The Do's & Don'ts of Worldbuilding



Before you start worldbuilding, it's a good idea to learn the in's and out's. Expectation versus reality sometimes clashes in this phase of the writing process because writers think that their readers want pages upon pages of details, complex languages, and a complete overhaul of the world as we know it.

The reality is that readers of sci-fi and fantasy only want the illusion of a new world, not a completely unfamiliar one. You don't have to be a magician to give your audience what they want either. You just have to know what they are looking for so that you can check off all of their boxes. To remove the guesswork, I've done some research and compiled a list of what readers of these genres actually WANT to see. Below are the top do's and don'ts of worldbuilding.


The Don'ts


  • Don't name/place dump in the opening chapter

  • Don't use names that are overcomplicated to read and pronounce

  • Don't go too far- not everything needs to change

  • Worldbuilding is a verb, not a noun. Your story takes place within in your world, your worldbuilding doesn't take place within your story.

  • Don't introduce something unless it has to deal directly with your character or story

  • Don't overuse apostrophes

  • Don't dump, explain things gradually


The Do's


  • Show, don't tell

  • Think about the scale of your world and which parts will be relevant

  • Consistency is key

  • Keep your goal in mind

  • Use sci-fi/fantasy tropes but make them your own

  • Focus on small unique details rather than the big picture

  • Start small- show things that are different in a very real, immediate way your characters

  • Let imaginations do the hard work

  • Magical/scientific devices MUST be used/work in the same way every time they're used

  • Identify your audience and what they want/prefer



Now that we've seen the break-down at a glance, let's go over why they fall into each of these categories. Here are the DON'TS:



Don't name/place dump in the opening chapter


It sounds obvious, but as it turns out, this is one of the most common mistakes that writers tend to make, especially in sci-fi/fantasy. The reason why you should avoid doing this is because it's information dumping, and it's confusing/hard to keep track of. Your opening chapter is there to capture our interest and seduce us into your fantasy world- the last thing we want to feel is like you're shoveling made-up names over us and burying us alive. Focus instead on introducing us to your protagonist and first major plotline point. There's plenty of time to pepper in those other details as things progress.


Don't use names that are overcomplicated to read and pronounce


In addition to name dumping, you want to avoid using names that are too long, and/or impossible to figure out how to pronounce. Names are one of the ways we are able to instantly connect with characters. Knowing how to say/read it and what it sounds like plays a large role in the reader/character bond. There's nothing worse than getting excited to share a story, telling someone about it, and then having to awkwardly fumble for a protagonist's name. If we can't say it, it creates emotional distance, something that will later lead to complaints and abandoned paperbacks.


Don't go too far- not everything needs to change


Another common mistake writers make when worldbuilding is thinking that they must change everything about the world in order for it to be considered "new" and "original". This isn't the case. Rather than doing a complete overhaul, the best fantasy worlds merely change bits and pieces not the whole thing. This is because the best balance is between reality and fiction. Reality creates familiarity. Fiction creates escape. This is why Harry Potter works so well, as it uses elements of magic and applies it to the world as we already know it.


Worldbuilding is a verb, not a noun.


Your story takes place inside your fictitious world, not the other way around. You may be tempted to make worldbuilding the focus of your story, but doing so is a mistake. Your worldbuilding details should be created to supplement your setting not to steal its spotlight. After all, your plotline and characters should be in the forefront because that is where the story is. If you find your manuscript isn't working, then this may be why.


Don't introduce something unless it is vital to your plot or characters


A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if a worldbuilding detail relates directly to your protagonist or a plot point in your story. By double-checking, you're effectively keeping fluff out of your manuscript and saving yourself the headache of editing it out later on. It could be the coolest bundle of fantasy elements ever, but if it does nothing to further your plot or your protagonist's growth, it does not belong in your story. Period. Keeping it there slows down the pacing and distracts from your story overall.


Don't overuse apostrophes


This is another big one. Overusing apostrophes becomes an issue because writers mistakenly think that using them in names of people and places makes them intriguing and exotic. Well, it doesn't. It becomes jarring and distracting to read. Ultimately it grinds the pacing of your story to a screeching halt. This is because we're too busy trying to wrap our heads around the pronunciation that it completely pulls us out of the narrative. It also makes things harder to remember. In some particularly bad cases, it even makes us doubt that you understand how to write in English properly. Unless there is a specific reason for their usage, avoid overusing them. There are many ways you can bring fantasy elements into your story. Apostrophes are not one of them.


Don't dump, explain things gradually


Being enthusiastic about your worldbuilding is great, but when and where you choose to reveal those details within your story matters. Ideally, you don't want to group everything together and simply drop it into our laps. No one likes to sort through a mess, so don't give us one. What you should do is feed us tidbits here and there. Intersperse it with dialogue and action. Give us breadcrumbs as opposed to the loaf and you'll find that you've lured us through the entire story.


