On Writing and Creativity: Worldbuilding Revisited, part III — Writing Worldbuilding Into Our Books


Three weeks ago, when I began this series of posts on Worldbuilding (first installment here, second installment here) one of our regular readers — Razziecat — offered (as usual) a terrific comment (thanks, Razz!). In it, she quoted the wonderful Lois McMaster Bujold, who once said, “The world comes into being as the story passes through it.”  This is one of those things I wish I had said first, because it is so simply and elegantly stated, and because it is so very true.  And so in today’s continuation of the Worldbuilding series, I am going to focus on the ways in which I incorporate my worldbuilding into the actual writing of my books and stories.

Bujold’s statement about worldbuilding actually works on several levels.  It is true (at least for me) that for all the work I do ahead of time developing maps, writing up histories, creating religions and customs and mythologies, etc., my worlds don’t start to feel real to me until I sit down and begin to write.  At that point, as my characters begin to interact and my narrative starts to unfold, the world is transformed from a bunch of features on a chart and a few bullet points in a notebook, to something with depth and soul, something that stimulates the senses.  In other words, it becomes a living, breathing place.  In both of my previous posts in this series, I emphasized the fact that worldbuilding is an organic process, one in which one aspect of the worldbuilding sparks ideas in another — naming features on a map, for instance, can prompt ideas for the land’s history or about the religion and legends that inform the culture.  Well, that synergy extends to the writing of the book.  As I place my characters in the world and allow them to come to life, their relationship with the landscape, with the history, with the magic, with the gods, with the economy, etc. deepens the worldbuilding I’ve already done, and sometimes prompts new ideas.

But at a more fundamental level, I find that when I’ve done my worldbuilding well, the actual writing — the prose itself — reflects elements of the setting.  A few years ago I posted about curses, pointing out that just as so many of the curses in our own society are tied to religion or other aspects of our culture, so fantasy-world curses should reflect the mythologies and beliefs of the worlds we create.  So should the adages characters use.  For example, there is a saying in the Southlands, where for centuries the yellow-eyed Qirsi and dark-eyed Eandi have been at war, and merchants of both races trade with everyone: “Commerce cares nothing for the color of a man’s eyes.”  Even more than that, the imagery and metaphors we use in our descriptive passages should also be rooted in our settings.  Remember that all the writing we do ought to be anchored in point of view, and since our characters are citizens of our worlds, their thoughts should be born of that world.  Here is a passage from The Horsemen’s Gambit that illustrates the point.

    There were bodies. Hundreds of bodies. They lined the street, arrayed neatly in rows, as if they had gathered to watch a parade. Every corpse was Qirsi, every one of them dressed in a white robe, so that they looked like sleeping wraiths. Tirnya felt that she should have been terrified, but there was nothing gruesome about the dead, nothing to give any indication of what had killed them. Yes, sleeping wraiths. That’s what they were.
    And the city! Looking away from the bodies, Tirnya lost herself in reverie at the beauty of that city. Buildings constructed of red and pink stone — river stone, they called it; her father had told her that much. Lofty spires from the sanctuary soared upwards, seeming to pierce that blue like blades; the low jumble of houses, some stone, some wood, sprawled at the feet of the God’s shrine, like supplicants bowing before a prelate; the gentle curve of the city walls, punctuated at regular intervals by arched gates. She had never seen a city so lovely.
    “It is yours,” the falcon said. “If you want it.” The bird wheeled above her, angling its wings, twisting its tail slightly, its flight as effortless as thought. “But there is a cost.”
    She didn’t care. This was Deraqor! Her city! Her family’s ancestral home! The Onjaefs belonged here. How pleased her father would be when he learned that she had taken it back. But she knew she had to ask, that the falcon expected it of her. And this was a dream, with a logic of its own.
    “What cost? Tell me, and I’ll pay it.”
    The bird wheeled a second time, tucked in its wings to dive, pulling up just above her and hovering there. “Look!” it said, the cry both sharp and mournful.
    Tirnya lowered her gaze once more.
    Bodies; even more than there had been. But not dressed in white anymore, not neatly arrayed, not only Qirsi. Bodies everywhere. Hacked, broken, brutalized. Severed limbs, spilled innards, and so much blood. More blood than Tirnya had known existed, coursing through the streets like the Silverwater in flood, running over her feet, soaking through the leather of her boots. She took a great breath, opened her mouth to scream.
    And woke, her eyes fluttering open.

