Fiction Writing Made Easy

#96: 5 Worldbuilding Tips for Sci-Fi & Fantasy Writers

June 20, 2023 Savannah Gilbo Episode 96
#96: 5 Worldbuilding Tips for Sci-Fi & Fantasy Writers
Fiction Writing Made Easy
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Fiction Writing Made Easy
#96: 5 Worldbuilding Tips for Sci-Fi & Fantasy Writers
Jun 20, 2023 Episode 96
Savannah Gilbo

In this episode, I’m sharing my top 5 worldbuilding tips for science fiction and fantasy writers, with examples from popular novels. Here's a preview of what's included in the episode:

[02:39] Tip #1—Go narrow and deep in your worldbuilding, not wide and shallow. Pick 2-3 worldbuilding categories to focus on, and only flesh out whatever's relevant to your plot and/or characters.

[05:43] Tip #2—Determine what kind of magic or technology will exist in your story world. Will your magic/tech be used to create and solve problems (hard magic/tech)? Or will it be a bit more nebulous (soft magic/tech)?

[09:20] Tip #3—Avoid generalizations when it comes to the people or creatures who populate your story world. Real people have their own unique worldviews, beliefs, fears, and dreams. So should your population!

[11:21] Tip #4—Your story world needs its own internal logic—for every cause, there’s an effect; for every action, there’s a reaction. Whatever you change in your world, consider the ramifications to build your internal logic.

[12:33] Tip #5—Use your target audience’s age range to help inform your story’s learning curve. In general, middle-grade stories will have a more shallow learning curve whereas adult stories will have a steeper one.

[14:56] Final thoughts and episode recap.

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"I love the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast!" ← If that sounds like you, please consider rating and reviewing this show! Your rating and review will help other writers find this podcast, and they're also super fun for me to go in and read. Just click here, scroll all the way to the bottom, tap five stars to rate the show, and then select "Write a Review." Be sure to let me know what your favorite part of the episode was, too!

Also, if you haven't done so already, make sure you're following the podcast! I'll be adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the feed, and if you're not following the show, there's a good chance you'll miss them. Click here to follow now!

Links mentioned in this episode:

Click here to pre-order a copy of my brand-new book, The Story Grid Masterwork Analysis Guide to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and get a handful of extra-special pre-order bonuses for free!

👉 Looking for a transcript? If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, scroll down below the episode player until you see the transcript.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, I’m sharing my top 5 worldbuilding tips for science fiction and fantasy writers, with examples from popular novels. Here's a preview of what's included in the episode:

[02:39] Tip #1—Go narrow and deep in your worldbuilding, not wide and shallow. Pick 2-3 worldbuilding categories to focus on, and only flesh out whatever's relevant to your plot and/or characters.

[05:43] Tip #2—Determine what kind of magic or technology will exist in your story world. Will your magic/tech be used to create and solve problems (hard magic/tech)? Or will it be a bit more nebulous (soft magic/tech)?

[09:20] Tip #3—Avoid generalizations when it comes to the people or creatures who populate your story world. Real people have their own unique worldviews, beliefs, fears, and dreams. So should your population!

[11:21] Tip #4—Your story world needs its own internal logic—for every cause, there’s an effect; for every action, there’s a reaction. Whatever you change in your world, consider the ramifications to build your internal logic.

[12:33] Tip #5—Use your target audience’s age range to help inform your story’s learning curve. In general, middle-grade stories will have a more shallow learning curve whereas adult stories will have a steeper one.

[14:56] Final thoughts and episode recap.

Rate + Review + Follow on Apple Podcasts

"I love the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast!" ← If that sounds like you, please consider rating and reviewing this show! Your rating and review will help other writers find this podcast, and they're also super fun for me to go in and read. Just click here, scroll all the way to the bottom, tap five stars to rate the show, and then select "Write a Review." Be sure to let me know what your favorite part of the episode was, too!

Also, if you haven't done so already, make sure you're following the podcast! I'll be adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the feed, and if you're not following the show, there's a good chance you'll miss them. Click here to follow now!

Links mentioned in this episode:

Click here to pre-order a copy of my brand-new book, The Story Grid Masterwork Analysis Guide to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and get a handful of extra-special pre-order bonuses for free!

👉 Looking for a transcript? If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, scroll down below the episode player until you see the transcript.

