100 World-Building Questions

The Basics

  1. How many continents does your world have?
  2. How many countries?
  3. How many languages are spoken?
  4. Which are the main languages?
  5. Which countries hold the most power?
  6. Are there any Empires?
  7. What systems of Government are in use?
  8. Which time period is most reflective of your worlds current state (e.g. Victorian, Medieval, Futuristic)?
  9. Do any elements of another time period enter your world (e.g. a medieval-esque world with Victorian level technology)?
  10. Do some countries in your world have more in common with one time period than another?
  11. Is international trade the norm?
  12. If so, is it formally arranged or undertaken by single businesses and traders?
  13. Is there a recognised tax system?
  14. How do people communicate over large distances?
  15. Can people communicate over large distances?
  16. Are there class systems in place?
  17. How many different races (e.g. human, alien species, fantasy species) are there in your world?
  18. How many ethnicities are there?
  19. Is Religion a big factor in your world?
  20. How many religions are there?
  21. Is there a dominant religion?
  22. Are any of your countries at war?
  23. Which of your countries have warred with each other in the past?
  24. Which countries are allied with each other?
  25. Do any of your countries have systems of slavery or indentured servitude in place?

 

Magic and Technology

  1. Do any of your cultures believe in/ practice magic?
  2. Is it real/ does it work?
  3. If not – what practices do they have that are linked to their beliefs and why do they continue with them?
  4. If so, what kinds of magic are there?
  5. Can everyone practice one or all kinds of magic?
  6. What are the limitations (e.g. magic use saps life force, requires items, etc)?
  7. Is there anything that magic cannot achieve?
  8. Is magic formally taught, learned through apprenticeship, or a natural gift?
  9. What is the view of the populous with regard to magic?
  10. Are magic users considered superior, inferior, or equal to non-magic users?
  11. Who are the great magic users of your world?
  12. Are there any legal restrictions on magic?
  13. How does magic make up for the weaknesses in your worlds technology?
  14. Do magic and technology meet in any way?
  15. How does technology make up for the limitations of magic?
  16. Do all countries have access to the same technology?
  17. Is there any one way in which technology is primarily used (e.g. agriculture, military etc)?
  18. Is technology readily accessible to all classes?
  19. Is technology used on a household or industrial scale?
  20. Is technology used for non-essential pursuits, e.g. entertainment, yet?
  21. Who are the great inventors of your world?
  22. What are the limitations of technology in your world?
  23. Is there any technology which can suppress, dispel, or dampen magic?
  24. How is technological growth and development fuelled?
  25. Are there any legal restrictions on technologies?

 

Flora, Fauna, and Environment

  1. Does your world have all the “usual” hemispheres (is it earth or earth-like)?
  2. Which environment/habitat makes up the largest part of your world (sea, forest/jungle, desert, or mountains)?
  3. Is your world mostly temperate?
  4. How many deserts/wastelands are there?
  5. What challenges do they pose to the populations of your world (e.g. to transport, communication etc)?
  6. Which regions of your world are entirely uninhabitable?
  7. Why are they uninhabitable?
  8. What caused them to be this way?
  9. Has anyone tried to live in them before?
  10. Are there any animals which can survive in these deserts/wastes?
  11. Which animals are most revered in your world/cultures?
  12. Which animals are most feared?
  13. Are there any animals which can use magic, or which are inherently magical?
  14. Are there any animals which are hunted because of their magical properties?
  15. Which animals, if any, are domesticated?
  16. What are their roles?
  17. Can any animals communicate with non-magic using humans?
  18. Which plants are used for magic?
  19. Which plants are poisonous?
  20. Which plants have healing properties?
  21. Are there any plants which are both?
  22. Is there any animal or plant so rare as to be priceless?
  23. Are there any minerals/rocks which are sought after as sources of magic, power, or food for your peoples?
  24. Which metals or rocks are seen as valuable?
  25. Assuming your world does not work on a system of barter – which metal, rock, plant, or animal products are used as currency in your world?

