How much worldbuilding do you do before starting the story?

Mar 15, 2021
Hey guys, first time poster here. I'm trying to start on my idea for a novel but I still feel like I need to do a lot of groundwork for my setting before I even begin. I don't want to get too bogged down with worldbuilding though, I'm worried it might be a diversion from my actual writing of the story.
So my question is, how much worldbuilding should I do before I begin the story itself?
I world build as I write. You don't have to do all of your worldbuilding at the beginning of your story, just enough to give a general understanding of your world's basic structure so readers can easily follow along (or are intrigued enough that they want to know more), but, as you said, you don't want to get bogged down with too much worldbuilding that you bore readers and lose your actual plot. There's a fine balance between too much and too little world-building, and either can lose readers. Not everything in your world needs to be explained at the beginning (if at all), and a lot of it can be addressed as you go long (just be careful of overly long 'info dumps').
I'd do the same as Laura. Get a basic idea of what your world will be to help you write. Then start getting words down. If you stumble on a good idea or something you need to flesh out to ensure consistency, make some notes as you go along but don't get hung up on creating an entire world that doesn't affect your story.

Plus you never know what crazy cool ideas you might find in the middle of a sentence :)
I build as little as I need to, and generally do as @Laura R Hepworth says, build as I write.

Like so many aspects of writing, there is no one right answer. Some people can't start the story until they've built the world. The only way that you're going to find out what works for you is try it and see. Realistically, if this is your first novel, then this is where you learn your writing process - build first or later, plot or pants, flowery prose or lean-and-mean, etc.
I don't do it at all. As the plot develops the world gets invented as it goes.
Really I'm creating arenas for the characters to interact in as I go.
I certainly don't sit like a 12 year old in my room plotting maps and deciding that I must have diamond skinned dragons on the island of Plib or that the Threggle people can levitate yams at will. :giggle:
Then again, I generally write earth based stuff, and we already know what shape that is - kinda.
In my opinion the order of importance for stories is as follows:

#1 - character, including stakes and motivations

#2 - plot, characters have to be doing something interesting

#3 - setting, where are the characters doing theses interesting things?

So, when I have a neat idea for a setting, the first thing I look for are interesting characters to interact in it. I usually do this by writing short scenes to get an idea of how things look in that part of my mind that can only be accessed when words are hitting the page.

Sometimes I get immediately useful stuff out of these exercises, but it usually ends up in a slush pile that gets developed later.

*Yes, I have a pretty extensive slush pile, Laugh Out Loud
I still feel like I need to do a lot of groundwork for my setting before I even begin [writing].
I would listen to your inner feelings. If you do not feel like you are ready to start writing, don't. One thing, though, to get started in an organized way might be to write a brief history of the world. This might help you decide what areas of the world you find find important versus what parts are merely flights of fantasy.
If you do not feel like you are ready to start writing, don't.
I have to respectfully disagree.

The best way to not write is to not write, and the best way to not write is to wait for some particular circumstances or inspirations or perfect ideas to redeem themselves.

If you want to write you have to write. This coming from a wannabe writer who spent two years not writing.
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You can always do both. Have a world building file and your story file. As you write your story, you can also be developing your world in the other file and, as you need to, you can bring in portions from your world building into your story so that it runs smoothly, but is not weighed down. Depending on the complexity of your world, there may be aspects that you need to work out, not for the reader, but for yourself. There's no reason that you can't be working on both separately from each other. If you want to write though, at some point, you need to just write and develop things as you go.
In my opinion the order of importance for stories is as follows:

#1 - character, including stakes and motivations

#2 - plot, characters have to be doing something interesting

#3 - setting, where are the characters doing these interesting things?

I was thinking about this sort of thing a few days ago, and it occurred to me that a lot of what I'm looking for in novels is "Interesting people doing interesting things". I read quite a bit of crime as well as SFF, and the settings of crime are often quite predictable or familiar, so there's not much worldbuilding.

Most of the time, I think I have a loose idea of what the setting is like and what its limits are when I start. I have broken those limits at times but not much and usually as a one-off (there's only one flying machine, and it's destroyed at the end, thus resetting the world). I find that vague rules like "roughly Victorian tech but not steampunk" are quite helpful. A lot of worldbuilding for me isn't big maps and changes to the laws of physics, but things like clothing, customs and the like that make a setting feel both alien and "itself".
Thanks for all of the great advice everyone! I don't particularly enjoy worldbuilding in and of itself so I think I'll take the strategy of building as it becomes necessary in the story.
If this is your first story (first novel), then you don't know yet. You're not even sure where the line is between worldbuilding and storytelling. It differs with every writer. The only way I know of to proceed is to dive in. By the fourth or fifth novel you'll start to have an idea of what works for you.

Meanwhile, don't worry too much about the One versus the Other. Chances are high that you'll opt for one path, decide the other looks better, try that for a while, and switch back and forth until you hit the groove.