Sleeping wraiths, blades piercing the sky, supplicants bowing before a prelate, the Silverwater in flood.  These are not images from our world, nor should they be.  We are not in our world; we’re in Tirnya’s world, just as we’re in her mind.  The imagery has to be hers.

My point is this:  Worldbuilding is an ongoing process, one that is interwoven with the creation of narrative and character.  It doesn’t stop when we begin to write our books; and it’s not something we do merely to fill in gaps as we write.  Rather, it shapes our descriptions, our action, our character development, our plotting, our dialog, our prose.  At its best, fantasy transports us to new, magical places.  Creating a foundation for our world with all that prep work I talked about in the previous posts makes possible that act of creative transportation.  But it only happens when our readers are completely immersed in the worlds we’ve constructed, and that demands constant reinforcement in our writing.

Of course, the tricky part in all of this is finding a way to convey worldbuidling information and imagery without overwhelming our readers or resorting to the dreaded data dump.  Faith’s recent posts on data dumps have been terrific, and I have no desire to step on her toes.  But I will briefly describe the steps I take to avoid data dumps in my own work.  First, give only as much information as the reader needs at any given moment.  Our impulse is to explain everything up front, to make certain that the reader understands all that they will need to know as the narrative unfolds.  There are several problems with this approach: 1) it stalls a story’s momentum; 2) it overwhelms the reader with too much information; 3) it almost always feels forced and unnatural.  Instead, I try to give out the needed information in small doses — the legendary info-drips, as opposed to info-dumps.

Second, present the information unobtrusively.  Weave it into dialog and descriptions. In the passage I used above, you actually learn a lot about Deraqor, though it doesn’t read like a data dump.  It’s the ancestral home of the Onjaef family (Tirnya’s family).  It was taken from the Onjaefs,, probably by the Qirsi, probably in a war.  We even know what it looks like.  Do we know everything about it?  Not at all.  But we know enough for this scene to make sense, and really that’s all that matters.  We’ll get more information as it becomes necessary.  In fact, from a narrative perspective, that’s a better way to handle it, because some of that crucial, as-yet-undisclosed information will have more impact later in the series.

Finally, stay true to voice and point of view.  Present the necessary data as the character would, and only tell your readers what your point of view characters can and should know.  Yes, this might make the reader work a little harder for the information.  It might even mean that your readers have to play catch-up for a few pages.  That’s all right, as long as you don’t frustrate them, or hammer them with major plot points that are not explained satisfactorily.  Better to remain in your character’s voice and give the information slowly, than to step out of it and drop all the data at once. 

All right, I’ll stop there, because this is pretty long already.  Let’s talk about putting our worldbuilding into prose.  Do you have a VERY short passage (50-100 words; no more) you’d like to share, one in which you do a good job of weaving your setting into your writing?

David B. Coe

33 comments to On Writing and Creativity: Worldbuilding Revisited, part III — Writing Worldbuilding Into Our Books

  • sagablessed

    I think this is more than 50 words, and I am sorry about that. I suck at math.

    Even without a real floor, the writhing colors underneath his feet provided firm support. The whirling hues reminded him of dreams when he had been on pain-killers. With a single finger he reached out to touch a thread of color as it whipped by. Concentric rings rippled across, clearing away the rest of the polychromasia.
    As the string moved through his finger, his brain exploded in knowledge. From faint to bright, to faint again, the life-possibilities of an unborn child crashed against his mind. The strongest left a taste of violet on his tongue. It left him shaking so badly he felt dinner rise in his throat.
    Epiphany struck. Here was the purest place. No matter how else he saw it, in symbols or feelings, this was the place.
    ‘This is where I come to see things. The future, the present, the past; all my guesses that came true, came from here. It has always been here.’