Speaker 1:

If you've ever read the first book in that series, you know that the learning curve is quite steep, and what I mean by this is you're just dropped into the world right away and it's almost as if you have to catch up to what's on the page. And I've seen reviews for this where some readers felt it was a little too steep and they were confused until they were, you know, a bit farther on in the story. But that is a series that's meant for adults, so it is appropriate to have a little bit more of a steep learning curve there. Welcome to the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilbo and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming. So each week I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started. In today's episode, i'm going to share five tips that will help you create a believable three-dimensional story world. So if you're writing science fiction or fantasy, or if you've ever felt overwhelmed by all things worldbuilding, then this episode is for you Now. I wanted to record this episode for a few different reasons. First, i could talk about worldbuilding all day. It's so much fun and it's one of my favorite things about writing science fiction and fantasy. Second, these five tips are things I wish I knew before I started the worldbuilding for my own story. And finally, so many of you have asked for an episode about worldbuilding, because I know many of you are writing science fiction or fantasy, so I'm very excited to dig in. But before we go there, i wanted to let you know that my Notes to Novel course is officially open for enrollment right now. So Notes to Novel is my self-paced online course that will teach you how to confidently write the first draft of a story you feel proud of, and in this course, i've taken everything I've learned from coaching hundreds of authors across all genres and I've channeled it into a comprehensive, step-by-step implementation program that not only teaches you the high-level theory behind writing a story that works, but how to execute what you're learning to. Now. The enrollment period is going to close on Wednesday, july 28th, at 11.59 pm. So if you've been waiting for an online course that meets you where you're at, gives you a community of like-minded writers to share the experience with, and lets you write your novel in real time as you learn. Then head over to notestonovelcom to learn more or to enroll. I'll put that link in the show notes, but one more time, it's notestonovelcom and you can head over there to learn more or to enroll in the Notes to Novel program.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so now let's dive into my top five world-building tips for science fiction and fantasy writers. Tip number one is to go narrow and deep in your world-building, not wide and shallow, and what I mean by this is that I want you to pick two to three world-building categories to focus on and then go deep into those two to three categories when brainstorming and fleshing out your story world. So I'm going to assume that at some point you've googled world building tips or world-building worksheets and maybe you've come across one of those gigantic lists of all the things that you can consider for your story world, and then maybe you got overwhelmed, because how can you possibly figure out all of those things about your story world? right, it's a lot, but here's the thing you don't have to have everything about your story world figured out to make your world feel immersive. Instead, if you pick two to three key areas of your story world that will be relevant to your plot and your characters in the central conflict, and then if you flesh out those key areas from there, your world will appear to be fully fleshed out and it's going to feel immersive for readers.

Speaker 1:

So as an example of what I mean by this, let's think about a story like The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. So he fleshed out a few key areas of the story world that would impact his protagonist the most. So I would say these three key areas are the university, the performing arts and the folklore. So his main character, Kovoth, spends the majority of his time at the university. So Patrick Rothfuss had to flesh out what his world would be like at school. So he built out the classes, the textbooks, the teachers and what their roles were, like his classmates, where Kovoth would live while he's at school, how he'd pay for school and things like that. He also fleshed out the cultural significance of the performing arts. So Kovoth plays the lute and he comes from a band of troubadours. He also loves going to this place called the Eolian and eventually he gets his performer's pin there, which is significant to the story. And not only that, but the girl that he has feelings for, dana, she's also a performer and she hangs out at the Eolian too. So this setting and this bit of cultural development brings those two characters together and it creates some conflict and a handful of other things. So it's really significant to the story.

Speaker 1:

The third thing I think about is all of the folklore in this story. So there are a lot of stories and legends about the Chandrian and things like the story of stealing the moon, or stories about the creation wars and things like that. And again, all of these things are relevant to the story. So Patrick Rothfuss obviously spent his time developing this area. Now, what's not really relevant to the story are things like the politics or the economy in the story world. Of course they are there operating in the background, but Patrick Rothfuss didn't need to go deep into those areas or spend a ton of time fleshing them out, because they don't really affect the story and readers aren't going to be wondering about that or asking questions about that.

Speaker 1:

So to wrap up my first tip I want you to pick two to three world-building categories that you'll go narrow and deep into and then flesh things out from there. This is going to allow you to not only focus on what's important, but it will also help give your world a feeling of depth and realness, which is what we all want, right? Okay, so moving on to tip number two, tip number two is to determine what kind of magic or technology will exist in your story world. So you want to determine what kind of magic system or what kind of technology you're working with and then flesh that out. Like most things, magic and technology exist on a spectrum, and I'm going to use magic as the example here, but the same logic that I'm going to talk through applies to technology. So if you imagine a line from left to right, we'll say that soft magic is on the left-hand side and hard magic is on the right-hand side of this line. Okay Now, soft magic is basically magic with rules that are unknown to the reader.