Unless, of course, you are one of the Blessed Few who instinctively know the right way from the start. They do exist. I hate them all. <g>
As I began to write, I drew little maps to help me find my way about, sketches of city gates, housing blocks and houses, ships, boats, wagons etc. to feed my imagination. I still have them, rolled up like a codex at the back of a cupboard, though I don't need to refer to them any more when I write.

Actually I'm terrible at drawing, but even my very basic doodles helped considerably. What came first in my mind was little details like that, it was a while before 'the world' coalesced into something consistent, and I'd written quite a lot by that point. Likewise naming conventions and general cultural references sort of arose as and when I needed them, and 'rules' came afterwards.

I wrote a couple of pointless short stories (more like word-sketches with dialogue) to shape a couple of main characters, that let me find their voices and attitudes etc. and whereas my initial idea for the world was 'an Earth-like planet', at some point quite far in to the process, this changed to 'far-future Earth', and this turned out to be a pretty fundamental change. IMO you build what the story needs, most of the time!

I'd add that even after thousands of words, there's plenty in the world they're set in that remains 'undiscovered' (ie. not imagined yet)
Like Toby mentioned, world building is much more than just a world's geography or the physics behind their tech. It's also their society structure, customs, languages, clothing, laws, politics, magic system (if fantasy), architecture, creatures, plants, etc. All of this is a part of world building, however, not all of it is needed for each book. Also, a lot of this is stuff that you can work out for yourself to guide your writing that the reader never needs to even see, but, on occasion, you may need to draw from to add extra detail or depth to your world. One of my WIP stories is an alternative-history/fantasy book that I intend to make a conlang for along with maps. It's going to take me ages to work out all the world-building details I want in order for it to mesh well, but, in the meantime, I still plan on moving forward with the story itself. Some of this is stuff that I won't need until later in the book, so I don't need to have everything figured out at the beginning, or can come back to to flesh out later (leaving notes of where these places are). This way, once I finish the projects ahead of it and can get back to this one, I won't be holding back the actual story while I continue working out the world-building.

Depending on what your story is about, details such as the world's cultural geography might be more important and add greater depth to it than details of the physical geography and scientific laws. The cultural aspects are also what readers are most likely to find a connection with beyond the actual plot and characters.
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This!!! :giggle:
The cultural aspects are also what readers are most likely to find a connection with beyond the actual plot and characters.

There's a good selection of ideas and viewpoints here, but mostly answering the question you asked, which boils down to how does this affect me and my writing?
Laura's hit the question you didn't ask, how does this affect my readers?

That matters.

You will find the point made in various places on Chrons - readers aren't necessarily that interested in your world building. The bits of your world that you show them needs to make the story more engaging.
@Wayne Mack

I do agree—and perhaps this is what you meant—that sometimes a writer just isn’t ready to tell the story they are working on. In that case, it could be beneficial to set it aside and move on to something else. I’ve done this myself.
I have only had to world-build once and when I started writing I just had a vague picture in mind of the universe of my novel. As the story progressed I created incidents, history, mythology and other elements as required and all was slowly revealed. Or it came into focus.

As my main character entered this universe as clueless as I was, this approach worked nicely. Or I got lucky!
Hi, @TheDreadScotsman! I advise you to remember how you did it when you played as a child. That is, start with the situation, what is happening? Or imagine that you have two puppets in your hands. That immediately brings you to a second element, what do they say? That is, the dialogue. As you will see, there is still no worldbuilding. Then, I think it is easier for you to understand that the environment, time, technological advances, customs, ethnological differences, all these are elements that will appear later, but the situation is always first, the what. The where, how and when you will solve it on the fly. That is why I will never believe someone who tells me that everything comes out the first time. Yes, sure. It's actually a lot of work and passion, and by the way, welcome, find yourself an armchair and make yourself comfortable. :lol:
I read a great book last year called Write Worlds Your Readers Won't Forget.
Broadly speaking, there are three areas of worldbuilding in which a writer can insert a dramatically different detail:
1. The world's physical environment — that is, the physical conditions for survival on that world.
2. The kind of creatures that inhabit the world.
3. The cultures that inhabit and interpret that world.
...Most of the time, an SF/F writer will 'tweak' just one of these three.

When I started thinking about worldbuilding (and getting overwhelmed) I focused on choosing just one of those three to "tweak" and then thought about how the tweak would affect everything else that my characters were going to come into conflict/contact with.

Also — someone on a podcast I was listening to recently commented that a story with weak characters and plot but great worldbuilding wouldn't sell — characters and conflict are definitely the most important ingredients!
I definitely agree with characters and conflict being the most important aspect. I, for some reason, got started and felt like I needed to create my entire setting before I could make interesting characters to write about. But, I already have a rough idea of what the setting and themes will be like, so I think focusing on character writer is probably my next goal rather then setting design.

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