 

Culture, Society, And History

  1. How old do the peoples of your world think it is?
  2. Is history most often recorded in the written or oral tradition?
  3. What are five key events in your worlds history?
  4. Do all societies understand the history of your world the same way?
  5. How do they differ?
  6. How have the events of history changed the culture and society of your world/countries?
  7. Do the cultures of your world share any common  traditions or beliefs?
  8. Is education available to all?
  9. Is there an ‘elite’ form of education (e.g. further education abroad, as in Medieval Europe)?
  10. Are there any universal laws in your world?
  11. How are they enforced?
  12. Are any of your countries entirely (read 85 – 95%) illiterate or lawless?
  13. Who rules these countries?
  14. Do the rulers choose to maintain this state of being? If so why?
  15. To what extent do the cultures of your world value music, performance, and art?
  16. Are there any martial cultures in your world?
  17. Are there any nomadic societies in your world?
  18. How do the cultures at different extremes interact with one another?
  19. Is diplomacy common to all cultures?
  20. Is there an ‘Invisible’ culture (for example, a caste of nobles or travellers which span the world).
  21. Are there any cultures which exist in isolation?
  22. How important is the written word in your world?
  23. Are there accepted rules of engagement in war between your countries?
  24. How do the people of your world view beauty regimes and products? (Doe such things exist)?
  25. How do your cultures view sex work?

 

World-Building Resources

World Building 101

Welcome To World Building

 

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World-Building 101

World-building, in short, is the process of constructing and populating a world and/or universe as stage on which stories can play out.

It’s complex, it’s time consuming, but it is, in fact, a basic and essential skill for a writer and despite what you may have been told it is involved in every single novel or story produced. You see, even when you set a story in the real world you undertake a degree of world-building; you edit and polish the world in which you wish to set your story. You decide which sections of the real world you represent to the reader just as you do when using a world of your own invention.

This kind of world-building, however, is not the matter at hand; we’re all about creating a new universe today.

 

What Does A World Need?

A question half as silly and twice and important as it seems.

What would you say a world needs? Well, land, water, sky, plants, and animals, right? All the basic stuff of life. Correct, and yet at the same time so very wrong;

Yes, if you wish your world to sustain life plausibly it should definitely contain all of these things. However, your world also needs a huge amount of other, rather more man made, things to make it a worthy stage.

Here’s a list of things your world will need.

Your (Very) Basic World-Building Checklist:

  1. Geography
  2. History
  3. Languages
  4. Society
  5. Culture (they are different, trust me)
  6. Religions
  7. Creation myths
  8. Magic  (?)
  9. Technology
  10. Industry
  11. History
  12. Transportation
  13. Agriculture
  14. Cuisines
  15. Flora
  16. Fauna
  17. Art
  18. Music
  19. Literature
  20. Multiple countries

…. Phew, right? That’s a lot of work.

Thankfully it doesn’t need to take you 30 years and a degree in linguistics to get all of this done; most writers will never do a Tolkien style historiography and language building exercise. The truth is you don’t need to, either; as long as you present the world in a way that makes sense your readers will follow what you’re saying.

World-building is rather like the guiding pencil strokes and artist makes before applying paint to a canvas; it should be invisible in the finished product.

 

The Three Truths Of World-Building

  1. World-Building Is For The Author: the majority of the work you put into world-building will go unnoticed, and that is fine. In fact, that’s the way it should be. Picture your world as a swan; what the spectator sees should be effortless while the legs, so to speak, work overtime beyond their sight.
  2. World-Building Is A Precursor To Writing: if your world-building process goes on and on and on and on… well, it may be time to stop. Remember the above point; create your world with broad strokes and nail down the structural integrity before and then put it to the test by writing a story set within it.
  3. The World Supports The Story: this is self-explanatory, but the clarify – the world you build should service and support the stories you tell. Your story should never serve the purpose of describing or otherwise showcasing your world.

 

 

Getting Started: Inspiration And Diversion

Every fictional world will have one foot in reality and one in some form of fantasy. By this I mean that it will take inspiration from the real world and from fiction, day dreams, or other fabricated worlds (as opposed to the fantasy genre). For those who write fantasy, the genre, Tolkien, Gaiman, Hobb, and Le Guinn (amongst others) are likely to be of great inspiration, for example.

The real trick is twisting and developing your own world until it becomes something new and different enough to be unrecognisable in almost every way.

 

How can this be done? Well, in the same way that you discovered the seed of your new world; by asking questions of the world that already exists.

Ask yourself what drives your world, which countries are at war, which support each other, and which stay out of it. Ask yourself if there is a main religion, or hundreds of small ones, or if there is no religion at all.

Ask yourself what your world considers to be the single, universal crime – what is the one thing that all cultures agree is morally abhorrent?

And then ask yourself what colour the fire is, because, you know, there has to be a goofy twist somewhere.

 

 

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Creating Characters That Wow

You can find complementary character sheets to use  here (basic) and here (plot centric). You can also find a fillable plot and character development booklet (in proto-stages) here. These resources are free to use, but if you wish to enable me to make more you can buy me a Kofi.

 

Once you have found and developed an idea for your next best-seller it’s about time to think about your cast of characters. Anyone will tell you that characters must be “rounded”, “have personality”, and “seem to breathe”… but people don’t really tell you how to do that.

