The 5 elements of world-building for signature universes
You’ve been keeping track of your time, you’ve been chipping away at your story, and then you realize… did I contradict myself in Chapter 3? In this post, I will share the five (5) main aspects I find important in world-building and how they help with story flow and plot development.
Note: I’ll do my best to keep all my examples as spoiler free as possible!
Before I continue with this, I need to set the record straight – the most important aspect to a story is still your story. If there’s no thread holding your setting and characters together, the piece becomes a description instead of a narrative. That brings me to a preliminary point:
What is Your Story?
This doesn’t have to be in detail, but it should have a general beginning, middle, and end and the setting in which your story is going to be told. If you need some guidance, see if you’re able to tell your story via the 5Ws and 1H – Who, What, When, Where, Why, How.
Now that that’s out of the way, here are the factors I use to keep track of my worlds:
#1: Location vs. World
World-building is complex, to describe it in a single word. However, it’s a fun, intellectually-challenging, and rewarding exercise. If anything, I do believe that your world is very much like an over-arching character you constantly keep an eye on with creating your stories. And the best thing about a well-built world? It goes beyond your individual story.
The first thing you’ll need to do is to understand is the difference between the locations of the story and the world of the story. While both of them sound like they mean the same thing, here are some key differences:
Locations are specific places of events, Worlds are an overall setting of your story
Often, both locations and settings are assumed to be the same thing. The general rule of thumb is this – locations are just single aspects of your world. The world you’re building will influence your character’s decisions, together with the key locations they find themselves in.
Example: Katniss Everdeen’s shared bedroom in District 12 is a location, where our characters are placed and live out day-to-day, but Panem is the overall world that influences the story.
To demonstrate this clearer, think about how either locations or worlds are executed in stories.
Locations are often best explained in one shot, Worlds unfurl through action and the story
I have a confession to make – I do not like writing exposition.
I’m a story-reader, so when stories come to a stage where the author takes two pages to describe a waterfall, I tune out pretty quickly. So for the longest time, I thought of myself of more or a plot development or character profiling person rather than someone who is into world-building.
That being said, one main aspect I’ve learnt from reading and writing adventure / thriller fiction and playing role-playing games (RPGs) is that lengthy, detailed descriptions do not necessarily good worlds make. As mentioned in the previous point, locations are just specific places of events – so as long as your readers know where your characters or story is set, it’s fine.
Example: In the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise, players are often presented with very simple locations during main gameplay (essentially fewer locations you can count with both hands). However, we don’t really get a glimpse into the world of the game’s story until we play more of the game, advancing the story.
Worlds, on the other hand, should unfurl with the story. While specific locations play a part in helping your readers discover the world you’ve built, it’s best if your world is left to discovery through the lens of your characters – e.g. societally-approved / rejected actions, cultures, behaviours – rather than focus on purely on fine details.
Or to keep things simply, think of it like what Ariadne and Dominic said in Inception – It’s like you’re discovering it (the architecture / scenery of a dream), instead of fathoming all the details.
Which brings us to the next point to look out for…
Locations are almost always fixated on geography, Worlds are the environment our characters and stories live in
This is a little like – yes, you have a house, but do you have a home? As mentioned earlier, worlds are much more than their physical environments, and in the next few aspects, I’ll explain further.
#2: The Workings of Your World
As I mentioned earlier, your story’s World is not just a description of where things happen – you’ll need to start thinking about how things work on a whole as well. Not to say that you have to be a total planner, but noting down the ‘norms’ and ‘the way things are’ in your stories will help with consistency and keeping track on how your characters – main or non-player – may or can react.
So as you continue with your story, ask yourself:
What is a typical day in your world like?
If you’re writing contemporary or slice-of-life fiction, your setting is often real-world. Regardless, it’ll also be useful to go through how the typical day of your protagonist will go through and why, just to get a feel on the kind of environment your characters are living in. If anything, it’s also a practice in empathy.
For stories where worlds are different from the “real world” – science fiction, fantasy, urban dystopia, for example – things are not that much different. However, this is also a helpful exercise for you to keep tabs on important aspects of how your world works.
How did your character’s problems start? How did the world influence them?
Now that you know how your world affects your characters, their motivations become clearer, whether or not the motivations make sense. This is also when you can map out the conflicts and gaps within your story.
Example: In the CHEW comics series, Tony Chu is an officer with the Food and Drug Administration Department. It’s shown that his world is filled with restaurant investigations and penalizing people for eating banned foods. However, things go weirdly for him because of a couple of things – he doesn’t consume food like we do, and in his world, one of the most common foods is now highly-illegal contraband.