Speaker 1:

So in The Lord of the Rings, for example, readers don't really know what Gandalf can do. We don't really know how a wizard's magic works, right, but we also don't need to know how it works in order to understand and enjoy the story. So this is an example of a soft magic system where the rules are unknown to readers. On the other side of the spectrum, we have hard magic or magic with clearly defined rules. So, for example, in the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson there are clearly defined rules, so only certain people can burn metals and only certain kinds of people can burn certain kinds of metals. So it's clear to the reader what it takes to use magic and also what the cost of doing magic is. So that's an example of a hard magic system or a magic system with clearly defined rules that are understood by the readers.

Speaker 1:

Now, between those two extremes soft magic or magic without rules known to the reader, and hard magic or magic that has clearly understood rules there's a whole spectrum of possibility for where your magic system can fall, and I'd say this is probably where most magic systems fall, somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. So, for example, the Harry Potter series falls somewhere in the middle of soft magic and hard magic. Some things in the Harry Potter universe have very clear rules and boundaries, while other parts of the magic system do not. So, for example, we know that you can't conjure something out of thin air, right? That's a very clear rule that exists on the page that the reader understands, but beyond the things that affect Harry's day to day, there is a ton of other magic in the wizarding world that we don't understand as readers And we don't need to for the purpose of the story. So if we zoom in, the magic system in Harry Potter is hard magic, but zoomed out, the magic system is soft, and this is a really nice balance that allows the author to use magic in the plot and the conflict yet maintain a strong sense of wonder.

Speaker 1:

So, like I said, the same idea goes for technology. You can use the same terms if you want. So are you writing more of a soft science fiction story where the advanced technology or whatever it is exists in your story but it's not integral to the plot and the conflict? Or are you writing more of a hard sci-fi story where the rules and the details are really important because they are integral to the plot and the conflict? So to recap this tip, you need to decide where your magic system or where your technology falls along the spectrum before you dig into developing the nuances of that magic or that technology. So you'll want to ask yourself questions like will your magic or your technology have rules that are very clear to the reader and therefore they can be used in the plot to create or solve problems? Or will your magic or technology be a bit more nebulous without clearly defined rules and exist mostly to evoke a sense of wonder rather than to solve plot problems? Or maybe your magic system or your technology will fall somewhere in the middle And then, once you know the answer to this question, you can start to drill down into the specifics of your magic system or of your technology? So that's tip number two.

Speaker 1:

Tip number three is to avoid generalizations when it comes to the people or the creatures who populate your story world. So, for example, you might have some combination of humans, fey, demons, merpeople, elves, trolls, androids, giants, witches or aliens or whatever in your world. Right Within those groups, there should be different races and cultures, as well as well-rounded individuals, and the reason this is important is because you don't want to end up with a group of humans or elves or witches or whatever that are all the same or that all feel the same or that have the same characteristics. I mean, have you ever read a book where all the individuals from a group are carbon copies of each other, where, let's say the trolls are all ugly, gross and mean. That's a little boring, right, and that's not how real life is. There are all kinds of people in real life and there should be all kinds of people and or creatures in your story.

Speaker 1:

So a good example to demonstrate this is the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Mass. She has humans, fey, witches, wyverns and demons and in general, all the fey possess supernatural senses and strength. But there are different groups within the fey and each individual fey has their own personality, belief system, worldview, history, hope, dreams, fears and all that. It's the same with the witches in her story world. So there are two main groups of witches who have different cultures, belief systems and values. So within those two main groups there are cliques and there are individual witches with their own personalities, their own belief systems, their own fears and hopes and dreams and values and things like that. So to summarize this tip, it's really just about avoiding generalizations and this will help you create a realistic world with unique and interesting characters. So you'll want to ask yourself what kinds of humans or non-humans or creatures will exist in your world and then consider how you can create well-rounded races, cultures and individuals within those overarching groups. So that's tip three.

Speaker 1:

Now, moving on to tip number four, your world needs its own internal logic. So for every cause there's an effect and for every action there's a reaction. And what this really means is that whatever changes you make in your story's world, so however it differs from our real world, you have to think about the consequences of that decision or of that change. So, for example, in something like A Game of Thrones, the seasons are uneven, so there can be winters or summers that last for years And, as a result, the characters in this story have to prepare for the change of seasons. I mean, think about something simple like growing food. If you can't do that in all areas in a winter that lasts 10 years long, what does that mean And how does that then affect whoever you might end up trading with and things like that? So, again, you just want to make sure that whatever you change in your world, you'll want to think about the ramifications of those changes and then consider how that's going to play out in your story. So you'll want to consider the logic of what will happen after you make those changes. This will help you craft a cohesive world and it will help you avoid building a world that doesn't make sense or that just doesn't hang together internally. So that's tip number four.