  • […] Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, A.J. Hartley, and Kalayna Price, among others.  The post is called “On Writing and Creativity: Worldbuilding Revisited, part III — Writing Worldbuilding Into Our B… and it offers a discussion of how I blend the details of my worldbuilding into my prose, character […]

  • […] Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, A.J. Hartley, and Kalayna Price, among others.  The post is called “On Writing and Creativity: Worldbuilding Revisited, part III — Writing Worldbuilding Into Our B… and it offers a discussion of how I blend the details of my worldbuilding into my prose, character […]

  • Okay, mine is from the new #WIP’s first chapter. It’s about 100 words:

    By now Procne must be past the fallen breezeway, which the Greenbellies had swarmed for the past quarter moon with paranoid vigilance, making sure no commoners slipped up into Altaevia. It was very rare for breezeways to collapse–iron braces held them above the filth of common life, allowing the nobility to live without ever touching the ground. Those bridges were the arteries of that world, pumping the riches to the organs of tower, temple, and university, and underwent constant maintenance. It had to have been an engineered collapse. Procne smothered a smirk–the nobility must be properly fish-skinned with terror.

  • Julia

    David, loved the post! This helps me articulate to myself why I’m not good at doing a ton of worldbuilding *before* I start writing. It seems I need to get some words and characters on the page and then go back and flesh out the world more fully, once it’s started to come to life.

    Here’s a snippet from the new WIP:

    Daro threaded her way through the crowd, hoping to cross the south bridge before the parade got underway. Most days, the Strand was a serene jewel at the heart of the city, set apart from the bustle of Estarria’s streets by three rivers that ringed the small span of sacred land. Today, every pinch of earth was occupied. Enterprising vendors and bakers had parked their handcarts along the banks of the isle, while children and elders alike pressed up against the edge of the promanade, craning their heads for a glimpse.

  • Great post, David! I think that worldbuilding is most successful when it completely permeates a work, when it becomes the lens through which we see the action. Which is an awkward way of saying what Lois said ::wry grin::. Here are my couple of bits, from DARKBEAST REBELLION:

    “I would have given the Moons different names. I would have tied them to darkbeasts I had known. Caw could take the place of the Frost Moon, standing in for unpredictable weather, for unexpected change. Wart could be the Egg Moon, heavy and waiting in the middle of spring. Flick could stand in for the Flower Moon, for the busy industry of midsummer.”

  • Donald, the writing is lovely and the power of the moment shines through in the prose. Well done, indeed, Seer and Poet!

    Scribe, I love the “arteries” metaphor and think it works beautifully. In fact, I think you go away from it too quickly, and should continue it into the next clause about upkeep. Instead of “underwent constant maintenance,” you should find a way (even if it means starting a new sentence there) to make some analogy between the maintenance of the bridges and the care given the [insert title of lead noble here] by his/her team of surgeons. Or something of the sort. Take the metaphor a bit further to make your key point that much more apparent. Just a suggestion.

    Julia, thank you. Glad you liked it. Very nice work on your snippet; I like the jewel analogy and the use of “ringed” just after to reinforce it. As with Lauren’s example above, I wonder if you can’t take the imagery a bit further in the next sentence or two. Not in a heavy handed way; perhaps just something about sunlight glittering on the water’s surface. Tiny details like that can take the reader deeper into the world and the imagery.

    Mindy, thank you. Agreed. I love the naming of the moons and the way you use it to reinforce not only worldbuilding but also your character work. I really need to read these books . . .

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yay for immersive world-building! There are a couple bits from a short-story I’m working on that seem nice, but only the first is (just) under 100 words. So, here is the opening to a WIP short-story:

    Mira watched as the yellow snake coiled slowly, twisting and arching and unfolding, in and around the marigolds filling up the big, brass bowl set in the center of the room. She kept her hands clasped tightly in her lap and her eyes fixed on the snake while Gari Nuula cut the oracle line into her cheeks and across the bridge of her nose. The blade was very small and sharp, with a long handle, and the Gari held it as though she were writing the line in blood across the girl’s face.

