Backwards World-Building

In case you haven’t heard, I’m giving away an ARC of What’s Left of Me on my blog! Contest ends April 30th, 2012.

I’m still making the slow and sometimes rather painful transition from a full-on pantser to an outliner. At heart, I  like to let stories come together on their own over time, unfolding as they will, but now that I have deadlines to meet, having an outline—even one I know I might deviate from—saves me a lot of stress.

The changes aren’t just about the outline, though. I used to be on a very need-to-know basis not only with what was going to happen in the book, but with the back stories of my characters and my worlds. This, too, has changed. I still discover little (and not-so-little!) things about my characters and worlds as I write my drafts, but knowing these sort of things up front, like having an outline, saves me pain in revisions when background information doesn’t match up.

However, the panster inside me refuses to give up, so I’ve adopted a sort of half-and-half technique, especially for completely new stories.

Much of the time, I 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 characters’ names or why they’re in the woods or what the heck is happening with the girl or the white-hooded people.

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

I still write that way a lot, though, because I enjoy it so much. The difference is, once I’ve run off that initial OMG-new-story! high, I take a look at what I’ve written (which is usually not more than 10k words or so) and then start a new document. This is the world-building doc. There, I write all the “causes” to my “effects.”

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 the important history of this world. Basically, what has happened in the past lead up to events in your books? Then I write about the current world (what laws does it abide by? what is the social structure? where do the resources come from?). This doc also involves my characters (who are they? how old? what do they look like? who is their family? what are their motivations?).

I don’t know about you, but I actually adore this kind of stuff, so I can go on for 10k or more just in the world-building doc alone. It’s very  useful–not only for checking up facts to make sure they stay straight in the book (what color eyes did that minor character have again?), but also to make things more concrete.

Also, typing out all the world-building and character information helps me see where potential plot holes lie and where I needed to strengthen motivation or some such.

In this way, I get to satisfy my panster-heart (my laptop autocorrect keeps wanting to turn “panster” to “punster.” What on earth is a “punster”? one who tells puns?…that’s exactly what it is, isn’t it?) AND keep my facts straight enough to meet my deadlines 🙂

Do you keep world-building docs?

19 Responses to Backwards World-Building

  1. Julie
    Julie Apr 23 2012 at 7:11 am #

    “There, I write all the “causes” to my “effects.” This is such a great method! Thanks for this fabulous post, Kat! 🙂

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 24 2012 at 1:03 am #

      I’m glad you liked it, Julie! 😀

  2. Dede Perkins Apr 23 2012 at 7:32 am #

    Thanks for the post, Kat. Yes, like you, I keep world-building docs, and I’m 50% “panster” and 50% outliner. When I’m tapped out free writing, my logical mind steps up and demands to make sense of what I’ve written. I’ve learned to trust both parts of my brain…and the writing process.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 24 2012 at 1:03 am #

      That’s just how it is for me 🙂 The free-writing part of my brain and the Must Have Order part of my brain take turns 😉

  3. Laura E. Wardle Apr 23 2012 at 7:56 am #

    This is a brilliant method for those people who are halfway in between “pantser” and “outliner”. It still gives you the freedom to figure out your story as you go, but not quite as tangled.

    Love this post, Kat! 🙂

  4. Claire Caterer Apr 23 2012 at 8:00 am #

    Kat, thanks for posting. What a great technique to honor your pantser brain! My world-building docs start out as handwritten notes in a big spiral notebook. Then, as they start to make sense, or I make firm choices, I start pouring them into a Word doc. The “Bible” ( as I call it) for my current series is around 20,000 words and growing! It’s enormously helpful to have now that I’m working on Book 2.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 24 2012 at 1:05 am #

      Many of my writer friends call their world-building docs their “Book Bibles” as well 🙂 And wow, that’s a detailed doc! They are SO helpful, though.

