This blog was made based on notes taken at the 9th Meetup of Indie Publishing Austin, Worldbuilding with Michael Bunker.
What is Worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding is the revelation of your story world and its details through the story itself.
The biggest mistake authors make when creating a world is that they let the world dictate the story, instead of the other way around.
Less is More
When it comes to Worldbuilding, Michael’s from the school of “Less is More.”
It’s easy to get trapped in the idea that you have to describe or define everything that exists in that world. Things like money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal practices, building materials can exist in the world. Everything from the real world—or your imagination—can be used as elements in a fictional world.
However, the decision has to be made about how much you’re going to involve the reader in the creation of the world.
Broad Brush Strokes
Effective worldbuilding includes the reader in the creation of the world.
An author’s job is to paint the big brush strokes. But readers are more involved when they get the chance to take part in the creation of the world.
As an example, Pennsylvania, Bunker’s most successful Amish Scifi book to date (it sold sold over 60k copies in 2014): it involves a boy traveling to another planet called New Pennsylvania to colonize it. In that world, Michael made conscious decisions to leave much of it open to interpretation. For instance, most of the characters’ race and details of their person are not described at all, nor are many parts of the world described in great detail. Instead, it’s left open to interpretation.
As a result, after publication many authors were interested in writing fan fiction in the Pennsylvania world.
Bunker gave everyone free reign to write their own stories. Chris Pourteau “herded the cats”, talked to the authors and put together the anthology, while Michael consulted with authors about elements they wanted to include.
So much of the book that he never put in the original was part of the world these readers and authors had created in their mind. They had, in effect, gone deeper than it was originally intended to be—to fantastic effect. Readers had their own vision of what this planet was like.
Want a specific example of? In one part of the book, Bunker used just a few paragraphs to say that there was a large shelf out west lined with cities built by the government. Yet over half of the stories in the anthology took place in cities on this long shelf.
This is one element of world building that we have to keep in mind: Every time you describe something you’re putting a weight on the reader to carry that burden. But if we leave it open to interpretation, the reader will fill in the details on their own.
Broad Brush Strokes in Ready Player One
In Ready Player One, Ernest Cline tells the story of a near-future world where the Internet has become a game, and people actually live inside it in an immersive world using VR headgear.
He includes very few details of the world he’s creating. He’s writing to an audience of people who already know the details, so it would be overkill to include them, and distact from the story.
He tells you, for example, that they go into Tetris, and expects the reader to fill in that detail. But of the actual world, nothing beyond large set pieces are included, allowing the reader to fill in the details using things they already know.
The Other End of the Spectrum: Intense Detail in Time and Again
Detail in a realistic story can be used to create a story world, as long as it is used for a specific purpose.
Jack Finney’s book Time and Again is a time travel book written in 1975. It’s a fascinating time travel story about a guy who travels from 1975 to 1882 New York. Finney uses exact detail to describe the settings in his books. As a result, the reader is able to travel through time via the book.
There’s something about the type of immersive world where the writers can spend some time on the details, but there ought to be a purpose. Any time you include detail in world building, there ought to be a reason behind it.
What’s Too Heavy?
If a world that we create for a story, even in a realistic fiction story based on the contemporary world, becomes too heavy with details, it runs the risk of being very cumbersome for both the reader and the writer.
It’s possible to build a very realistic and entertaining world with no story. But you’d be writing an encyclopedia. Unfortunately, this happens with a lot of new authors.
Walking that line is your job as a worldbuilder and author.
Two Methods of Worldbuilding
- You can create the world on the front end. You may have written notes about the world you want to place your story in. The risk is that the world could then become a hindrance to the story you’re writing.
- You can create the world on the back end, i.e. during rewrite and editing. You may have an idea of the world you’re creating, and place large set pieces to serve as landmarks during the drafting process. Later on, during rewrites, as you’ve learned more about the story, you can add elements of texture, flavor, aroma, and even clothing choices that fit and foreshadow the entirety of the picture you’re trying to paint.
World building is there to support the story and the plot
We have to constantly remember this when we’re thinking about the readers
World building can smother the story.
In some cases, you might be doing real well with your pacing, and yet you come to point where you want to spend more time with the setting and the world, and that could smother the story.
Bunker recommends to new authors that they read their story aloud so that they can hear when the story drags under the weight of too many worldbuilding details.
All details should have a purpose.
Always remember that details create weight as much as they do texture.
Time and energy spent worldbuilding can differ based on the setting of your story.
You might want to spend more or less time spent painting in your story world depending on your story. In far future stories, you might want to gloss over details—like how warp drives work. If you’re writing in the far past, you might have to spend more time making the setting feel realistic.
You should feel free to use different methods of worldbuilding to bring out particular elements of your story.
Leave our unnecessary details.
