Posted by: kshayes513 | September 5, 2010

Worldbuilding technique: Outline Your Worldbuilding

Today, frequent WBR commenter and fellow blogger Tom Pope shares a worldbuilding tool he uses in his writing courses, to help the writer think through the details of the world.

Outline Your Worldbuilding

Characters race through a foreign terrain, yielding deadly weapons. But how does the writer frame the details in the world around the character? Worldbuilding requires a myriad of details, which can be devised with an outline that focuses on the protagonist (P) and reactions to the P by nature and the world’s environment.

As a writing teacher and coach, I often use this reaction outline to think though the details needed for worldbuilding. The desire to understand a complete world, with the wide canvass of many elements in play, turned me into a blogger. My blog, examines the intersection where fiction meets reality. That means exploring the human condition by examining literature, film, satire and sports to view society’s perceptions of politics, sociology and economics.

The reaction outline aims to expose writers to the more complete nature of a world being set up. Think of a three-columned sheet of paper where the left features an activity by P. The center column could show a reaction to P by nature. The right column would display a reaction to P by the environment. Environment can be defined as a political, social, economic and even ideological set of conditions that surrounds P. The listings under the top section acts and reactions are followed by subsequent acts. P has to react to the change by nature and his environment. From the new actions, nature will react and so will the environment.

A sample reaction outline

The outline’s ability to help comes in part from listing a specific action by P. For example, one common theme might be P’s opposition to a war started by an unjust power filled with corruption. P would need a weapon and have to travel across the globe to set the world aright.

So let’s find a specific action that could have nature and the environment react to P. P could discover that a crystal contains properties that would force the corrupt leader to tell the truth. However, nature could prevent P because the crystal may be attacked by rain clouds that contain a form of energy countering the crystal.

A further reaction to P may arrive from part of mythology that denies P the use of such a weapon because of his social position. Another barrier could arise in obtaining the crystal, which requires a vast sum of currency due to the difficulty of extracting the crystal from a mine. Notice, the reactions are thought within the context of setting up conflicts to the goals of the P.

After seeing the example of how nature and the environment reacts to P, the stage is set to plan how P responds. To overcome the problem of the rain clouds, P might locate a wizard who has abilities to channel wind currents to move the rain clouds. To find a way around the social taboos, P could travel to a holy site to show leaders that his knowledge makes him the best one to carry the crystal. P might seek farmer support for a green leaf currency needed by crystal gathers. The gathers are denied green leaves in the barren mountains where crystal mines exist, so they value the leaves as money.

With P’s response, nature and P’s environment would not stand still. We could see P testing the wizard’s power only to find that he could move the rain clouds, but the process would disperse an energy from the crystal that would destroy local crops. Even though this act would allow P to find the truth and upset the corrupt leader, P would inflict a new disaster to local people. One environmental response could develop as holy site leaders demand several of their number be allowed to travel with P. Another environmental reaction could be that the farmer green leaf currency becomes envied by the holy site members who accompany P.

Now the outline prompts the writer to plan P’s next response. To avoid destroying the local crops when P confronts the corrupt leader, P might adjust plans so the location of the meeting with the corrupt leader occurs outside a farming area. The landscape is set up for a confrontation between P and the holy members traveling with him for control over the green leaf currency meant for extracting the crystal.

The worldbuilding outline helps with ways to use the imagination. The writer has to use specific actions by the P, and should focus on reactions that set up conflicts. But the use encourages the building of a scope that widens the world. From the reactions used in this example, the writer can see magic in this world that connects crystals with the mind. Yet certain powers can be affected by weather. A social structure exists with a holy clique that needs economic aid. And a farmer based currency uses plant life. Mining occurs, but requires funding. Such concepts can lead to a more complete worldbuilding effort.

About Tom Pope: I have taught with Queens College, part of CUNY and also with several tutoring services. Our blog, examines the intersection where fiction meets reality. That means exploring the human condition by examining literature, film, satire and sports to view society’s perceptions of politics, sociology and economics.

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