4 Jan

I’m making the slow and sometimes rather painful transition from a full-on pantser to an outliner. The changes aren’t just about the outline, though. I used to be on much more of a need-to-know basis with not only what was going to happen in the book, but with the back stories of my characters and my worlds.

Sometimes, I’d start writing an entire book with no more forethought than a single scene. A single conversation. Hmm…. Okay, so there’s this boy hidden in a tree, trying to keep quiet as this mass of white-hooded figures glide through the woods below him, moving to some unheard music. Suddenly, one of the figures stops moving. It’s a girl, snapped out of some kind of trance. She begins freaking out, trying to push out of the mass of humanity around her. The boy watches, mystified and helpless…and that’s it. I know nothing else, not even the character’s names or why they’re in the woods or what the heck is happening with the girl or the white-hooded people.

It was a fun way to write, and I loved learning about the story as I wrote it, developing the plot and the characters as I went along. But it was a tangled process, and more often than not, I’d get caught up in one mess after another, write myself into corners, and realize that I don’t really know the motivations behind my character’s actions or the laws of my world.

I was sort of doing things backwards. Instead of cause and effect, I was writing the effect first and then scrambling to figure out the cause. Sometimes it worked out great. Other times, not so much–especially if the world was complicated.

Enter the world-building document. I’d had “random notes” documents before, and moleskines are always handy, but I’ve recently put together my real world-building document. Now, I didn’t even start working on it until I was well past my first draft, but my second world-building doc is for an unfinished WIP.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to go about making a doc like this. I like to write about worlds unlike our own, so I start out by outlining all the important history of this world. Basically, what has happened in the past that leads up to events in your books? This section doesn’t directly mention my characters, only the world they live in.

I then have sections for each of the main characters and write their backstories. What has happened in their lives to make them them? What motivates them to perform the actions they undertake in the novel proper? How did they get to be where they are?

I don’t know about you, but I actually adore this kind of stuff, so I can go on for 10k just in the world-building doc alone. I never thought it would be so useful–not only for checking up on facts to make sure they stay straight in the book, but just to make things more concrete.

I had nebulous ideas about much of the history and backstory included in my world-building doc, but typing it all out really helped me see where the potential plot holes lay and where I needed to strengthen motivation or some such. Plus, it was so much fun!

I highly recommend it 😀


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.


20 Responses to “World-building”

  1. Rowenna January 4, 2011 at 9:35 AM #

    Great post, Kat! As a quasi-pantser myself, I’ve often been captured by an image or scene, and written around it until I could figure out the why’s and how’s. Which, as you said, sometimes is great, sometimes is…iffy. I love the idea of a document for worldbuilding–I usually try to keep it all in my head which is…well, let’s just say there’s not that much storage in there!

    • Kat Zhang January 4, 2011 at 10:07 AM #

      Thanks, Rowenna! 😀

  2. Olga January 4, 2011 at 10:57 AM #

    I do the random notes thing. But I do it on notebook paper. Because I’m cool like that. Also too lazy to type it up. 😛

    • Kat Zhang January 4, 2011 at 12:24 PM #

      Haha, sometimes it’s easier to brainstorm on paper 😛

  3. Sammy Bina January 4, 2011 at 11:54 AM #

    This was an awesome post, Kat, and came at just the right time. I’m almost done with Secret Project, and I think, after I go back and outline it, I’m going to take a page from your book and do one of these world building docs before I dig into revisions. I think it would really benefit the story. I think one of these docs would be especially helpful for people writing sci-fi/fantasy/dystopians, since with those, all bets are off, really. You get to make up an entirely new world, so it’s even MORE important to know exactly how everything operates.

    I love you for this idea. ❤

    • Kat Zhang January 4, 2011 at 12:24 PM #

      Thanks, Sammy! ❤ I hope you have a great time world-building ;D

  4. TymCon January 4, 2011 at 3:05 PM #

    J’adore…world building. I absouletly love it. Sometimes I get caught up in it a little bit to much and neglect the story. I know I;m a bad story parent.
    I usually write the history that fits into the plots first, Eg: Why a certain character wants revenge/revolution/anarchy etc.
    Then I write the impacts that would have on Religion, Economics, social, industry etc. (very vague though)
    Then , usually I get ideas about those things and I go back and flesh out the history to make those things possible.
    Then I write character history. Then I go back to the social etc to fit in the character. Then It’s rinse and repeat.
    I love it.

    • Kat Zhang January 4, 2011 at 3:08 PM #

      I love it, too! 😀 I think there’s no such thing as too much worldbuilding! Just make sure you have time to write the story itself, too ;P

  5. priscillashay January 4, 2011 at 3:37 PM #

    I too have the random notes doc o.O When I first started writing my WW WIP I just wrote without any thoughts (that sounds odd..) but once I finished and was attempting to do a revision…I realized I needed an outline 😦 I have one! I just need to..stick to it? That’s my problem and why I don’t usually have outlines – I don’t really keep to them

    • Kat Zhang January 4, 2011 at 3:39 PM #

      Even if you don’t keep to the outline, I think it’s still handy to just get your thoughts out. That way, at least you have something to fall back on in times of need ;P

  6. Julie Eshbaugh January 4, 2011 at 4:46 PM #

    Thanks Kat! This is perfectly timed for me. I like to create guides and docs to follow when I’m writing. Your tips on creating a world-building doc will come in very handy! 🙂

    • Kat Zhang January 4, 2011 at 4:52 PM #

      I’m glad! 😀

  7. Chantal January 4, 2011 at 9:32 PM #

    I love world building too ^^ Great post

    • Kat Zhang January 4, 2011 at 9:45 PM #

      Thank you!

  8. Pico January 5, 2011 at 4:06 AM #

    Being a chronic pantser has not worked out for me at all. Haha. I’ve found your exercises super helpful in the past so I’ll give these a go!

    • Kat Zhang January 5, 2011 at 4:30 AM #

      Aww, I’m glad! Thanks 😀

  9. jenn fitzgerald January 5, 2011 at 6:58 PM #

    Great post, Kat! I love world building, it’s so much fun and I definitely have a huge world-building doc, but it’s not that organized 🙂

    • Kat Zhang January 5, 2011 at 7:32 PM #

      Thanks, Jenn! 🙂

  10. CA Marshall January 7, 2011 at 5:13 AM #

    This is why I love Scrivener so much! I use a novel template that has files and folders for things like setting and characters and you can add anything you want in, like photos of outfits your character would wear (I’ve been collecting military/steampunk kinds of things and adding them to the folder for my Atlantis book), and intricate text details like favorites, peeves, ticks, and motivations go right alongside them. And they’re all just a click or a glance away. No searching through file after file in Word or having a million sticky notes on your dashboard!

    I know what you mean about being a reformed pantser. I’ve found myself gravitating toward structure with each written book. It’s kinda scary. But fun!

    • Kat Zhang January 7, 2011 at 8:06 AM #

      Ooh, I didn’t even think about using Scrivener for that. I really need to start exploring that program more…right now I’m just scratching the surface, I think ;P

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