  5. Leigh Smith Apr 23 2012 at 9:07 am #

    Wow. Great post at a great time. I am very much a panster and, like you, I really enjoy writing that way. I wrote my first one and a half attempts at books that way and it was great fun but when it came time to revise, it was insane. It became obvious that I needed to some sort of outlining before hand.But I do learn about the characters as the story goes on so there will always be things that will need major to change after the first draft.
    However, I am now at around 10k on my current project and, because I have been sitting on this story for a few months, I already know a lot about the characters and what’s going to happen. I have a brainstorming doc where I spew information when it comes to my head but I am actually at that point in the draft where I need to have more concrete information about the world and the rules of the world.
    Thanks for this post! I can’t wait to go create my world-building doc and make some rules that I can stick to.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 24 2012 at 1:06 am #

      I’m glad this post caught you at a good time! Pansting can be so much fun, but it can make revision quite hellish, lol. Have fun with your world-building doc!!

  6. Taryn Apr 23 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Since I write mostly contemporary, my world-building is usually a smaller part of plotting. In fact, the only two non-contemp projects I have have been with me for at least four years, and I don’t even remember how I began to build those worlds. I looove this post, though, and if I do end up with one of those “effects,” I’ll skip back over here 🙂

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 24 2012 at 1:07 am #

      Yes, I was going to include a note about how contemporary stories don’t usually require as much of a world-building doc as say fantasy or dystopia 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the post anyhow!

  7. Ellen Apr 23 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    I don’t exactly keep world building docs, but when both of my betas told me I needed to world build one of my current WIPs a little more, I started a brainstorming document. That document contains all the questions and facts I could think of about my world, which reminds me to work them into my universe whenever possible. I’ve found it to be incredibly useful, though I could probably still do more to plan everything out ahead of time. 🙂

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 24 2012 at 1:08 am #

      I tend to start out a little thin on world-building, too. It’s simply something I layer in during later drafts (or simply spread out a little more). 🙂

  8. Sarah Brand Apr 23 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    I’m in sort of a similar situation now… for my last couple of major projects, I did a lot of the first-draft worldbuilding on the fly, but with the fantasy I’m writing now, that’s just not possible. So now I’m doing this weird amalgamation of worldbuilding and plotting, bouncing back and forth every time one raises questions about the other.

    I usually just dump all my notes–worldbuilding, plot, character, everything–into a single planning document. I’ve tried to be more organized and put all the worldbuilding into a separate file, but I can never remember to keep it updated. (I also tried using WikidPad to organize my notes by topic, since one of my friends keeps a wiki for the world he’s building, but that didn’t really work for me either.) I do have a separate document for notes I take while researching, but that’s not quite the same thing.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 24 2012 at 1:09 am #

      I’ve never used WikidPad! I have friends who use Scrivener for everything, and I probably should try that just to keep everything in one place, but I’m notoriously stuck in my writing ways 😉

  9. Amie
    Amie Apr 24 2012 at 3:14 am #

    This is such a great method! A lot of the worldbuilding we did for These Broken Stars came after the first draft, and once we had it, we were able to lay out a lot of vital information so much more clearly. My writing partnership is definitely a case of outliner meets pantser — Meg and I are both learning to edge towards the middle! (I’d love to have a godawful joke for you here so I could call myself a punster, but I’m just not able to brain at that level today…)

  10. Li'az Apr 25 2012 at 3:40 am #

    Hi! I’m commenting this all the way from Singapore since I read the post and enjoyed it! 🙂 I’m not a professional writer, but I’m working on a novel now even though the prospects of getting published in my country is more than just bleak. I keep world building docs too! But they get kind of messy – and I agree world building is very satisfying, love the part “what color eyes did that minor character have again?” because I tend to forget these and end up rereading what I wrote to get the facts right! So thanks for the tips! OH – if you always write on the go, Evernote and Kingsoft office are really great document editors for smart phones (besides pen and paper, though I love pen and paper more)

  11. John Cliff Alvarez Mar 28 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    Dear Miss Zhang,

    I find it quite funny that I came across your post while googling, “World Building” when researching on ways of structuring a good outline for the world I’m trying to develop for a graphic novel I’m working on. The funny part is that one of the regions in my fantasy world is actually called Zhang, so it’s a nice coincidence. With that said, is there any chance that you may have any examples you could share of how you structure your outlines? I’m primarily a visual person, so being able to “see” really helps me understand way better than instructions. By the way, you are quite gorgeous! Lol.

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