Speaker 1:

Tip number five is to use your target audience's age range to help inform your story's learning curve. Now, every story has a learning curve, and a learning curve is basically how long it takes the reader to get up to speed on the nuances of your world. So, for example, a story like Harry Potter has a shallow learning curve. First we learn that Harry's a wizard and we see Hagrid do just a little bit of magic. Then we go to Diagon Alley where we're introduced to one new thing at a time so we're not overwhelmed, and then, once we get to Hogwarts, harry and the reader learn a new type of spell or magic or something to do with the world every few pages. So JK Rowling doesn't just dump everything on readers at once, and part of that is because Harry Potter and the Sorcerer Stone is a book that's meant for middle grade readers. So imagine if you dumped a whole bunch of world building information on a 10 year old. That probably would feel super challenging and it would easily overwhelm them.

Speaker 1:

Now we can contrast this with something like the Crescent City Books by Sarah J Mas. If you've ever read the first book in that series, you know that the learning curve is quite steep, and what I mean by this is you're just dropped into the world right away and it's almost as if you have to catch up to what's on the page. And I've seen reviews for this where some readers felt it was a little too steep and they were confused until they were, you know, a bit farther on in the story. But that is a series that's meant for adults, So it is appropriate to have a little bit more of a steep learning curve there. So my point here is that you need to consider your reader and the effect you want to have on them. Books that are targeted at a younger audience will want to have more of a shallow learning curve than books that are targeted at adult readers. You can also think about this in terms of a series. So books that are further along in the series can have a steeper learning curve because the reader has already been immersed in the world for at least one or maybe two books. So, for example, by the time readers get to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, jk Rowling can introduce a bunch of new things because the reader is more familiar with the Wizarding World than they were in Book One. So it's all familiar and they're ready to absorb new information. So hopefully that makes sense. I know it can be kind of a nebulous thing to think about, but if you consider some of your favorite books, you'll probably be able to see what I mean by a learning curve. So that's tip number five, and that wraps up my top five tips for creating a believable three-dimensional world for your science fiction or fantasy story.

Speaker 1:

Now, before I let you go, we'll do a quick recap of those five tips. So tip number one is to pick two to three world building categories and then go deep into those. So you want to keep your world building narrow and deep versus wide and shallow. You don't have to know all the things there is to know in order to create an immersive experience for your readers. Tip number two is if you plan to have magic or technology in your story, you will want to figure out what kind of magic system or what kind of technology are you working with. So will your magic or technology have clear rules or will it be a little bit more nebulous, or will your magic or technology fall somewhere in between?

Speaker 1:

Tip number three is, when it comes to populating your story's world, do your best to avoid generalizations or giving groups of people the same characteristics. The goal is to have your world feel like the real world, in the sense that it's made up of individuals with unique worldviews, beliefs and values. Tip number four is to make sure your story world has its own internal logic. So you want to make sure everything hangs together internally, and for every cause there's an effect, for every action a reaction. So again, this means whatever changes you make to your story's world, you have to think about the consequences of that change and make sure that logic's played out into your world and into your story. And the last tip, tip number five is to consider your target reader and their learning curve. So remember, this is basically how long it takes the reader to get up to speed. If you're writing for middle grade readers, you probably want to have a really shallow learning curve. If you're writing for adults, you can go a little bit steeper, and then young adult readers would fit somewhere in the middle of that. So there you have it, my top five tips for world building in your science fiction or fantasy story.

Speaker 1:

And if you haven't already, i highly recommend going back and listening to the last episode that's called how to start writing your science fiction or fantasy story, because it pairs very nicely with today's episode. So one more time. That's episode number 95, how to start writing your science fiction or fantasy story. I'll put that link in the show notes as well. So that's it for today's episode.

Speaker 1:

Thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you want to check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them in the show notes listed in the description of each episode, inside your podcast player or at savannahgobocom forward slash podcast. If you haven't done so already, make sure you're following this podcast, because there's going to be another brand new episode coming out next week. If you're an Apple user, i'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to And, in turn, your reviews will help this podcast get in front of more fiction writers just like you. So if you have a quick second, please leave a rating and a review and share this podcast with some of your friends, and then I'll see you next week with a brand new episode full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer. So until then, happy writing.