  • I revised it, and I agree, David. I love the extension of the metaphor, so I took it even one step further:

    By now, Procne must be past the fallen breezeway, which the Greenbellies had swarmed for the past quarter moon, making sure no commoners slipped up into Altaevia with paranoid vigilance. It was very rare for breezeways to collapse–iron braces held them above the filth of common life, allowing the nobility to live without ever touching the ground. Those bridges were the arteries of that world, pumping the riches to the organs of tower, temple, and university, with teams that kept them clean and sutured as a cadre of Healers. It had to have been an engineered collapse–an attempted assassination of that world above the streets.

    MUCH better. 🙂

  • Here’s my go at it. 🙂 It’s very early on (the first page) in a YA I’m writing. Cassie (the MC) is heading to deal with a bad man she made an even worse bargain with.

    The streets were already starting to fill up with carriages. The big kinds with teams of multiple horses carrying tons of supplies Pol’s coming out party. I darted into the alley in between some guy carrying a huge side of beef and some tiny girl carrying an epic bouquet of flowers. Ermine’s place was a few blocks off the ritzy area where the werecreatures lived. Dressed down in linen pants and a light jacket, I dodged as the help wove around me, assuming I was one of them. Good. No one would remember.

  • Hep, I like it — the snake coiling, and the lines being etched into her face. Very cool. Watch the POV, though. Mira probably wouldn’t think of herself as “the girl,” and this seems to be in her point of view.

    Scribe, yes, I like that better, too. Cool!

    Emily, nice, evocative passage. Definitely brings the city to life. But the word “ritzy” brought me up short. It is a 1920s term that came from the name of the famous upscale hotel. Not knowing enough about your world, I’m just wondering if that is appropriate in terms of both timing and origin. Otherwise, very good.

  • sagablessed

    Mindy, in the sequel one could always find a way to incorporate those things, if one had mod skills like you. Just sayin. *waits for sequel patien……oh horsepuckey. Waiting is right. The other half…..not so much* 🙂

  • David, step on my toes anytime. This is wonderful! I may build on it Wednesday. 🙂

  • Later, as she padded toward her cell, chewing a last piece of sausage pie, Eresh passed the smaller chapel, the one dedicated to the Mother in Darkness. A single candle burned in a red glass lantern. By it’s light, the Abbess lay prostrate and barefoot before the altar. Her braided hair was unbound, her arms stretched out above her head, her face pressed against the flagstones. Eresh tiptoed away, shivering.

  • Okay, here’s from the first chapter of my new WIP, near the start:

    The cab from the airport let me out on the sidewalk in front of a boxy concrete building that could have been the height of architecture when it was built—oh, six decades ago. Despite that, the property mirrored the style I’d seen in the rest of Boca Raton on my way here: open space, manicured lawns, and palm trees. So many palm trees. Staggered rows of them secluded the block from the rest of the city on all sides, rippling in the salty Atlantic breeze.

    Damn. I frowned. Contrary to the skeezy rag it published, the Comet’s offices were practically majestic.

  • Nathan Elberg

    From the first chapter of Quantum Cannibals:
    They traveled northeast, perpendicular to the Edge of the World, past which there was no existence. Falun had once dared his sister to stick her arm through the green mist of the Edge. When she pulled it back with a scream, the skin had been burned right off, as if she had held it over a fire pit. Within a day her flesh had rotted and fallen off, and by the following day she was dead. Falun had a good laugh at her foolishness.

  • Love this post, David! Here’s an early draft from my WIP–this is from the first chapter.

    Keely slowed her pace to take a careful look. The Dasuto neighborhood resembled zones on every planet with too many people and not enough resources. Businesses with barred windows and signs advertising cheap food and drink lined the main street. Narrow alleys cut between ramshackle houses thrown together for the first wave of refugees, and Keely smelled the sickly sour odor of rotting food in the night air. No wonder the Peterrans, proud of the natural beauty of their earth-like planet, resented what was happening to their home.

  • This is the very first paragraph of a WIP, introducing the main character and the setting:

    Bo-Lee sat on the project building roof’s cornerstone, swinging his mismatched legs over three stories of empty space. Below him, the grey streets were bathed in dirty shadow as the sun, dimmed by brown banks of smog, dropped behind the tall ‘scrapers of downtown. Soon, the grey twilight would fade to darkness and the last of the Day People would lock themselves behind doors of blindness and walls of fear, and the Night People would prowl the streets to the thump of rap and the purr of soul and the growl of lowered Cadillacs. And Bo-Lee would sit, alone and above them all, and watch.

