On Writing: Thoughts about World Building

The truth is I’ve been thinking about this topic for ages, but avoiding it for equally long. This is because to be perfectly honest I don’t know a lot about the finer points of World Building and there really is a tonne of resource out there already from people wiser than I.

Image result for a planet being built

But in my usual style I do have some random thoughts and insights that I though worth mentioning.

A good start might be to discuss what exactly is ‘World Building’ and address an interesting controversy of whether all books contain World Building or whether its a specific technique typically present in certain genres but not others.

While World Building seems pretty straightforward and obvious as a term I think as story component it’s place is somewhat confusing. For me World-Building exists as an extended part of the Setting, essentially as in implication of what ‘the world’ is like outside of any given scene. That is not to say that World Building isn’t present directly in the scenes but its how it sits with the reader, and the sense of this is what the world is like.

An example to make my gobbledygook clearer – contrast two books with similar basic names: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Emma Donoghue’s Room. Almost every scene of The Road is desolate and horrible, and every effort is made to communicate that this is what the world is like now, so not only are individual scenes constructed to present this Setting, its strongly designed to create a sense of a world that is the same. In Room, the setting is a claustrophobic and horrifying situation where child and their mother are trapped in said Room. Part of the tension of the story is the unknown of the wider world, and the design of the story is not to imply or describe the wider world beyond the setting to maintain the intense feel of the setting.

What I’m trying to say is that different stories have different World-Building needs. Not every story creates a sense of the wider world within its tale, and this is OK but the way I would phrase it, is not that some stories don’t have World-Building but that the focus of the story is on the immediate settings of the characters, and the implications of the wider world are less significant.

So why is World Building considered so important for certain genres?

This is where things start to get really tricky. I’m going to start with Epic Fantasy as this is where people usually talk about World Building, but I think there are a few things going on. First of all I think there is a weird amount of pressure in the Fantasy Genre to ‘World Build’. This has created an unusual backfire effect where every author and their dog are trying their best to come up with the most epic world ever, kind of making World-Building a bit trite and overdone, in that way its almost just a trope for Fantasy, meaning that readers would find it weird if a Fantasy story didn’t contain World Building elements. Equally Fantasy tends to require World Building to support suspension of disbelief. Trying to tell a story of dragons and magic in the ‘real world’ creates all sorts of double takes. Harry Potter managed to pull off a World where the magic community existed in secret alongside the ‘real-world’ but I feel like it was a challenge.

But World Building isn’t just restricted to Epic Fantasy, Historic Fiction requires a different sort of World Building Technique, where the author communicates an authentic (but still purely fictional) sense of a past time. Even contemporary fiction creates a ‘World’ for us even if it is being sold as ‘real life.’

Some common pitfalls:

In discussing all that, I think its worth mentioning some common problems with World Building. The main issue being a contrary sort of positioning of this fictional element, you want to create a sense that your characters exist within a world, yet too much focus of the narrative on said world and not the action of the scene will often ruin both. For me the trick is about character reactions. The way that characters navigate the scenery tells the reader about the World. To go back to a previous example, Harry Potter’s reactions contrasted with his experienced friends helps create the Wizarding World for the reader. The way Gandalf teaches Frodo about Middle Earth as they journey through it creates a strong sense of World.

That said always recognizing what is harder to believe for the reader and planning how to introduce fantastical elements is super important. I’ll never forget a ridiculous fantasy story I was reading and eventually put down – there were numerous problems but one hilarious one was the author had set up a gritty Game of Thrones/Gladiator type setting where a couple of characters escaped a tyrant’s city. Once they were outside the city walls one character was like “right I’ll just call my gryphon.” Up until that point there had been no suggestion that gryphons or any other similar creatures existed in the world, let alone that the MC had one they could summon!

The previous example was about too little World Building but new writers often struggle with too much. Or in my opinion not paying enough attention to timing. Many authors attack their World Building in a logical manner starting their stories “In the beginning” (i.e. with the beginning of their universe) – I think this is in part why Prologues are somewhat of a dirty word in new fiction because of the tendency to dump World Building information into the start of the book. While a sturdy creation myth or fictional history is great to have underlying the stories within your world, its rare to be a useful part of the actual story you’re trying to tell. This may come as a a surprise to many who follow the Stereotype of Lord of the Rings but Tolkien’s classic doesn’t actually contain that much World-Building per se. Or more specifically the creation myths, explanation of character origins and so forth is relegated to the appendix, or the Silmarillon. The World Building that occurs in Lord of the Rings is what fits with the narrative of the story.

I’m waffling on a bit for the topic, I just wanted to hit one last insight which I stumbled on recently, and that is what makes a “good” (man I’ve overused quotation marks this post) Fictional World?

Most people will advise a great depth of construction of your World, but I have a different take:

A good fiction world is one that sparks the imagination.

While there is no doubt that Tolkien’s thorough creation of Middle Earth added to its appeal, I also think the World has a sense of many more adventures that could be had within it than just the stories told. Same for Hogworts or the Wizarding world of Harry Potter, while there is a lot of detail creating an authentic sense, the way of the world is built creates a feeling of there being more out there, more potential especially.

I’m not saying that good World Building means the opportunity for fan-fiction, its more that what is laid down in the story inspires rather than limits the reader’s thoughts. Even bizarre and simple concepts like Pokemon are super-popular because of the way the World can act as a template for more adventure. Again not necessarily advocating for endless sequels either, its more that the sense of the World for the reader creates fuel for the imagination. Middle Earth, Narnia, Hogworts, Even the Districts of the Hunger Games provide possibilities and potential beyond the exact story. I think often writers feel they have to precisely dictate their world’s in order to be acceptable and create a tight story, but my suspicion is as readers we’re willing to accept plenty of random and spontaneous stuff as long as the world feels alive and filled with possibility.

