Build a Story World

You can find ideas for building Story Worlds in different places on the internet.

I cobbled this list together over a year or so and find it quite helpful. I hope you do too.

I have it loaded in my template (see Tips & Tricks) where I can just run my eyes down it and let the various ideas light up both my brain cells. For example, the hero, comes to the threshold of the villain’s world and has to contend with a river full of crocodiles and strange, grasping vines. A wandjina spirit emerges from the water and asks the hero a riddle … (and so on it goes).

These are just imagination triggers and ideas to help build an imaginary world. But ‘story detail’ is an art. If it is just laid in as a list it can kill your story then and there. Detail needs to be part of the living, moving, sensible, emotional world of the story. Detail should be used as a device to reveal plot and character. A leader who dresses the same as others but also wears less of the ‘things and baubles’ of office is a ‘story light switch’ that illuminates and says something about that person’s character. A brief description of his clothing also provides inferential detail about his character and role as a leader.

That’s how I use this list - as a bunch of light switches to illuminate my ‘story world’.

geography (terrain, mountains, rivers)
atmosphere (density, colour)
weather systems
other world physics (living in fluid flows, volcanic ash)
occupied or abandoned planet
magnetic field effects
outerspace hazards (asteroids)
inner world hazards (earthquakes, tides)
centrifugal and centripital forces
gravity effects
vegetation (wierd vines and strange fruits)
animal evolution and types

sense capabilities (see hear and smell different things)
beings of different sizes and adapted shapes and colours
nurturing habits and instincts
mobility (legs, flight, swim)
racial intermixing
rest and recovery from exertion
intelligent oddities (dragons, whales, dolphins)

History, relevant backstory,
Cultural taboos, ways of doing things

family tribal and societal taboos
tribal identity
kinship marital systems (monogamy, polygamy,
inter-tribal and inter-racial marriage codes
rituals (births, weddings, deaths, coming of age)
fueds (vendettas)
religious tolerance
symbol system

Sociological and Governance (maybe these could be seperate items)
Infrastructure interdependence of social and economic
Social organisation,
Main cultural forces (commercial, political, religious, media made)
Social roles/ gender
Citizenship (rights, denial of rights, rights of refugees, non-citizen aliens)
Institutions (libraries, courts, schools, hospitals, churches)
Utilities (dams, power, transport, water, defenses)
Government (how derived?)
population density
habitable space
State of Civilization (stone aged, advanced technology)
National self image
Social trends (aging, culling, war, peace)
Racial mix (migratory patterns)
waste disposal
policing and law enforcment
legal systems (presumed innocent or guilty)

energy reserves
technologies (advanced, primitive)
food sources and types (crops, fruits)
scarcity (food, water, salt)
precious gems
building materials
forest woods
management of resources

Economic, Trade, Industry
organisations (banking, stock exchange)
tribal trading
demand and supply
primary and secondary industries
interdependence of systems (national, global)

enemy (type, how many?)
defence devices (tanks, ships, sand galleons)
military types and numbers
intelligence gathering

Science, Technology
binding physical laws
time binding (time travel)
power sources (magic, electricity, magnetism)
communication devices (digital, semaphore, courier)
key inventions
scope and scale (nanothech, cloning, singularity, gaia)

Philosophical, Ideological
clash of ideologies
prevailing philosophies
determination of ideas (loners, religions, power elites)
freedom of expression

Training, Education
exchange of ideas
purpose (education for individual knowledge or industry)
hunting, survival, social roles, ettiquette
serving others

Arts, Crafts
useage (utilitarian to decorative to aesthetic)

Sport & Entertainment
value of sportspeople
origins (olympics)

myths, heroes and hero tales
influences (as in the Greeks and Shakespeare on English)
story traditions (oral, written, recorded)
reflections of cultural values

Psychological & Behavioral
character’s psychological backstory
abnormal (DSM IV)
growth dynamics (Spiral Dynamics)
individual and group safety valves
brain function and malfunction

Prevailing Dynamics
adaptive and historical forces
variables, chance, accident, circumstances

Relevant world building resources
library resources

It would be great if others could add to this list. I suspect different genres would evoke different topics.

I take it you are writing a giant Dune-esque SF/fantasy tome, then? :slight_smile: Good list. There’s loads of good stuff about this over at, too.