The character sheets linked above can help you to make a note of the most basic information about your characters; their name, age, role in the plot etc, and the development booklet can help you to get a grasp of what kind of person they are (would they give someone their last bit of chocolate, or not? You know, the big questions).

 

But how do you get to that stage if you have not first created a well-rounded character?

 

World-building

The process of creating your story world is long and very often tiresome; the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that go into this labour of love are very often staggering. So why should you put all of this work to wast by not allowing it to inform your character creation process?

For the record, I don’t mean that there are people out there who just make a fantasy world and then have their character grow up in Brooklyn.

 

I mean that if you create a horrible, dystopic world with twisted morals your character will have some horrible and twisted morals too. Their story, their journey, should be slowly coming to see what the reader knows already, or not depending upon what you have in mind for them.

Morals, politics, and personal character do not exist in a vacuum; parents, family, teachers, friends, and colleagues all have an effect on how we develop over time. So do the politics of our time, key events in the world, and our level of education.

 

In short, if your character was raised by very conservative, very religious, poorly educated people in a very poor, conservative, and poorly educated community it is unlikely that they will become very liberal, very rich, and very educated without undergoing a process of change. It is your job as a writer to explain how this happened.

 

Taking Stock of the Facts

Think of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird; she learns from her very educated, fairly liberal (for his day) father, but is still influenced by, and exerts influence on, her friends. For those who have read Go Set A Watchman, you will also remember that as an adult Scout realises that Atticus is not nearly as forward thinking as she had thought.

Scout was informed by her town, her school, and her father, but did have her own moral sensibilities. When she left her small town she changed yet again, and returned to a place that felt strange to her.

 

This is excellent character creation and development.

 

Harper Lee did this by ensuring that Scouts family and childhood created her, but the world, the events of her life, and of course Lee’s own feelings, shaped her into something more adult, more well-rounded, and more deserving of our understanding than she might have been had she never developed.

 

Flaws and Strengths

One trick to creating truly believable characters is not to give them a plethora of strengths and skills, only to sprinkle a bad temper a low mathematical ability onto it in the guise of “flaws”. The trick is to make their flaws a result of their strengths. For example, “loyalty” and “possessiveness” could be two sides of the same coin. As could “emotionally strong” and “callous”.

Think carefully about what the downsides of certain strengths are because everything has its downside.

 

A Distinct Tone of Voice

Especially important for protagonists is their voice; the way in which they narrate and speak should be recognisable almost instantly. There are those who say that the reader should be able to tell who is speaking before you name the character, but that truly is a feat of incredible skill. Not even the best can do this all the time.

The way the character speaks should be a reflection of everything that has gone into creating them. Consider;

  • Their sense of humour
  • Their level of education
  • If they are speaking their first language
  • Who they are speaking to
  • What their goal is

Characters, unlike real people, never speak without purpose. They don’t waffle, rabbit-on, or give pointless information unless they have a reason to do so. Those reasons could be;

  • Anxiety
  • A desire to distract
  • A need to mislead
  • An attempt to communicate something covertly

 

Don’t get too fancy when it comes to creating a speech pattern for your character; it should sound natural and be consistent throughout the narration. To that end it is often easiest to base the pattern of speech on someone, or on a dialect, that you know fairly well. You can make small tweaks to make it less obvious, but a forced or stilted voice is the surest way to put readers off of a character, especially when the story is narrated in first person.

 

Mistakes and Motives 

Whether your character is the hero or villain you need make sure that they intrigue and infuriate your readers in equal measures.

This is achieved by balancing their mistakes with their motives; make their reasoning for doing whatever they do understandable. Ensure that anyone could see themselves feeling the same way in that position so that, even if they disagree with your characters choices, they at least see where they are coming from. Then balance this empathy inducing method with mistakes and trip ups which are innately tied to their personal flaws.

 

 

 

 

 

Idea Development

If you don’t already have an idea, check out these 102 ways to formulate ideas. ; if you want a structured way to develop your characters and plot, please feel free to use this booklet (it’s still in development, so any feedback would be appreciated!)

If you already have an idea you’re hot on – welcome, welcome, to the idea development workshop! The biggest problem people have when it comes to successfully plotting and outlining really boils down to having an under-developed idea.

Not true – I hear you cry.

No doubt it feels more like one of these bad boys is the issue:

  • Writers block
  • Lack of research
  • “It’s just not good”
  • Unruly characters
  • Stagnation and ‘waffling’

Well, the truth is it could be that you haven’t researched quite enough… but unless you’re writing historic fiction there really is a limit to how much research is prudent. If you are writing historic fiction and you want tips on historical researching for authors click here. Likewise, if you feel your characters are causing the issue, you might need to develop them just a little more!

