Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Worldbuilding: How Do You Do It?

The backstory to this post is that I have what I (and everyone I’ve shared it with) think is a really cool idea for a YA novel. At this point, it’s a concept without any real plot and, even trickier, requires me to build a non-existent, paranormal world, something I haven’t really ever done before. Some of my friends have encouraged me to just start writing and let the worldbuilding and plot come as I go, but I have a hard time doing that because for me, internal logic and consistency in worldbuilding is epically important. I simply can’t write the story until I have most of the details of how the world behaves and what it looks like.

The biggest problem I’m having with this whole worldbuilding gig, though, is that I really don’t know how other writers do it, so I have no idea how to go about it myself. I’m not the sort of writer who tends to outline stories, although I do consider myself more of a plotter than a pantser when it comes to writing. It’s just that instead of outlining the story on paper (which to me feels a little too much like writing the actual story, and then I find the process of actually writing it boring and redundant), I tend to work it out in my head and hold it there. This doesn’t mean I have every scene in mind when I start out or anything as regimented as that, but it does mean I have the major turning points sorted out and know what I’m working toward at each step along the way.

Sometimes, I think my inability to outline (which I’ve had since I was a kid in school; I always wrote the term paper first, THEN wrote the outline, even if the teacher demanded the outline be handed in before the term paper) is a shortcoming because it means I sometimes get stuck. The past couple of weeks have been “stuck” weeks. Every story I’m working on reached a point where I just wasn’t sure what should happen next. I knew what plot points I had to cover, but coming up with a scene that actually covered those point without being nothing but plodding exposition was driving me crazy.

I feel a bit the same way about my worldbuilding issue. I have some broad outlines and a few details, but I have no idea how to organize them into a clear, comprehensive “picture” of the world I want to write about. So, I’m asking authors out there (especially those who’ve got experience in writing paranormal stories) how they go about it. Do you jot things down as they come to you? Write a “bible?” Or just make it up as you go along?

I know there isn’t any one “right” way to do this. But having not done it before, I’d like to know what ways have been the right ones for other people.


  • Janga August 21, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Jackie, have you seen Patricia Wrede’s Worldbuilder Questions? They are the most useful thing I’ve seen in this area. Even I found it helpful, even though I don’t write fantasy or paranormal.


  • Kris Eton August 24, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    This is how I have approached it…write down/keep track of somewhere the big important ‘rules’ for my world. Start writing, other rules appear organically as I write, because sometime you can’t KNOW the rule without writing the scenario or conversation in which that new rule becomes important.

    It is almost impossible, even for a writer who uses strict plotting ahead of time, to think of every little thing before she writes. The important part is keeping track of those new rules as you go so that consistency stays throughout the book.

  • Amie Stuart August 25, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Crap–got a rec for another GREAT world building book. Will try to find title.

    1. Yes I keep a “Bible” and jot down notes in it (but I sorta do this for every book anyway). Also Evernote is a great way to keep your world organized/gather info.

    2. I have conversations with pretend people where I explain to them (yes, in my head) what the book is about and it helps me delve deeper in terms of plot AND worldbuilding–even if some aspects of character and world building don’t come into play ON THE PAGE. For me, plot and world building are integral to one another.

    Im like you in that, I HAVE to know how it (my world) all works before I can write a paranormal. Relax and keep picking at it.

    3. Start with your basic, high concept idea, notebook and your favorite pen… and work your way outward from there. For me, writing it down with a pen makes it solid and (dare I say) engages different brain muscles than typing does).

    You’ve already come up with some great stuff. Just take what you have and expand it.

    Jot down all the ordinary stuff a teen might have in his world and think about how they do/don’t/can be twisted in your teen’s world.

    Insecurity, peer pressure, lack of friends, his parents, his house, his pets, his teachers, his job, his clothes, everyone else’s clothes, crushes/girls, government, police, movies/pop-culture, the weather, the seasons, firemen, doctors, dentists, orthodontists, the grocery store, cars etc. etc. etc. You may not need all of this for you story–so play with what you think applies.

    Try to think about it all in terms of Your Main Protagonist and how s/he will/can cope with this world (that way you’re starting out SMALL and more manageable) and again…just work your way outward.

    For me, once at least the majority of my world is solid in my head, I have no trouble writing! Be open to change too. You might come up with a “rule” that is great or funny that, in theory, isn’t going to work.

    • admin August 27, 2009 at 9:22 am

      Thanks to everyone for all the worldbuilding recs. That link Janga sent was very interesting.

      I’ve decided this is one case where I have to write a book before I write the book. It’s just for me, but it goes over my world’s history, politics, technology, arts and entertainment, etc. Even though more than half of what I write down will probably never make it into the story, I’m finding snippets of ideas for scenes and plot points come along for the ride as I write the “world bible.”

      Thanks again. You all are great.


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