How to Fight Worldbuilder’s Disease with Short Stories

I have tried to write many times. From my first picture book about dinosaurs when I was five years old to something awful in sixth grade to the most bland fantasy series imaginable in high school, and beyond off and on through my adult life. One step has always stopped me, worldbuilding.

It’s not that I don’t like worldbuilding. In fact, it’s the opposite. I would get so involved with building a world, I would know the full recorded history of every race and the tectonic structure and all the legends and myths. And, I’d stop.

I would just get so burnt out on building a world that I’d give up before I ever started writing. Then, I’d throw everything out, partially because I wanted all my space on my computer to be coherent but mostly for embarrassment. Looking at it just reminded me of my latest failed attempt at writing.

This time, I’m building my world through short stories.

There are some basic things that all fantasy/sci-fi worlds require.

1. Culture(s)
2. History
3. Magic/technology.
4. A map

Culture

Culture could have its own entry altogether. It’s the most important aspect of creating a world but most writers just give it a passing mention. Cultures will define your characters and their backstories and you don’t have a story without characters.

A story is not a string of events, it’s one or more characters making decisions. And, culture will affect how your characters make decisions.

Races have their own cultures but races are not cultures, themselves. They should have subcultures and factions. Every member should deviate slightly and in a unique way from the norm.

History

Second to maps, this is where most of my time with worldbuilder’s disease was spent. It’s more productive than map making in that it can help you develop cultures. Culture and history go hand in hand. History shapes culture and cultures that struggle against one another make history.

But, spend too much time here and you’ll outline the entire history of your world without ever starting on the story you want to tell. I fell into this trap. If I ever finished with my maps and borders, I started on the history. Then, came the vicious cycle of adjusting my map’s borders to fit the new history.

Magic/technology

If there’s no magic or advanced technology, then why build a whole new world to begin with? No magic and no future tech and you’ve just got a contemporary drama with nothing speculative about it. You don’t need to build a world for that, just maybe one small town.

Too much magic or tech and you’ve got a whole new problem. No limits means weak storytelling. You need a rational magic system or drawbacks to tech. Here’s a couple of good articles from mythcreants that better explains this point.

Four Ways to Limit Magic and Technology

How to Create a Rational Magic System

Maps

This is the one most new writers spend the most time on, I know I did when I first started. It’s fun and can help you to envision your world, some might say necessary for envisioning your world. But, it’s the least important part of the overall process.

You may or may not end up including a map in your actual book. Well, let’s be honest, you probably will. And your readers will give it a passing glance before forgetting all of it when they start reading.

So, how can short stories help you through this process and keep you writing?

All of the things above have logical reasons for being in your world and there’s probably a story behind them. How did people discover magic? Who discovered it first? What battles were important and why? Where did people come from?

History is just a series of stories told from the winner’s point of view. Writing short stories can help you find the important moments in your fictional history and discover why they’re important to your cultures. You can discover magic or technology’s strengths and weaknesses through stories. Here are some examples.

You might have a magic system that involves magic beings granting favors to humans. Why do they do this? Writing a story can explain their motives.

A machine is going to destroy the world? Why was it built in the first place?

A race of people who live in the trees and are at war with ground dwellers? What started the conflict?

Your king is a war hero? Tell the story of his greatest battle and how it affected him.

But, the most important way short stories can help you beat worldbuilder’s disease is through the act of writing them down. You can discover loads about your world but writing it out through stories well keep you writing. You can brainstorm and work on your craft at the same time.

You don’t have to publish them. In fact, it might be best not to. That’s not saying you can’t but don’t expect people to get invested in your world through one single story. If you’re the pragmatic type, you can release them as a collection to go along with your series if it does as well as you hope. But, keep in mind that a short story should be able to stand on its own and not be tied to a series.

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