If, however, you feel that you’re blocked, that the idea is just bad, or that it’s losing drive and ‘waffling’ (meandering, losing focus, has no main point etc) then I can assure you it’s because you need to develop your idea.

 

Why, How, And, Then – The Four Questions of the Apocalypse

If you want to develop your idea and find a new angle to come from you need to ask questions of it. For example; ‘a man is getting ready to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, but a cop steps in and saves him’ is an idea.

It’s a decent idea with the potential to make a compelling story, but not as it is.

Now you could wrestle with that simple, clunky idea like a woman trying to French braid her own hair behind her head with no mirror… (no I am not salty that I can’t do this), or you could develop the idea into something that plots itself.

How?

I’m glad you asked that question, because you’re going to need it!

 

No-one Expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Except you should:

  • Readers
  • Editors
  • Agents
  • Publishers

These people will all ask many questions of your plot, and so to ensure that they are merely small ones, not huge, terrifying ones that expose plot-holes, you need to interrogate your idea long before you write.

 

Here’s how; we take our idea from earlier (handily lifted from one of my own short stories), and we question it like it’s a teenager just in after dark smelling of weed and covered in hickies…

A man is getting ready to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge –

Why?

He lost his job and his house because of his mental illness and feels he has nothing to live for.

 

Ok – that’s a more developed concept, but it’s a bit hackneyed. What about this instead;

 

He doesn’t actually want to jump – he’s late for a big, life changing meeting and his presentation script blew out of his hand. It’s on the very edge of the ledge, caught under his foot, but he’s too scared to move. 

 

That’s a bit more unique. What about the cop? Now we know the cop is out there because they think he’s a jumper, but what happens if they find out he’s not?

A cop goes out to talk him down, and finds out why he is actually out there.

And?

They lean down, pick up the paper, and he makes it to his presentation with hours to spare.

 

It works, but seriously? YAWN.

Ok, what about this;

 

A 24 year old entrepreneur is on their way to a lifechanging business meeting, hours early, reading their script, when a wind blows it away. 

And?

They chase it all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge where it gets caught on the ledge, by pure luck.

So?

They climb out to get it, trap it under their foot, and suffer sudden vertigo when they look down. They freeze and a passing police officer thinks they’re going to jump. 

Then?

The cop finds out they aren’t going to jump, but are simply stuck. They chat, and the cop tries to get the paper from under their foot. 

But –

A strong gust of wind throws it out over the river.

Then?

The cop suggests that they print another, but they can’t, it’s unique. And so the cop suggests they go looking for it as they saw it blow towards the nearest river bank.

Why?

The cop is new to the area and wants to make friends, and anyway it’s a slow day.

 

So?

They search for the script together, find it, and race across the city to the entrepreneurs meeting, making it just in time. 

 

So, as you can see – by taking that one concept and prodding it until it bled I took a hackneyed, cliched idea with potential, and made it into a short story outline (which I am now getting ready to send out – I’ll let you know how that goes).

 

Once you have your idea you can begin to flesh out your characters, and strengthen your plot.

 

 

 

 

Writing a Killer Synopsis

When it comes to querying literary agencies you will notice that most, if not all, request that a one page synopsis of your work be sent alongside your query. It is this,  believe it or not, that most authors struggle with, especially when it comes to their first query/novel.

What to include, what tone to write it in, and really what a synopsis is are common questions; you can find some answers here. But first, here’s the most common question;

Do I really need a synopsis?

In all honesty? Yes. There may be some agents that do not explicitly request a synopsis, though that is very rare, however even in these cases you will improve your chances greatly by including one.

 

What is a synopsis?

The synopsis is a one page sum up of your story and all the major plot points; it is your best, if not your only, tool for selling the story to an agent or publisher, and it could, in fact, be more important than your cover letter (though you will find advice on how to write one of those here, too).

What a synopsis is not is a jacket-blurb (you know, one of those high on drama, low on details, halfway breathless attention-getter statements designed to tell you next to nothing about the actual plot?), nor is it your thoughts on the symbolism, themes, and market for your novel.

A synopsis lets the agent know what they could have to work with; its the skeleton of your plot laid bare, so that the agent or publisher can decide if they want to see the full manuscript.

 

What should be in a synopsis?

A summary of the main plot points, main characters, and main character arcs that have a lasting effect on the direction and nature of the story. A simple synopsis will include the following;  the premise, inciting incident, rising action of conflict, climax, character growth, and the resolution.

