3 min read

How to world build when you don't know everything

Worldbuilding can be like doing a 10,000-piece puzzle with no idea what the picture is. It can be easy to get bogged down in trying to untangle the complexities of your fictional world. Coming up against an element of your world that you don't understand well yet can quickly derail your writing process.

Here's the thing though: you don't know everything about the world you currently live in, so don't worry about not knowing everything about your fictional world. You can choose which details to focus on and which can sort of blur into the background. And, if you're stuck, we have some strategies to help you overcome the block!

Be character led

Often, the easiest way into a story is through a character - start with their experience of the world and world-build around plot events that the character is involved in. In this way, you only focus on what you need to know about the world to move the story forward rather than getting caught up in trying to figure out every detail.

Focus on details that move the story forward

A great lesson from Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass is that details only matter when it matters to the story. Your character only needs to be married if his divorce is central to his external goal. Likewise, the detailed geography of your world is only important if traversing the landscape is a crucial element of the story. Knowing the location of all major cities in your world is only necessary if the story's central theme revolves around the political machinations of each city in relation to the others. Focus first and foremost on what is really important for your reader to know to "get" the plot.

Read more: Adding depth with detail

Give it the wibbly wobbly, timey wimey treatment

In Doctor Who, the tenth doctor describes a non-linear model of time as "Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey… stuff." It's an explanation that fits the show's tone and is true to his character. But, it also notes that something exists in the Doctor Who universe without going into any specifics. The lesson is: if you don't know the details, you can always fudge it. Fudge is, after all, delicious.

  • Instead of trying to create a language, describe what the language sounds like. Is it guttural? Melodic? Does it have rounded vowels? Is it sharp?
  • If you want to avoid creating a system of magic from scratch, let magic be a spiritual force that defies reason and logic.
  • Show a character's superior technical expertise by having them say it's hard to explain rather than actually trying to explain it.
  • Have a character interact with technology and state that they don't know how it works; it just does (most people don't know how the cell phone they use every day actually works).

Come back to it later

In her Masterclass on Writing for Television, Shonda Rhimes notes how she would leave the note [medical-medical] in her Grey's Anatomy scripts when she needed the doctors to talk about something to do with the technical details of a patient's case (and she used [political-political] when writing Scandal).

She didn't let gaps in subject-specific technical knowledge hamper the storytelling – it was something her expert advisors would come in later to help with. Instead, she focused on emotion and human interaction. You can also use this trick and return to parts of the story later to figure out how to incorporate the worldbuilding elements you need to make the story come alive.

The key is to stay calm and to approach your worldbuilding with a sense of curiosity and exploration. Start with the basics and remember that leaving some things open-ended is okay. Your goal is to create a believable and compelling world that supports and enhances your story. It's okay to have only some of the answers!