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Worldbuilding Week Day Five: Tools and Techniques

Worldbuilding Week

Welcome to the second annual Worldbuilding Week at QSF. We’ll talk about all aspects of building a world for your story, including languages; alien/magical races; history and timelines; culture and politics; sex, marriage and reproduction; tools and techniques; and religion. It should be a lot of fun.

Today we’re talking about tools and techniques, and A. Catherine Noon will be our moderator.

Good morning! I’m author and textile artist A. Catherine Noon with you today, helping to facilitate a discussion about Worldbuilding Tools and Techniques. Since there are as many different approaches as there are writers, artists, and gamers, I figured I’d share my thoughts as to what works for me and invite you to share yours. My best hope for today is that we all come away with a sense of the vastness that is speculative fiction and some new approaches to try in our own writing, as well as new stuff to read and play as consumers of the genre.

And, besides all that high and mighty foo-foo, I figured we might be able to have some fun together. Yes? Say on, then!


I think the first tool is the ability to observe. When building something that feels real to the reader*, we need to be able to produce details that click. Ludwig Mies van der Roh, the architect, said once that “God is in the details,” making a play on the popular axiom, “the devil’s in the details.” One tiny example of this is in the recent reboot television series, Battlestar Galactica by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, based on the original by Glen A. Larson. In the reboot, they brought paper to Commander Adama and it had the corners missing. It was a small artistic flourish by the creative team that the directors later lamented, because when the miniseries was picked up and fleshed out into a major series, they had to do the same to ALL the paper for continuity reasons. But for the viewer, the snipped corners immediately conjured the sense that we were in another place, another world.

*I’m going to pause here and make a point that by “reader,” I am referring to the actual reader of books but also graphic novel aficionados, television viewers, movie buffs, and gamer fans. The world of worldbuilding is vast and multifaceted, and includes all of us. But if I pause and say “reader, viewer, buff, and gamer” every time I mean one of us, we’ll be at this all day.

How do we get better at this kind of detail? I find an exercise called “listing” to be useful. Anyone can do it, even if one is not a writer. It’s a fun game to play with kids, if one is looking for that kind of thing. Set a timer for five minutes and give everyone a piece of paper, tablet, or computer. Close your eyes. Imagine a room – I usually suggest one’s bedroom, since we’re in there on a daily basis. Open your eyes and start the timer. Write down everything you see in the room, starting at the door and going around the room – first the left, then ahead, then right, and up, and down. Keep going until the timer dings.

The more you do this exercise, the better you become at it. And for writers (same note here as for “readers”) we can do this with imagined places too. If we’re writing about a space ship, what room is our character in? What do they see? Remember all five senses – smell is often overlooked. In space, the air is recirculated – what does it smell like?

Another tool I use often is something I call a “concordance,” which is from academia and means a glossary. Rather than just using it to record the specific words and their meanings, I’ll muse about things like currency: how do people in my world buy things? How are they paid? What work is paid for vs. what is expected to be done by oneself? How is government organized? Do they vote? To whom can you go if there’s a crime? Is there crime? How is crime punished? What’s the climate like? Do people like going outside, or is it hostile out there? If it’s hostile, what is hostile and how?

Once I have the general ideas down, I keep the document while I write the stories in that universe. As things develop, I add them to the concordance so I can keep track of them. For example, when Rachel Wilder and I wrote the Persis Chronicles, we had to know how people were paid, because the contract lengths for certain kinds of work was material to our plot. We had to know what specializations the various schools concentrated on, since our main character was from one of the top schools on the planet and we needed to know not only what his school taught, but what the rivals all taught. Think of it like how we view “Ivy League” here in the States or “an Oxford education” in England. That has a cultural meaning to people, both positive and negative. It creates cultural tensions. That’s useful in fiction, since tension and conflict help drive a story.


I think the most important balance to strike in worldbuilding is between having all the details and cramming all of them down the reader’s throat at once. No one likes an “info dump.” They’re boring to read. But how do we give the reader the information they need so they can understand the world we’re creating? In bits and pieces.

One way is through dialog. Characters talking to each other can tell a lot about a place. “What do you mean there’s another Battlestar?” That tells you a lot in one sentence: “battlestar” means something important; there’s a limited number of them and maybe only one (we know from the show there’s only the Galactica); all the others were thought to be lost, so the fact that one shows up sounds a little ominous but also hopeful because it means the people are alive; where’s the other one been all this time?; and how did they know there’s another one, and why didn’t they know sooner? See how much can be conveyed in one sentence?

A word about mystery: sometimes in critique groups, I’ve seen readers become very aggressive about the details, wanting to know the definition of every little detail before the story can continue. This is a false critique. We need to remember that in storytelling of any kind, we need to allow the storyteller to unfold the story for us. We can’t evaluate whether it’s a good story until we’ve heard it. We don’t need to know all the technical specifications of a battlestar before we even know that they’re in space and on their own. It’s enough to know it’s a big ship with lots of people and there’s been a genocide. In other words, don’t allow the worldbuilding to drive the story, let the characters and the story do that. Explain enough of the world so the reader has a sense of place, and let the rest unfold with the story.

So enough talk-talking. I want to hear from you. What do you think makes effective worldbuilding? And how do you like your worldbuilding – books, television, movies, games, or something else?

Here’s the schedule for the week – each day will have a moderator to help keep moving things along and to supply their own tips and point of view.

Tues 7/26: Languages, Moderator: Loren Rhoads

Wed 7/27: Alien/Magical Races, Moderator: J. Scott Coatsworth

Thurs 7/28: Culture/Politics, Moderator: Lloyd Meeker

Fri 7/29: Sex, Marriage, Reproduction, Moderator: Roger Lovelace

Sat 7/30: Tools and Techniques, Moderator, Moderator: A. Catherine Noon

Sun 7/31: Religion, Moderator: Jenna Hale

It’s a freeform discussion – pop in and ask your questions or share your wisdom – or both!

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