  • Razziecat

    Hi, David! I love this post. I’m guilty of sometimes writing more from my own POV than my MC’s, and I’m working on correcting that. Here’s a bit from some backstory I wrote about the main bad guy in my WIP. The story tells of what he found when he escaped enslavement and returned to his family’s home seven years after it was destroyed by raiders:

    The ancestor chapel was a hollow shell, its oak walls cracked and brittle, its roof pierced by a ragged hole. Crows took wing, berating Valerian in their rusty voices as he explored the small round chamber. Weak winter sunlight pooled on the floor, casting shadows of blue and green where a few bits of colored glass still hugged the charred casements.

  • Wow, lots of comments. I’ve been alternating between not being able to get online because of weather, and getting distracted by other stuff. Sorry!

    Donald, you’re right. I mean, my books take a long time to come out because of production issues. But Mindy should just get her books out there!! 😉

    Faith, thanks. Looking forward to Wednesday’s post.

    Sarah, very evocative. Nicely done. (But can unbound hair be braided?) Hope you are feeling better and recovering quickly!

    Laura, lovely descriptions of the palms. I can hear them rustling in the wind. I like it.

    Nathan, wow. Not liking Falun very much; but that’s your intention, right? Chilling, intriguing descriptions of the Edge.

    Sisi, thank you. Nice passage. The one suggestion I would make is to cut the phrase “proud of the natural beauty of their earth-like planet.” It seems out of place in Keely’s thoughts, and it is information that can be hinted at elsewhere without this mention. It’s the one ever-so-slightly-info-dumpy moment in an otherwise effective passage. But of course, that is just my opinion.

    Lyn, that’s really, really good. Seriously, I’m totally intrigued. Watch the repetition of “grey”. I might actually get rid of both of them. Not sure either occurrence adds much. I would also remove the ands in the penultimate sentence so that it reads “. . . to the thump of rap, the purr of soul, the growl of lowered Cadillacs.” That makes the “ands” in the last sentence more effective. Again though, just my opinion.

    Razz, thanks for the kind words, and also the original inspiration! Beautiful prose — visual, sensual (in the truest sense). I love the “rusty voices” of the crows. Great description.

  • quillet

    Such a great post, David. I especially love the idea of info-drips! Anyway, here’s a drip or two from the first chapter of my WiP:

    …then he carried her to her grave.

    When he stepped outside, Khamn caught the scent of incense, a familiar dark musk that Maela had always favoured over sweeter smells. The scent stopped him short for a moment, just one more moment with his wife in his arms.

    He forced himself forward. The incense was burning for the zarsha of this area, to ask its permission to dig into the earth. Probably Jónan’s doing, bless him. Such niceties were little better than a formality nowadays, as the land-spirits rarely roused themselves to punish those who neglected them; but all the same, Khamn would not have liked to lay Maela to rest in an unhallowed grave.

  • Thanks, David, for the compliment, the suggestions (they are terrific and really tighten things up!), and most of all (since I forgot earlier) for this series of posts. As I’ve mentioned before, I love to world-build, but I later find I almost never use my world as-built. As my characters wander through it, things change. The coast moves closer, the flat plains become rolling hills, the city streets become characters in their own right. The world grows and evolves and refuses to adhere to preconceptions. But then, that’s half the fun, isn’t it?

  • I’m late, as usual… Thanks for the great post. World-building is one of my weakest points and the setting of my last WIP (first draft just finished) is truly dreadful to the point of non-existence.
    From the first chapter of “Another Sword”:

    But on the horizon I can see the silhouette of Akira Chelan on the ridge, and smoke is pouring from the castle, curling against the stars like blood in water.
    I don’t even know the Royal Family, none of my squire pals will have gotten back to school yet, and my own family is at home, at Khalon Dea. How hard would it be to head for home? But home is standing in front of me, and it’s on fire.