So that’s my thoughts – keen to hear yours!

On Writing: What makes a good series?

These are the best series, according to readers!

Recently I’ve just finished a couple of series that I first started about 10 years, ago and of which the first books of were some of the first books I ever reviewed online. Both were 5 book sequences and finishing them off got me thinking about what actually makes a good series.

First of all it might be worth mentioning some external motivations for series. I think that as writers we tend to be a little idealistic about series, feeling that not only are our characters delightful enough to warrant multiple books, but wanting that sense of a work being a part of something bigger. Novels aren’t typically just a flash in the pan, but there is nothing like a long running series to create a sense of something epic and significant.

In a similar vein traditional publishers are typically happy with a successful series. While a new author might be a risk to promise multiple book deals, a well selling series is a good investment, regardless of quality or art, its nice to have a steady source of sales based on name (author and titles) alone.

Regardless of the why we like series though, it thought it might be useful to consider what actually makes a good series:

Familiar but with something new:

Part of the key of a good series is striking a balance between offering what fans want more of, and having something novel within each story. While there is some argument that there are plenty of repetitive series out there that sell and sell (and sell), I would counter that the really striking books that stick in our heads and spark talking points in reading circles all over strike the right balance.

A good example would be Harry Potter. The series essentially grows up with Harry and the audience at the time. While each book contains familiar settings, and certain plots points, each book is also quite different in many ways.

For a counter example I would suggest Laurel K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. While some people don’t mind them, I think that the radical changes to content, and focus of the stories (if you’re unaware of the series it kind of starts of like Buffy with Guns, and is still going as 50 Shades of Grey with Vampires). That example is probably more of an abrupt shift in the series as a whole, but provides an example of not straying from the core values of the series.

Balancing Tensions

Probably the most challenging elements of series is mapping an overarching journey while still having compelling individual installments. I notice that a lot of long running epic fantasy series suffer from this, often having the lame fourth book, and for some reason always a ‘flashback’ novel.

I think the reason this is difficult is that its difficult to sell a tense novel when its set within a larger context of a series, like when they arrest a suspect within the first 15 minutes of the CSI episode and you know its not them, or it is them after they get let out though…

This could just be my stance on this, but I think the trick is avoid linearity, or at the very least avoid multiple installments on the same trajectory. Often I see writers take the risk of just divvying up the steps of the “heroes journey” or other scheme into multiple books, which can make things pretty stale. What I mean by avoiding linearity is to not make the whole series about one journey, for example even with the same MC Book 1 could be the more traditional hero journey, book 2 more about hubris and fall from grace, and book 3 about redemption. OR each book can deal with a different direction of the heroes journey.

Careful with Stakes

One of the most troubling elements of series is dealing with the stakes. In the MCU people are concerned (note I haven’t seen Spider-man yet) about how Endgame managed to create some of the most epic stakes ever, and how the universe can go on to still entice viewers afterwards.

Not all series reach such heights but stakes do get very challenging. Setting them too low might make an individual story dull (although could actually be one’s best bet) trying to ramp up stakes has multiple issues. First if you overdo it then people will haven trouble getting invested, once you’ve had the MC save the world its hard to get enthused about them saving the local community in the next book. This sort of applies to “this time its personal” stakes, although in this situation if you put the MCs love interest, then their mother, then their business partner in harms way it just starts to feel mildly abusive or something perpetuating the stories.

Also burnout becomes an issue (no not yours you silly writer, although could be a topic for another post), but for readers really believing that MCs have gone through XY and Z, often in short spaces of time becomes unbelievable, or rather unbelievable that they keep being the hero rather than a nervous wreck (note some series deal with heroes becoming nervous wrecks and I think that is super cool [not the wreckage the fact they address it])

The obvious solution to stake issues is to slow build, although this can sabotage individual stories within the series. The other trick is not to meddle to deeply with the actual stakes but exactly what they mean. For example having a villain in book 2 that isn’t actually that much worse than the serial killer in book 1 except its the MCs brother (ok cheesy AF I know but it shakes up the formula). Finally switching the type of stakes up, having global issues versus more personal ones, challenges that address different elements of the characters, different sacrifices that have to made, that sort of thing.

Ending a great series

This is a huge topic and possibly meriting and entire post in itself, I don’t really have all the answers as a writer, but can offer a few thoughts as a reader.

I think the best endings, perhaps somewhat obviously, have to deliver on the promise of the series. One of the reasons people are pissed at the GoT TV series is there was so much raised throughout the series that didn’t have any resolution. While there were some callbacks there wasn’t really a sense of tie in between the beginning of the story and the end. While an overarching question or thematic issue isn’t always possible there should be some sort of sense of a major question being answered. Like in GoT it would have been nice to have a better sense of did characters make the right choices, did they do OK? While some it was suggested as such there was a real sense of things weren’t terrible and the villains died so shows over alright? Not all series have one overarching point, but a good ending plucks a string of resonance that fits with the whole sequence. For example if Childs ever decides to resolve Jack Reacher’s story it should finish with something that fits (but fits I mean says something about not necessarily being super tidy) with his actions throughout the show. So if he settled down with a wife it was in a way that contrasted his nomadic ways and made sense in the story, OR say the series ended with Reacher sacrificing himself to save an innocent bystander, it was in a way that resonated with all his past actions.

Endings don’t necessarily have to tie up lose ends definitively, buts its always important to say something, to give readers a sense that things are supposed to be left open, or unaddressed or concluded as they are. Not saying spelt out just not neglected.

Speaking of endings that is about all I can think of for this topic!


What series do you think ended well (whether it be books, TV, movies)?

What do you think makes for a bad series, or a promising but ultimately disappointing one?