At a world-building workshop for fiction writers I attended last Friday, a familiar writing “rule” came up. It’s not one I like and following it has never worked for me. For whatever reason, hearing it taught as an absolute part of the process made me angry—at least angry enough to doodle some angry faces around that part in my notes. The rule:
“Figure out as much about the world you’re creating before you start writing the story. Don’t build as you go, or else you’ll end up painting yourself into a corner.”
I’ll break down the three elements of this so-called rule that bother me.
Rule: Figure it out before you start writing
Some people have to plan out every little element before they can write a single word. Others like to run with an idea as soon as it hits them and see where it goes. I’m in the middle camp. Once I have a character, a conflict, and what makes the situation unique, I start writing.
There is a lot that goes into a made-up world. Depending on how far the story will go, you may need to only develop the culture and people in one city. Or maybe you’ll need to work out a few cities, or even different countries. If it’s all going to be plot-relevant, of course you’re going to need to fit all that information in. But you’re not going to write about it until the relevant moment. That moment might be as simple as someone using a deity’s name as a swear word. You don’t need to know every step in the traditional dance used every third Tuesday to honor that deity before a character can say the name.
Rule: Don’t build as you go
It’s silly to think you will not deviate from your carefully constructed plan even a little. What if you’re writing, and it suddenly occurs to you that a minor conflict between two characters should be a little deeper than mere dislike? To add depth, you decide that it’s really about the fact that their grandparents were on opposite sides of a war. Now you need to figure out all the details of that war.
In the next draft—remember, there will always be another draft—you can sprinkle in more allusions to that war to further flesh out your world. You didn’t have to have that figured out before you started the first draft. You built it when you found a need for it.
You will build as you go. You will rebuild as you go. You will demolish things you built in the first draft. Don’t worry about it.
Rule: You’ll paint yourself into a corner
I’m not sure if you knew, but you can edit and revise what you write. A first draft is not a final draft. You are not limited to only moving forward; you can go back and fix whatever mess you made at any point. You could chug along and go all the way to the end of the draft before you start fixing. Or you could figure out a solution the moment you find the problem, fix it in what you already wrote, and carry on.
I do that all the time. You aren’t limited to one try to get everything in the story right. The writing adage I agree with the most is, “You learn to write by writing.” And if you’re going to create a fully immersive fantasy world, you’re going to learn everything you need to know as you write about it.
I don’t agree with every piece of writing advice, but I understand the value in it. Not everything works for everyone. Maybe building your world first is what you need to do to make what you want.