Please do not leave out the ending or main plot points; this isn’t about keeping the reader in suspense, it’s a skilful way to inform the agent or publisher of what you have made. Think of it as a recipe; include everything that was vital to creating the finished product.

 

How to write a synopsis

Before you start to write your synopsis, you need to prepare your plot points; if you work from an outline this will be easier for you, but pantsers still have hope (in fact the process of writing your synopsis may help you to identify plot holes if you write this way).

If you don’t have an outline to work from you should read through your novel and make a note of all the main plot points. Try making a short summary of the key events in each chapter. Once you’ve done this you’ll probably have four or five pages of notes. Some agents want a long synopsis, three to five pages, others a very short one. I would suggest you make your notes into a four or five page synopsis and keep a version of this in case an agent wants this long version. For those looking to receive a concise synopsis you can cut it down a little.

Once you have a sum up of your key plot points you can begin the four stage process of writing the synopsis;

  1. String together your main plot point summaries to make a coherent narrative; cut anything that is non-necessary to understanding the progression of the plot and character arcs. If you find it easier to write the character arcs and main plot points individually, do so. At this stage you should be thinking about having a functional sum up of your novel; polishing and embellishing can come later.
  2. Consider the beginning; you don’t have space for a huge amount of context during your, but you should built a short foundation. Talk about who your main characters are (CAPITALISE their names), what position they start in, and most importantly what problems they face from the start. Pick up the thread of this conflict and weave it through the summary you have already created.
  3. Focus on the end; read through what you have with a particular eye for plot points, character arcs, and trends, and reinforce your ending in a way that emphasises how your ending ties up the loose ends, or if it’s a trilogy/series which loose ends are tied up.
  4. Read and refine; cut the fat, add any missing plot points or characters, and of course proofread for spelling, grammar, and consistency. At this point you should also make sure that your synopsis is formatted correctly.

 

How to format your synopsis

  • No matter how you write your story, e.g. in first person, third person, past or present tense, your synopsis should be written in third person, present tense.
  • Unless stated otherwise any synopsis of more than one page should be double-spaced. A one page synopsis may be single spaced, or have 1.5 spacing, but check your chosen agency or publishers website to see if they specify. If they do specify always comply with their specification.
  • Align left (do not justify text).
  • One inch margins on every side.
  • Indent first line of each paragraph by 1/2 inch.
  • In the header, include; author last name, title or key words from title, and the word Synopsis.
  • If you are sending this with a cover letter you may not need contact information in your synopsis, once again check for direction otherwise.
  • Page one should have: header information (slug), a title one or two lines below the header (centred), the word Synopsis one or two lines below the title, and then the main body of the synopsis.
  • If contact info is to be in the synopsis add it after the header information and the title.

 

Self-Editing For Success, Part Three

So, you made it to the hand editing stage.

Welcome to hell, children, I’ll be your guide!

 

Print off that pretty manuscript of yours and get ready for a trip into the depths of your own work that will leave you with nothing but weariness. You’re going to hate your story when you’re done, but that’s ok; other people will love it for you. Get your red editing pen out and get ready to dive in deep. This is the stage when you really start to polish the style of your story; when you weed out the micro imperfections that make your manuscript good rather than great. Once you’ve done this you move on to the oral edit which mainly helps with flow, dialogue, and style. Together these make the final editing stage.

The following checklist will help you to finalise your manuscript, but also get your document in the right shape to be seen by agents and publishers;

Final Edits Checklist;

  • Identify and cut your crutch words. Scrivener has a frequency function which can help you to do this.
  • Weed out excessive punctuation. As a wise man once said; “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
  •  Check for trouble words like: a lot/alot, affect/effect, can/may, further/farther, good/well, lay/lie, less/fewer, that/who, their/they’re/there, then/than, who/whom, your/you’re. Use the right word in the right context.
  • Omit needless words and sentences.
  • Check speech tags; said should be your main, though other forms, like adverbs, can be effective in small doses.
  • Correct any stilted dialogue.
  • Remove unnecessary dialogue and info dumps.
  • Ensure your document is typed in 12 point Times New Roman.
  • Remove double spaces after periods.
  • Use double spacing.
  • Make sure that your indenting is consistent.
  • Ensure that your numbers are consistent (both page numbers and in text. If you write numbers out keep doing so, if you use numbers keep doing so. Its generally better to write figures than use numbers in fiction).
  • Use page breaks between chapters
  • Once more check for consistency in style, tense, and POV.

 

Once you’ve done this and made the appropriate changes to your word document, you’re ready to begin querying! Congratulations; you’re officially the proud author of a finished book!

 

Part one, Part Two