If your reader is missing what’s missing, your writing is weak. If the reader can fill in the rest of the details based on your broad brush strokes, your writing is strong.
If you ripped out one of your worldbuilding pieces and the story suddenly doesn’t make sense, that’s a failure of storytelling, not of worldbuilding.
A note on Chekhov’s gun
When you introduce an element or tool in the story, it needs to pay off. If you introduce a gun in an early part of the story, the gun needs to be fired before the end.
If you introduce an element of worldbuilding into the story, it needs to matter to the story.
Sometimes you have to lose the elements of worldbuilding because they’re just not important to the story. Though that may be hard to do, it will make your story stronger.
Don’t let worldbuilding be a long con.
Worldbuilding can be a long con.
We have to make sure at the end of the day that there’s a satisfaction the reader feels about the world. But that we didn’t con them into participating in this journey by including elements that never pay off.
Example of great world building that didn’t pay off? The TV series Lost.
Group Question & Answer
What’s the worldbuilding difference between fantasy and science fiction?
Generally speaking, Fantasy stories spend a long time doing painstaking worldbuilding.
If you read something like Ender’s game, only elements that are important to the story are defined.
But it’s hard to define the difference. For instance, science fiction involves so many subgenres that in many ways have nothing to do with each other, yet they all get lumped together: technothriller, Amish science fiction, space opera, cyberpunk, steampunk, post-apocalyptic, zombies, etc. Each one of those will require a different amount of worldbuilding, depending on your story.
When Pennsylvania was first published, and it got chunked in with science fiction because it was post apocalyptic and dystopian, Bunker was taken by surprise.
Is there a set list of minimum elements you like to use to build a story?
It depends on the story. You just have to do it in a way that feels right for you.
When in doubt, leave it out.
What about series arcs? Can you drop elements that come into play later in the series?
Yes, as long as it’s an important element. If you cut it out and it doesn’t change the story, or if the element never pays off, then leave it out.
Use the “yes, and..” fundamental rule of improv to think about how planted elements are going to pay off.
If it doesn’t pay off, it could be a dangerous speed bump for the reader.
How much do you prepare for each book before writing?
Again, every book is different. Example: Pennsylvania started off as a short story, with zero preparation. It actually started as a joke because of the Amish science fiction term people kept applying to Bunker’s work. He thought, what if I actually wrote an Amish Scifi story? There was very little preparation.
Whereas Osage Two Diamonds, the story Bunker wrote in Vonnegut’s world for Kindle Worlds, took a LOT of preparation.
Same with Brother, Frankenstein. The main character is autistic, and Bunker did a ton of research into autism protocols and treatments, talking to parents of autistic children and their doctors—all ahead of writing or in the early stages.
What is a “weird apocalypse”?
It takes the apocalypse genre and adds weird stuff like aliens, werewolves, paranormal ideas, etc. You can learn more about Bunker’s bookverse Apocalypse Weird on their website.
Apocalypse Weird has tie-ins that connect the bookverse together across all the different authors and books. How do those work?
(Possible spoilers, be warned!)
The overall arc for Apocalypse Weird is about a single story that connects every story written in the bookverse. Someone has tied the bookverse together in a big knot using individual strands of time.
So for example, common elements tie the world together:
- Sudden, temporary worldwide blindness
- A conspiracy blogger/radio personality named Dr. Midnight
What are the top five stories that inspire you?
- War and Peace
- Anna Karenina
- Some of Turgenev
- Ghulag Archipelago Shonetzyn
- The Red Wheel by Shonetzyn
- Hemingway — All of it.
- Jack Finney
“I’m an accidental scifi writer.” —Michael Bunker
Do you create any unique words to use in your book?
Sometimes…but be careful of it. Invented curse words sound really awkward to some people.
Some invented elements are important, but it has to make sense in the mind of a reader.
Being a novelist or author is a creative act, there’s nothing that stops us from creating words if they work with the story.
Do you have any writing rituals?
“I don’t have any writing rules. I’m very irresponsible.”
“I wrote a novella in 28 hours that was 38k words. It was a very meta comedy. It’s called Hugh Howey Must Die.”
Michael Bunker is Michael Bunker is a USA Today Bestselling author, off-gridder, husband, and father of four children. The Amish/Scifi world of Pennsylvania has enticed over 20 authors to write fanfic in that playground. He was a world building panelist at the last Dragoncon, and is the Executive Producer and co-creator of the Apocalypse Weird brand world – the MARVEL of digital publishing which now has over 30 authors writing novels within the co-operative world.
- MichaelBunker.com – Facebook – Twitter
- The Grinder. A conversation with Michael Bunker, the off-grid author of Wick and Pennsylvania.
- Rocking Self Publishing Podcast: Episode # 91 – Create Your Own Genre with Michael Bunker.
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