Understanding the DON'TS is only half the battle. Now that you know what not to do, and how to fix it, let's learn about what you should DO:


Show, don't tell


While there are times when explaining things point-blank is necessary, you should always strive to show and not tell. Description is much more tantalizing than statements of fact. Telling us that the sky is blue does evoke a picture in our minds, but it lacks the emotional connection we need to feel like we ourselves are witnessing it. Instead, consider saying that the blue of the sky was the same as that of a robin's egg on the first day of spring, speckled with clouds promising afternoon showers. Not only does it sound better, but it provides details such as season, time of day, weather, and mood/atmosphere that are lacking in the first statement.


Think about the scale of your world and which parts will be relevant


It's important to understand the scope of your fictional world. Being able to define how large it is will help you keep things in perspective for when you start writing. The implication here is that the larger the world, the more will be left out of the manuscript, but it goes without saying that not all of the information you uncover should make it into your novel even if you are working with a smaller setting. It's important to make judgement calls and only use what is needed as opposed to all that you want to use. Keeping yourself in check will result in a better story overall.


Consistency is key


Probably one of the MOST important rules of worldbuilding is the one of consistency. The key to creating an immersive fantasy is to make sure that nothing disrupts or pulls the reader out of the illusion. It is vital that your details are consistent, error-free, and subtle enough to seem congruent with the rest of the story. The worst thing that can happen is that we read a few paragraphs and then stop to reanalyze something because it reads incorrectly or because it rings false. If your worldbuilding is done correctly, we shouldn't notice it at all. It should come naturally and read smoothly.


Keep your goal in mind


Getting distracted is a given during worldbuilding, but it doesn't have to set you behind in your word count. It's important to set a limit before you start and to jot down an outline to help keep yourself on track. If you can keep your overall goal in mind you're far more likely to succeed. If you do find yourself getting distracted, don't fret. Pause what you're doing and re-center on your goals.


Use sci-fi/fantasy tropes but make them your own


If you analyze any of the successful series out there today chances are you'll find a lot of characters based off stock characters initially. What makes them awesome is the growth and personal development unique to them and their series. It can be immensely helpful to use these template characters as a "jumping off" point for your own work. The trick is that once you establish what kind they are that you then develop them away from their original traits, meaning that you give them more realistic features, problems, and unusual quirks. Better yet, give them contradicting traits for an even more intriguing character arc.


Focus on small unique details rather than the big picture


When we place our creative emphasis on the major components of our story, we are drawing our readers' attention to them. This would be great, except for when you're building an illusion, you don't want someone scrutinizing the magic up close. It's wiser to focus on a few small details that you can make extra special versus focusing on the bigger details. By leaving the bigger picture alone, there's less to pick apart, but also the smaller details act as a distraction from any potential flaws.


Start small


The best way to build up the fantasy elements of your setting is to start small. Show the things that are different in a very real, immediate way to the characters and you're essentially introducing them to reader and saying, "look how cool this is!", which of course then makes it the center of our focus once we catch on. It's also an excellent way to make a powerful impact when it comes to explaining a huge event such as war. When dealing with a large-scale event it's better to choose a small but significant way to express the emotions brought on as result. For instance, don't tell us about the war and what's going on. Show us the image of an abandoned child's shoe in the middle of a blackened street.


Let imaginations do the hard work


The truth is that our imaginations take off once we start reading. What we all want from a good story is to be led in such a way that we don't notice we are being guided. We want to play the game of guessing, being wrong/surprised, and being awed by the clever way we were fooled and outsmarted. The best way to give us what we want is to not be too heavy-handed. While you're crafting your world keep in mind that once you set something up, you don't have to explain every aspect of it. Oftentimes it's enough to mention the initial concept and then leave the rest up to individual imaginations.


Magical/scientific devices MUST be used/work in the same way every time they're used


Being able to concoct all-new types of archaic magic and scientific devices is arguably one of the coolest aspects of worldbuilding. This is where we can show off our creative thinking and astound the reader with our aptitude for inventing the impossible. While we are free to conjure to our heart's content, there is one basic rule that needs to be adhered to: All magical and scientific devices MUST be used/work in the same way each and every time they appear in your story, no exceptions. This is one of those nitpicky details that readers notice and pounce on every time a writer decides to break it. For your sake, and the sake of your future editor, don't try to find the loophole. It's just common sense.


Identify your audience and what they want/prefer


Last but not least, know your target audience. If you're writing a book geared towards a Game of Thrones fans, then you're probably safe writing a long epic with lots of gore and tons of confusing names and titles. If your novel is aimed more towards the Lord of the Rings crowd, then you adjust and write prose that sounds more like poetry and include high-fantasy elements such as dwarves and elves. Both are epic fantasy series but with two very different styles and audiences. One is based in gritty realism while the other has a lot of traditional fantasy elements. Trying to write a Tolkien-style story only to try to market it to a King in the North will not go down well, I promise. Best bet- identify your audience and their preferences before you begin writing. Doing so will make things easier in the long run once you actually begin the querying/publishing process, as you will already know who you're trying to sell your book to, can make appropriate choices, and edit with their desires in mind.


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