I hope you keep most of this stuff in your Research folder and out of your Draft folder. :slight_smile: I tried starting Dan Simmons’ Hyperion last night, but the first page was so chock-full of invented creatures, made-up words and alien scenery that I just couldn’t do it. I like the idea of everything I’ve read about it (based on Chaucer, if I remember correctly, or is that one of his others?), but some writers get so involved in all of the world building that they feel they have to push it in the reader’s face. I think a lot of this is stuff that only the writer needs to know, so that the reader only ever gets the tip of the iceberg. I think Tolkien did the right thing by publishing all of his world-building stuff (the Sim-i-whatsit) separately, when there was demand for it.

On the other hand, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris waffled on about Solaris for ages, but it worked.

Er… Anyway, that’s off-topic. Definitely a good list. Thanks for posting!

Silmarillion :slight_smile:

I’ve found that the best worlds are the ones where the author has worked everything out in detail - then only shows you the parts that are relevant to the story. That way it all hangs together and you get a sense of a coherent whole, without having to learn all the details…

Right now I’m actually in the process of developing the milieu (in this case ‘world’ has turned out to be too limiting a word…) for a large novel/trilogy I’ve been working on for some time.

That may sound a little nuts. The approach I’ve chosen to take isn’t exactly an efficient one. But I think a lot of the time pre-designing a world/cosmos/whatever can take a lot of the life out of the story. Most of my favorite fantasy writing (and to state my prejudices up-front, I’m not fond of the Inklings and Tolkien-influenced post-D & D fantasy – I’m more a Lovecraft circle/Dunsany/Vance/Wolfe/VanDermeer/etc. kinda guy) uses worlds that are created in response to narrative demands in an organic fashion.

So I did an extensive amount of exploratory writing until I had a feel for the characters and a solid shape for the storyline. Now I’m in the process of assembling all the visual and narrative elements and figuring out a setting in which they all tie together and make sense. And the end result is much richer and stranger than I would have come up with had I designed it from the top down in addition to the benefits gained by fitting the setting to the story.

This probably isn’t something that would work for everyone. And I’ll confess that the amount of time and labor it’s taking is an issue. But I’m really pleased by the results.

Interesting …

I am a Tolkien fan – my friends wonder why I have never joined the Tolkien Society, taught myself to speak and write Sindarin and go on the annual pilgrimage to his grave … but I’m not that kind of chap – and the two things that captivated me from the beginning of reading LoTR was the fact that it did all hang together.

Firstly, the languages immediately rang true … even though there were only fragments, and knowing nothing of Tolkien and his “day job” at the time, I sensed that those fragments were not simply made up strings but conformed to natural language syntactic, morphological and syntactic patterns. The one or two fragments of black speech were the least good from this point of view.

Secondly the world simply ‘worked’, geographically, physically … put simply, even though he only gives you descriptions of the features as and when they are needed I felt that it was coherent. The singing of the elves seemed a perfectly natural force in that world, even though why that should be so was not overtly stated; the only thing that did raise an eyebrow was the return of Gandalf, but even there I felt there must be a rationale for that within that world which I had failed to grasp.

Actually, while I love LoTR as a story, I much prefer The Silmarillion as a book, and it is there that the explanations for those aspects of his universe are given … the singing of the elves, Gandalf’s real nature and how and why he was returned, who Elrond and Galadriel are and why they are so powerful, and so on.

I also own and have read all the other volumes on the history and development of Middle Earth and the genesis of the tales published by Christopher Tolkien, and some others … and what is clear is that Tolkien not only didn’t invent a fully fledged world and its beings and creatures and then write stories about them, rather the beings, creatures and artefacts came to him – see for instance his famous comment about the origins of The Hobbit – forcing him to explore them and their role and impact on his world, which continued to develop over his whole lifetime.

Of such fantasy fiction as I have read or tried to read, I suspect that those that I didn’t get on with – I tried very hard with Stephen Donaldson and Julian May, for instance – it was because the worlds and the stories didn’t read to me as an organic whole, and also, more particularly, the writers had come to the point where they needed something said in an alien language, so they just invented a string on the spot.

An interesting – to me – aside on this is that for the last month or so I have been reading, re-reading and studying closely Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought – out of interest as well as being work-related – and all of this rings bells with what he has to say about (Neo-)Whorfianism and the Cognitive Linguistics of Lakoff and Johnson and why they break down as theories.