Worldbuilding for a First Draft

Worldbuilding can present a number of challenges—often different for each author—but one that seems to be a universal struggle is the challenge of knowing how much worldbuilding to do before you start a writing project. Whether you’re an author who gets sucked into the worldbuilding and has trouble getting into the actual writing process, or an author who leans into the writing process and finds later that their worlds don’t have as much depth as intended, hopefully this post will be a help and encouragement on the subject of worldbuilding for the sake of drafting.

Enough is Enough

You don’t need to know everything before you start writing.

Those of you who prefer to dive into drafting are probably relieved right now, while those of you who (like me) can worldbuild for weeks on end might be grumbling that now you have to set it aside and actually write something.

But seriously, you only need to know enough to write your story. I know that’s pretty vague on its own, so let me give you some examples. If you’re writing about royalty and court intrigue, you should probably know a lot about the government of your culture, etiquette, titles, wardrobe… Those things that will be relevant to the characters and plot of your story.

If, however, your story focuses on a small town and calligraphers’ involvement with the world’s magic system, you’ll need to know a lot less about government and a lot more about your world’s magic system, the work environments of your world, and the relevant wildlife in that area of the world.

Develop what you need to understand the story; set aside the rest.

Theme & Atmosphere

Worldbuilding doesn’t only shape the characters and plot. It can also be important to develop elements of your world based on the themes you want to explore and the atmosphere you want to invoke. If you want to write a story with strong family themes, you’ll need to look at family structure in your culture. Or you might discover that the community-centric atmosphere of your culture requires you to rethink the education within that culture (been there, done that). If you’re writing a coming-of-age story, you’ll need to know what that means within your character’s world. If you want your society to have a particular look, architecture or fashion might be important to focus on.

Some of these will be secondary for a first draft. While thematic elements tend to be important for the structure of a story, more atmospheric details can usually be woven in later. And some things you won’t even notice are necessary until later in the writing process (as with the educational system in Calligraphy Guild, which didn’t strike me until a few drafts in). But we’ll discuss that a bit more in a moment.

Keep Notes While Worldbuilding

This applies especially to authors who lean into their worldbuilding more than their drafting, but it’s applicable to both types of writers. All worldbuilding is interconnected, stemming from particular values or driving details and branching out in all sorts of directions, which makes it really easy to get distracted with irrelevant information

My best solution to this is to make notes to expand on later. Mention something that cropped up, outline anything that pops into your head right away, and then set it aside and go back to the most crucial parts of your worldbuilding for this project. Once the project is drafted, you can come back and explore those extra areas to your heart’s content!

Keep Notes While Writing

Not only will extra things pop up while you’re worldbuilding, but you’ll almost certainly end up improvising details in your book that you didn’t initially realize would be important. You don’t want to lose those! It’s just as important to keep notes as you write as during the worldbuilding process, to ensure you keep all of your information together so you can find it later and expand on it where needed (or desired).

Personally, I keep all of my worldbuilding notes in a running document and move them from there to World Anvil*, as the mood strikes to collate them in a more orderly fashion.

*This is an affiliate link, which means I earn a commission at no extra cost to you if you purchase a subscription within 15 days

Whether you notice and write down these new details as you’re drafting or go back through with a later read-through to collect them, it will help you with continuity in any other projects you write in that world—plus the world for its own sake—to ensure all of your information is in one place.

Background Depth

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with building more world than you need—unless it’s interfering with your ability to get the book written. In fact, fleshing out more than you need can add to the depth of the world as those outside details bleed into your story in casual allusions to outside conflicts, neighboring cities, past history, etc

These allusions won’t always crop up (and they certainly shouldn’t be forced), but there’s a good chance of outside details coming up in small ways that will add to the feel of your world as an organic entity and can help to establish future stories that may focus on those areas more directly.

If you’re likely to get distracted by your world, these outer details are generally better to build up after a draft or two.

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There you have it: my five tips for developing a world you can promptly write in. Which of these did you find most helpful? Are you an author who leans toward drafting or who leans toward worldbuilding? What are your best tips and tricks for setting up worlds for writing projects? Comment below and let’s chat!

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4 thoughts on “Worldbuilding for a First Draft

  1. On the subject of taking notes, I use a PKM approach — it’s a relatively new field and since it’s such a huge help in my worldbuilding (and story plotting!), I want to let everyone know so that maybe I can help those who are in the same situation I was in before (constantly switching organizational/note-taking apps trying to find a workflow that’d work).

    I use Obsidian, which really enables you to work the way you want it to. You could build a World Anvil-inspired system right into it with more flexibility and features. (that’s what I’m doing. WA was forcing me to use their workflow and structures, that didn’t work for me.) The best part is the fact that all my precious writing/worldbuilding notes are locally available, in plain text, which means I don’t need to worry about proprietary formats or losing data if the app I use shuts down or has issues.

    Anyway, I hope this can help! And maybe PKM apps could be added to the list of Worldbuilding Tools? I sure wish I had discovered them earlier!

  2. This was really thought-provoking! I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with trying to figure out where to start when it comes to worldbuilding. What you said about focusing on those areas that are directly relevant to the story’s theme or atmosphere was really helpful, and it has got me thinking about what elements of the world I need to better define in my current work in progress. Thank you!

    1. I’m glad you found this post helpful! Narrowing it down to what you need for the story can really help cut down on overwhelm. I hope you have fun as you worldbuild for your project! ^-^

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