The Benefits of Vignette Worldbuilding

There are many methods you can use to build a world. I mean, many. Everyone is going to have a different way they go about worldbuilding, and I personally tend to use a broad variety of methods. One method I’ve found a lot of fun while working on Deseran (my huge “desert fantasy” world, which I finally get to share a piece of with Caithan) is what I call “vignette worldbuilding.” The way it works, I select a piece of the world that I’ve been developing recently, or I latch onto a cool new concept that doesn’t have an official place yet, and I write a piece of short prose around it. Caithan, for instance, was an exploration of the mix of cultures in Teraco, an empire that’s something of a cultural melting-pot. I’ve also written short pieces to further develop races, or to show how certain groups are treated in differing countries, or to showcase the unique traits of the wildlife of the world. There’s really no limit to what you can explore with vignette worldbuilding. But what are its unique benefits?

Vignettes allow you to narrow your focus

When you build a world, it’s all too easy to get caught up in all the broad, sweeping facts of the world, or to jump around from place to place because everything’s interconnected. Vignettes allow you to focus on one aspect of the world and go deeper with your worldbuilding rather than just bigger. This doesn’t mean you completely cut out all of the other connecting pieces, but the outside influences on your primary object should simply color the piece and hint at more instead of taking over your attention.

Vignettes give you “firsthand” experience of the world

When you build a world, you tend to come at it from a distance, as its creator. This gives the broad view of the world, but it means you can sometimes miss the smaller details that make the world truly come alive. When you write a piece of prose to explore the world, you’re almost always writing from the perspective of a character who lives in the world. Someone who has a certain view of things and who takes things for granted or who notices things you wouldn’t. You get to come at the world from the perspective of someone on the ground and pick out the deeper intricacies of the world (whether they be physical or non-physical).

Another facet to this is that you can explore the world more genuinely. As a speculative writer, you’re creating the world out of thin air, so there is automatically some degree of exploration because you’re discovering something that’s never been seen before. But there’s also a sense of control, because you’re the one creating it. In prose, from the perspective of a character, you can more genuinely explore as someone inside the world would. You can place yourself in the position of an in-world explorer and see things from a more “direct” perspective.

Vignettes build a world and your writing skills

Vignette worldbuilding not only deepens your worldbuilding, but also gives you a chance to practice your descriptive writing (and even your dialogue and characterization, depending on the snippet). In these vignettes, your purpose is to show the world as you would in a story, but your focus on setting should be extra pointed. It’s a great exercise for showing the world effectively through your description and through the reactions of your characters. Depending on what your focus is for a certain snippet, it can also get you thinking about how a character’s world impacts their worldview, their actions, and even the way they speak.

Vignettes can produce ideas for full-length works

Sometimes when writing out your world, you can stumble across characters or places whose stories are begging to be told. Sometimes you write from exactly the right character’s perspective and you realize there are ingredients for a whole novel in your vignette, or there will be after you explore a couple of different facets and put it all together. This doesn’t always happen (I’d even venture to say it doesn’t often happen, and this is coming from the writer who constantly has characters vying for her attention), and many of your vignettes will remain “incomplete” and simply serve their purpose as exploration. Others, however, may result in your next great book idea. (Because we all know we need more of those. ;) )

You’ll also learn what characters won’t work for longer works, or would need a lot more development. Some characters end up just being vehicles for showing off the world, which is perfectly fine for vignettes, but makes some of those vignettes impossible to build into longer works as-are.

An example of vignette worldbuilding

Mehera stepped out into the dim morning and took a deep breath of cool air. The snores of her clan-mates drifted from the tents around her and she smiled faintly. There was something beautiful about being awake while the rest of the world slept. Her bangles clanked as she made her way to the wagon the horses were tied to, sand shifting under her feet. As she reached out to her stallion, she caught sight of a dark smudge in the sky. Tenayl whinnied as Mehera watched curls of smoke mar the sunrise.
Mehera stroked Tenayl’s snout. “Let’s go see what’s happening.”
After unhitching Tenayl, Mehera swung onto his bare back and urged him in the direction of the smoke. It didn’t take as long as she’d expected to find the source of the fire, but this had not been what she’d imagined. A bird stood in a patch of bright orange sand, its purple-red plumage flaming. It squawked as the flames consumed it and it turned to a pile of ash.
A phoenix. They’re actually real. And I just saw one burn.
As the sand cooled back to dun, a beaked head emerged from the ash heap, followed by a red-violet bird just as magnificent as–if smaller than–its predecessor. Gold feathers edged its wings, glittering in the rising sun. The phoenix stared at Mehera a moment before flying off, scattering ash and sand alike in its wake.
A while back, wanted to write a piece that showcased both the phoenixes of Deseran and the color-changing sand, and this was the result. This is probably my favorite vignette piece, but even those I don’t like as well served their purpose in showing facets of the world and deepening my understanding of those facets.

To read more about a similar worldbuilding approach, check out this post by Deck Matthews on the Phoenix Fiction Writers blog.

Have you ever tried vignette worldbuilding? How did it go? What’s your favorite worldbuilding method? Leave a comment and let’s chat!

Learn how to use vignettes and other worldbuilding methods to construct a process that works for you with The Worldbuilding Toolbox!

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