Worldbuilding is the process of developing a setting for your story, mostly by gradually revealing that setting to the reader.
Even if your story takes place in present-day Earth, there may be things about the setting that will be unfamiliar to the majority of your audience. Maybe you’re writing about a foreign country or culture, for instance.
Outside of present-day Earth, things get more complex. With historical fiction, for instance: you’ll want to do your research, then figure out how important historical accuracy is for your purposes. Some people want their historical setting to be accurate down to every detail, while others just want the “flavor” of some bygone era.
With a fantasy/sci-fi setting, you’re free to make up anything you want! On the downside, you’ll have to explain that entire setting to your audience, and you’ll have to do it gracefully. Most people don’t want to read whole chapters or books about the setting before being allowed to read the story itself (I’m looking at you, Tolkein!).
When planning your setting, it’s up to you just how detailed you want to get- and really, you can get very detailed. Some people go so far as to invent new languages and laws of physics! But for most of us, that’s overkill. Here are some broader details to consider as a start:
- A rough timeline of important events and people that explain how the setting got to be what it is
- Technology level, and rough ideas of how fantastical items (ex. ray guns) work
- How magic and other paranormal abilities work (if they exist)
- If any alien races/creatures, a rough idea of how they evolved and came to be what they are
- Geography and climate
This is certainly a TON of detail. But you’ll want to think carefully about it, and document it all in its own special place, because you need a reference manual for your setting. This is often referred to as a “bible.” Your story has to obey the bible at all times, or else you risk plot-unraveling inconsistencies that readers will call you on.
These rules are even more important to document if you intend to base several stories in the same setting.
Here’s another maddening thing about worldbuilding: you may get really excited about the setting you come up with. You may feel tempted to proclaim to the world every last detail- but that’s an urge you must resist. When you get to story-writing, sneak details to the reader on an as-needed basis, and do as much SHOW as possible (for instance, instead of having a character lecture about magic, have a character go through the process of casting a spell).
OK! So much for documentation and story pre-planning. Here are the other docs I’ve discussed previously. Once they’re ready, get drafting!