In short, this step is to help you link your story with your world, which has the potential to stretch beyond just this one plot.
We will discuss this in greater detail with the coming Point #3.
#3: The Effects of the World on Your Conflict
From the last point in #2, we come to our third section – now that you know the workings of your world, what are the factors that affect your story? To paraphrase Odin in Thor: Ragnarok, Your World is Your People.
Or your society in general.
With that in mind, you can go ahead and break down your world into three main aspects and the questions that can guide you:
Politics and Society
How is your world run? Who are the people in charge? Who put them there? And most importantly, why are they the ones in power?
How about the everyday people? How do they view the people with power? How do they view each other? What do they do to get through each day? Who are the ones the people look up to? Who are the ones the people avoid? And why?
Is your story set in the country, the city, or somewhere in between? Flat ground or land with mountains and valleys? Does the physical environment change often or regularly (E.g. annual earthquakes / constant redevelopment)? Natural resources – does your world have much? What are they and what do they provide?
How have the people adjusted to the nature or geology to the place?
Culture and Routine?
We covered this briefly in Point #1, but this goes a little more in-depth, with a few questions like:
What are the people unhappy about in general? Are there any celebrations? How are the celebrations conducted based on who the people are?
What do your world’s people eat? What kind of performances do they enjoy? Do they have free time in the first place?
But importantly, what is (un)acceptable behavior?
#4: What is Wrong / Right with this Picture?
This is where you get to the meat of your story and perhaps, one of the easiest ways to keep track of your story and the world it’s set in. Now that you know how the world works, ask yourself these questions:
What is wrong / right with this picture?
As humans, we have external and internal conflicts, issues, problems, and celebrations to resolve, and that’s how we get stories as well. This also means stories are what binds all of us, as people, together, and thus there needs to be some semblance of relatability or inspiration.
Point #4’s question talks about what is wrong / right with your world, which again, can lead to why your characters or plots act or deviate a certain way.
Example: In the world of fiction podcast Within the Wires, all children are separated from their birth parents to be raised in neutral settings so as to eliminate family-bound prejudices and build the world back up as well-rounded, open citizens. What then, happens to the anomalies of this system? What then, happens when these children grow up, remember, and try looking for their biological parents? And how are they treated?
Most worlds are almost always built with good intentions, but are still built through humanity’s lens, which means that there are often still cracks in the system. Your story will likely be told to showcase and then resolve or alleviate these cracks.
#5: Why is there this story in your world?
From the accumulated answers to 1-4, you can now answer why there’s a story in this particular world you’ve created.
But… there shouldn’t need to be a story if the world is so wonderful, right?
There’s no harm in building a world that’s your utopia and leave it as such. However, if you’re doing world-building for a story you have been wanting to tell for a while, then please note that the most important aspect of your story is your story.
So Point #5 will help you with the most important question about your setting (and perhaps, your future pitch for this story) – why is there this story happening in your world?
World-building plays a part beyond just the setting of your story. As I mentioned earlier, the beauty of world-building is the opportunity to build narratives beyond the one story that you’re currently creating. And in conclusion, perhaps you can also say that your world is very much like a character on its own.
Titles / Serials used as Examples in this Post:
The Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins)
The Five Nights at Freddy’s game franchise (Scott Cawthon)
Inception (Christopher Nolan)
The CHEW comic series (Rob Guillory & dJohn Layman)
The Within the Wires podcast series (Jeffrey Cranor & Janina Matthewson)
What You Can Do / Your Challenge:
Have your written novel / comic / story in front of you. If you haven’t completed your draft, a structure or rough storyline with your characters will do as well.
Scan through your piece and note / list down specific locations, functions, systems, cultures, and behaviours you’ve found within this world.
From there, take note of any logic (general / world logic) or storyline gaps between your execution and the world you’ve built or perceived.
Use the five aspects mentioned in this blog post (and content download) to help you suss out the next steps of your editing or drafting as needed.
The aspects, together with their summaries, have been consolidated to a single PDF where you can just download for free. Again, all the best in your world-building adventures – and share your own experiences in the comments so that we can take this journey together.
Worlds – big or small – can be tricky to track, especially when you’re inspired by the greatest details. What trips you up the most when you’re building your worlds? Or facing issues with consistency in smart-world stories? Do share your experiences in the comments – I’d love to hear from you.