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We'll start out with some basic stuff. How big is the story you want to tell? Who are you going to be talking about? What's the central conflict of the story? These questions are relevant both to creating original worlds and to creating stories in pre-existing worlds, so let's address these first out of all.
1. Determine your scope
How big of a story do you want to tell? Is it epic? Is it small? Are you crossing vast swaths of the land or are you confining three characters to a room and letting them endure each other for eternity? It's very, very easy to get lost in the process of building your personal playground if you don't give yourself boundaries at the start. Once you've determined the scope of the story you want to tell, you can establish boundaries: this far, and no farther. I'm taking it to the edges of the city. I'm taking it to the front door of the house. I'm gallivanting across the world.
Determining your scope also helps you figure out the purpose of the story. Are you telling something deeply personal or are you taking your reader on a grand adventure? It helps you fill out some problems your character(s) might face along the way. A person confined to their house faces many different challenges than a person who's traipsing all over the wide world and back again. Again, we're working with the idea that worldbuilding is a tool that helps us tell a better story. This is a functional, goal-oriented approach. Flights of fancy are two doors down.
Write a paragraph of up to seven sentences describing the scope of your story. Note both the general scope and exceptions where you might go outside it or spend some time focusing on one or two particular aspects. Put this paragraph in the forward-most section of your binder; this goes under summary information.
2. Describe your characters
Yes, this is an important part of worldbuilding, too.
The nature of your characters plus the scope of your story will determine how much of your world you'll need to build for background purposes. If you're not forcing your characters to interact all over the world, but rather only in their own home town/home territory, you'll have less geographical area to cover. And on the other hand, think about how much of the world we live in affects how we think, talk, dress, act, and react. Your character's thoughts and responses, actions and questions, will be affected by the world in which your character grows up. In either case, you'll be spending roughly an equivalent amount of words describing several different locations and cultures from an outsider perspective, or describing one location and culture from an in-depth and insider perspective, or somewhere in between.
You don't need to answer everything in exhaustive detail, but you do need to figure out some basic things. We'll get to the details later.
Again under 'summary information', write a paragraph of up to seven sentences detailing your protagonist(s). This will also give you an idea of how cluttered your cast may or may not be. Just go off the cuff, list the most striking features of your protagonist, whether that's physical appearance, grace, intelligence, background, a personal possession, a pet, or a relationship/set of relationships. Keep in mind that all those will need to be developed later. It's also okay to say "I have not yet decided A or B." You'll have to circle or otherwise choose one later, but it's okay for right now to have some options open.
3. Describe your antagonist(s).
As with your protagonist, your antagonist(s) can tell you a lot about the world you're making. Write a paragraph about your antagonist.
|4. Study your conflict
There's an old idea that the core plot of most works can be narrowed down to person vs person, person vs outside world, or person vs self. It's true. At the very least, it's true that the core conflict in a story can usually be boiled down to A vs B.
Write down your A vs B at the top of a page. This is your focus of your novel, your core conflict, what drives the action and the plot. Han, Luke, and Leia vs the Empire. The Fellowship of the Ring vs Sauron and his minions. Malcolm Reynolds vs everyone else in the gorram universe. Now go down the page and write down some basic questions, and you already have the who and the what, hopefully, but if you haven't, write that down as well. If it's character vs an outside force, what is the outside force? When: Is this story taking place over a few days or over several years? How is the conflict manifested, subtly in many smaller conflicts or blatantly? Where do the conflicts manifest? And if your scope is small, this will be a very easy question. If your scope is larger, you'll need to describe some locales, cities, towns, countrysides. A sentence or two will do for each.
At the bottom of the page, write a paragraph of up to seven sentences describing the why. Why is this conflict happening? What brought these things into conflict? Is it contrariness, is it an aspect of the protagonist character that forces conflict, is the protagonist seeking it out or did conflict drag the protagonist out of bed kicking and screaming? This all will go into summary information.
|5. Outline your story
No, seriously. Outline your story.
Because this is a functional approach, you need to have an idea of where your story is going so that you have an idea of what you need to develop. You really don't want to go off into a 20 page tangent about sewer systems in one city because you got distracted with the mapmaking program one day and by god you're going to put those sewer maps to use. At a minimum, divide your story into acts (nine acts in groups of three for epic stories, three acts with an intro and coda for mysteries, googling will help you find basic formulae for most kinds off stories). Write one to three sentences for a scene-by-scene outline, two paragraphs for an act by act ouline. We'll come back and develop the outline itself later, and in the meantime we'll use it as a basis to develop the rest of the world. I mean it. You will be referring back to your outline every step of the way.
For now, we'll go back up to the character sections (2 and 3) and cross-check that with your outline. Do you have enough characters to fill the story? Do you have some extraneous characters? On a piece of scrap paper or in the margins of your outline, make a note of every time a new character appears in your novel. Then make sure that character is represented in your protagonists or your antagonists section.
Some characters won't be main characters. They might barely even be speaking roles. That's fine, for now just write their names or designations (Teacher, Bartender, Random Passer-By) under either the protagonist or antagonist column or, if they're filler or background scenery, make a third category for that. All you need to know now is that they exist. What your expanded cast looks like, which will already tell you how populated your world will be. There, you've learned something new about your world already!