. During my Q&A, I opened the floor to questions about any and all of my work – from vampires to ghost hunting to the work of writing fiction. One question was about worldbuilding — specifically, which came first with the Shadowside series, the actual writing of the book or the construction of the world.
It’s a good question, and I think it leads us into important territory about the writing process in general.
Let me preface my answer with a caveat. All writers are different. Everyone develops their own process — and none of those processes are wrong so long as they work. A successful process for a writer is whatever gets the books written. That’s your bottomline — finish the draft. Worry about polishing it later.
I know a lot of people who love the process of worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is fun. It’s immersive. It follows in the hallowed footsteps of storytelling greats like J.R.R. Tolkien. Worldbuilding is essential to great writing, but sometimes, it only leads to a desk full of maps and character sketches and invented languages (I’m guilty of this, too!).
Spending time building your world does you no good at all if it doesn’t lead to a finished story. Not that it can’t be a great hobby – and maybe lead an aspiring Dungeon Master to running some really kickass D&D games. But at the end of the day, the work of a writer is writing books (or short stories). So worldbuilding needs to assist with that, not distract from it.
That said, if you are writing genre fiction of any sort, you need at least a little worldbuilding to make things work. Establishing the rules and boundaries of your world helps maintain internal consistency. It shapes the setting, the characters, and plot elements. As a long-time gamer, I approach worldbuilding very much in terms of rules and powers — what can the characters do? how are their abilities governed within the scope of the world? what are the limits of magic, science, and all the things that fall in between? The answers to these questions can make or break conflicts and even character growth in your worlds.
So which comes first? The building of the world — or the writing of the stories that take place inside of it?
For myself, I tend to start first with concept and character. I can’t always clearly extricate the two. A few scenes well up from the cauldron of unconsciousness, and I jot down notes or snippets or, occasionally, full chapters of the story-to-be. This initial bit of inspiration often comes with some sense of the world and its internal physics – magic-based, or focused on psychic abilities, fraught with ghosts or inhabited by a cavalcade of monsters. But no matter how clear certain concepts and powers make themselves in that initial burst of inspiration, there are always issues that need to be thought out in clearer terms.
So I start writing to get a feel for the story and its characters, and all the while, I’m making notes in a separate file (or, more often, in a notebook) about the rules and structure of the world and powers. Once I have enough down on paper to really sink my teeth in the story (and to see whether or not it’s a world I want to spend time in), I take a day or two to outline both the story itself and the nuts & bolts of its world. I tend to swap back and forth between these two tasks, as one begets the other for me. The further along in the outline of the story I get, the more questions I discover about how things work or don’t work, and so I have to work out more refined and detailed answers about the nature and limits of the characters and their world.
And while I like to stick to those initial guidelines, I also prefer to set them in soft clay, rather than in stone. Again, I suspect that’s my years in gaming, especially as a Game Master in both D&D and Vampire: the Masquerade. I always leave some wiggle room, right up until the end, so I can adapt certain aspects of the world, or add in compelling little details when characters do something surprising.
After the first draft of the tale is done, I go back over all those worldbuilding notes, streamlining the information, adjusting any details that evolved through the process of seeing the story through to the end, and from this I build the World Bible — that collection of essential information that I can refer to (and add to) as the story continues on in subsequent books.
My World Bible for the Shadowside series includes a number of ancient Scripture-like stories that I wrote just to have the full backstories on-hand — and which may never see light of day as anything more than an oblique reference in Zack’s own research into his past. I blame that on Tolkien. I never could get invested in a fictional world that I created without also amusing myself by writing some of its myths.
That works for me, and it adds to the story rather than distracting me from its completion. The same may not be true for other writers. Individual results vary, after all, and in the end, if you want to be a writer, you’ll have to find out what works for you.
But you find that out by doing it. Not planning or researching or thinking about it so much that the work is never written. If nothing else, take that lesson to heart: tell the story. Get it done.