Your World in Ruin — Worldbuilding Without a Story

Ruins 1

In a recent trip to Palestine, I encountered a ruin. Playing amongst the ruins were two children. They were indifferent to the blocks of shaped stone worn down by time and wind. Indeed, by the growth of weeds and the trash strewn about, most were indifferent to it.

But a story lay within. I ventured in, cautious against breaking any rules, and imagined. Words uttered in supplication, people congregating in worship, the tears shed at the passing of a loved one, they all happened while I observed. What was it that I saw but the children did not?

In a region steeped with relics, this ruin was just one among many. Some retain their reverence – the mosque beside it was said to be built by the Caliph Omar – while others fade into the background of indifference. The answer is simply narrative.

Ruins in Palestine

The ruin fits nicely as a metaphor to world building. Your world is shaped and given function, but the audience, like the children, care little for it. I am a world builder who felt the need to invest over two years in shaping my world before writing. I created ruins.

Without narrative, without the words to gives the ruins meaning, all my effort is for not but personal satisfaction. I vividly remember the eagerness in which I shared my world with friends. They picked up on my eagerness and encouraged me to continue. But it wasn’t my world building they encouraged, it was the potential stories that grabbed their attention. Only had I learned this lesson sooner.

To all you world builders out there, don’t take my words as a reproach. Indeed, build on. Make your worlds rich, breathing, and detailed. Only, do so with the proper goal in mind. Do so for the sake of your world so they do not become unappreciated ruins.

How a World Should Be Built

I’ve continued a new project, one set in an earlier time period of my world. While sitting down to plan the story (in of itself a new practice), I’ve come upon the need to consider my world. As I outlined more considerations were made, and when I flesh out each character, I’m sure I’ll have to consider my world even more.

This is how the world should be built, as a cart behind the horse of your world. This is how I’ve developed some awesome (personally bias aside) ruins, but with a narrative ready to give it life.

For those of you, like me, who favor a rich, intricate and expansive world, you may think this as horrible advice. I understand your concerns. A story can only be set in so much of the world. How can a writer ensure the world fits perfectly together without creating a world first? I’ll give you two answers.

Delay your publication. The urge to share your completed work is like a coal in your hand: you can’t wait to release it. Hold it. Patience will pay off and produce diamonds. By delaying publication, let’s say three novels, you’ll be able to retroactively make changes to earlier works based on any world building you’ve done in the latter works. A world that boasts three novels has to be rich, detailed, and expansive.

This method describes diligence. You’ll have to keep track of necessary changes to your world as you write your story. Organization is key. I use Scrivener for my manuscripts and world building. With Scrivener, you can create two (or more) projects, one for your work in progress and one for your world in progress. You can group relevant information by folders. Also, whenever a change applies to a story, I create a list of items to revisit on a revision. This way I know exactly what to reference in my ever growing world database.

The second option is to allow your world to grow organically. For those pantsers out there, this is your preferred method anyway. Yes, your world won’t fit perfectly, yes you may have to chuck some piece of awesome to keep the integrity of previous works intact, no it’s not the end of your world. Our world serves as a primer for all fictional worlds. Any casual observer can see that not all of our pieces fit together so well. But it’s beauty is undisputed, it’s tragedy heart wrenching, it’s triumphs grand. These are the qualities we seek in our art, to kindle in our audience an emotion. Let the imperfections continue, they’ll serve the narrative all the same.

If you’re a new author, or an author starting on a new project, start with the story and build your world as you go. The amount of time you devote to the world should never be greater than the time devoted to the story, but that doesn’t mean it should be brief either. You’ll find your balance. If you utilize the revision cycle as thoroughly as I’ve recently done, you’ll end up with plenty of time to build.

Further Discussion

  • How many months/years have you devoted to world building?
  • Do you find yourself world building to put off writing?
  • As a reader, how much world building do you think your favorite author has invested in their setting?
Notify of
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

I am a pathological worldbuilder so the way I got around this “ruins” situation is to use characters to explore the world, and do things in it, which I suppose I call “story” 🙂 As they first see some part of the world, so it blooms into descriptive being.

Kassan Warrad
Reply to  bdcharles
4 years ago

Sometimes the story settles in the stones of the world. The atmosphere, the shift of civilization, the culture; they all wave a tapestry as entertaining as any tale. Adding a point of view character can help make sense of the vastness, the many layers, woven into a world.

Stephanie Vega
Stephanie Vega
5 years ago

I’ve never heard the word ‘world building’ in this context but I think it might apply to the earlier works of Stephen King, who developed his settings lavishly, often writing about the history of the places his stories were set in. Great details were given and readers feel like they know the place, not just the characters.

Ed Pierce
Ed Pierce
5 years ago

For my maiden novel, I have built a world from my childhood memories. We all have very different views of the places that we grew up and mine is completely different from childhood friends’ ideas of our neighborhoods and the woods where we used to play.

5 years ago

I absolutely LOVE this! And I find that most writers do something like this…..our real world is so vast and full of so much potential…..lately, I haven’t been able to go world building like I used to, as we take care of my elderly parents. But I have enough gems from my many, many trips and whatnot.

5 years ago

Very informative and helpful advice. I’m working on the seeds of my first novel which with my storyline will lead to more novels and also has the potential for a prequel. Wish me luck!
I think as you suggest the world building makes the story richer and helps draw the reader in but the story is the beating heart. I as you suggest will push the story forward and build the world alongside, expanding and creating, ironing out problems as I go.

This site uses XenWord.