Which Should Come First: World or Story?

By daveynin at flickr.

It’s the chicken and the egg question of spec fic: should you make a world and then plot your story in it, or should you create the story and then build the world it’s in? Most storytellers answer this question by beginning with the part that inspires them the most. While a lot of great fantasy and scifi has been made that way, it risks leaving the rest neglected or disorganized.

‘World Showcase’ Stories

Have you ever read or watched a story where the character trotted the globe for.. well, for no reason? Or where the plot felt like a video game: go to one place to fetch a key, then sail across the sea and invade a dungeon to unlock the chest inside, and of course, visit strange places and gain sidekick of each race along the way!

After spending so much time and effort on your world before turning to the story, it can be hard to resist designing your plot around showing it all off. But plots like these feel slow and canned.

Plot-Convenient Worlds

Lil’ baby Potter could have been killed by the big bad, but his mother sacrificed herself, giving him powerful magic protection… somehow. After that he went to live with his emotionally abusive Aunt and Uncle. You see, the powerful and mysterious protective magic only worked if he was living with them. This disappeared altogether as soon as he was 17… because it just did.

If you plot the whole story before turning to the world that supports it, the rules of your world may end up feeling arbitrary and contrived.

Build Them Together

The best results come from creating them side by side. Start with a loose concept for your world or story, then develop the other aspect for a while before filling in the details. Your world can inform story choices even as its rules are changed to drive the plot and form the characters.

This process can be tricky when a series of stories are set in the same world, but for every story you can flesh out the world in more detail. Just keep it consistent, and don’t belittle your previous stories by revealing that the big bad was really just the servant of a greater evil.

The end result you want is to make both the story and the world interesting on their own, yet inseparable. You should not be able to extract your story and put it in a different world with different rules, and your world should be different for having the story take place there.

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  1. Jack Marshall

    I agree, and find that world and plot can be mutually inspiring. Where the plot gets shaky, often thinking the world out a little better shores up what must happen. The plot in its turn helps give ideas for world development.

    A similar relationship exists between characters and their background, as well as the effect of the world on both. But like character backgrounds, the world should remain a background, exposed only where pertinent.

  2. Bethany Slyter

    I’m sorry but the generalization that you do in this post and your lack of understanding of the material really weaken your points. Not that I don’t agree that they should be built side by side but you should definitely use sources that you actually know what you’re talking about.
    Like Harry’s Plot Convenient World. Only Voldemort couldn’t touch him after his mom sacrificed herself. Only him. And that stopped working because in the fourth book, Voldemort’s servant Wormtail took some of Harry’s blood to use in whatever revival spell he cast for Voldemort.
    As for why he lived with the evil Aunt and Uncle, Dumbledoor thought he’d grow up less spoiled that way, instead of in a world where everyone knew his name. It had nothing to do with protection.
    Finally, 17 is the age of adulthood for wizards. You’re automatically tracked, I guess kind of like a govt. id etc. Which would make it easy for the bad guys to find him, since they took over the Wizard government headquarters.
    …I’m not saying you’re wrong, it is convenient…I guess, but she also pretty much stated this in the first two books. So…yeah.

    • Em Dash Buck

      Actually, in the fourth book, Dumbledore says that he left Harry at the Dursley’s because of the protection it would afford him.

      “While you can still call home the place where your mother’s blood dwells, there you cannot be touched or harmed by Voldemort. He shed her blood, but it lives on in you and her sister. Her blood became your refuge. You need return there only once a year, but as long as you can still call it home, there he cannot hurt you. Your aunt knows this. I explained what I had done in the letter I left, with you, on her doorstep. She knows that allowing you houseroom may well have kept you alive for the past fifteen years.”

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