  • Here’s snippet:

    King Veris wore a robe of black scleyn draped over Haeseng-red. Warc frowned as he realized the robe cost more than all of the commission pay he had received from the monarch. Warc had to admire the thin delicate material though he knew he would never bother to wear it if he ever came to power in Entbracken. The slightest roughness of the fingertips could cause the scleyn to run, to shred. Still, he understood the Haeseng King’s reasoning. It was a loud reminder to everyone around him of his power. Veris brandished his robe like a great thick shield. It said: I am untouchable. Warc felt the unfamiliar prickle of fear burrow deep into his bones.

  • TwilightHero

    The opening of my first chapter, where the story proper – after the prologue – begins (a bit more than a hundred words, sorry):

    The mid-morning sun infused the riverbank with a clear, effusive glow. Green water sparkled around his line. Damen Lorell sat with his back to an oak, fishing rod in hand, enjoying the warmth. The river was not large, only ten paces across and three in depth, but it burbled cheerfully on its way eastwards to the vast lake at the foot of the Raden Kala, whose peaks were just visible above the treetops to the north. A balmy breeze swept over him from the other side of the forest, and even the swaying and creaking of ancient trees was reminiscent of old men nodding indulgently at the lightheartedness of youth. It was, in other words, a perfect midsummer’s day.

  • Quillet, thanks! I like the passage very much. You do a nice job of using terms unique to the world in context, so that we understand them without you having to explain them. Not easy to do, and you do it very well.

    Lyn, glad to help. Thanks for the kind comment. And yes, that development of the world from notes on a pad (or in a file) to living, breathing place is one of the most exciting things that we writers get to do.

    Unicorn, that’s an effective opening, and the “blood in water” image is terrific. The one thing I would say is to avoid the repetition of “home” in those last sentences — three times in two lines. Two would be okay, but three is too many. Otherwise, good job!

    CE, I like that. I would change the third sentence to begin “He had to admire…” since you just used Warc’s name a moment before. But I like the expression of fear tinged with admiration. Nicely done.

    Twilight, the imagery is very nice and quite evocative. I can see it all. I might, for now, skip the mention of the lake, unless it is absolutely essential to the action or conversation or whatever that is about to take place. Otherwise it’s a bit of a distraction, and a detail we don’t need quite yet. Just my opinion, of course.

  • I’m late as always. Excellent points about bringing the worldbuilding to life through the prose itself. I’ve tried to do that in my own work, though I’m sure with mixed results. Here’s a bit from the first chapter of my current WIP, at just over 100 words (for clarification, the “her” in question was established earlier in the paragraph quoted, the character’s name is “Isa”):

    Small patches of hardy brown grass scraped at her ankles. It was a tenacious grass that could cling so stubbornly to life this far from the village. She pressed her lips together tightly and shielded her eyes against the high yellow sun. In the distance she could see it: halfway to the horizon a long, tall, black structure rose out of the pallid desert scrub like the grave marker of a fallen god.
    Isa frowned. Which of the Fourteen might have deserved such a memorial? Dead or living, Isa would never again fear the vindictive gods whose wrath Grand-da Bathierno had always warned would fall on the disobedient and unfaithful.

  • Thanks, David. I was a bit concerned that it wasn’t worldbuilding, just description, but when I think about it, I get a chance to show right off the bat that the character is *not* from around there, and set up the wealthy character of the neighbourhood. I hope.

  • Stephen, I think that passage works well. I would find a way to combine the first two sentences (“Patches of hardy brown grass, tenacious, clinging to life out here beyond the village, scraped at her ankles.” Or something like that) and I might also eliminate “long” from the description of the structure. But that’s a nice opening (or near-opening).

    Laura, worldbuilding often IS description. We forget that at times when we write “real-world” stuff. But establishing the important points of the part of the world we’re using for out novel is part of the process.

  • Okay, that makes sense. Whew. 🙂 Thanks, David!

  • Thanks, David! Yeah, I’m rather too fond of that image myself 😀 I’m having a blast making up better world building for this novel right now, so hopefully next time you post I’ll have come up with something rather more interesting.

  • TwilightHero

    Hmmm…I could cut that, yeah. Thanks David 🙂

  • Laura, Unicorn, Twilight — glad to help. Thanks for being willing to take constructive suggestions. That’s a big step along the road to becoming a published writer (note Faith’s discussion of editorial direction in her worldbuilding posts).