Mapping Out Your StoryWorld Part One

Welcome to Writerly Wednesday! Where I share a bit about writing and what I’ve learned over the years for those of you interested in becoming an author. Today, we’re kicking off a series on worldbuilding: Mapping Out Your Story World. It is a three part series based on a presentation I did for junior high and high school students. We’ll discuss the importance of maps, how we can use them to build our story world, and end with tips on drawing our own map. What we’ll cover:

It’s a basic overview for beginners (and hopefully a nice refresher for the rest of us!)  Plus a perfect fit for Jenelle Leanne Schmidt’s February is Fantasy Month theme this year, which is focusing on worldbuilding. So without further ado, let’s dive in!

What comes first for you? Plot? Characters? Story World?

For me, a snippet of plot and a main character tend to form hand-in-hand. But the story world comes quickly after that. I want to know what the land looks like, start naming locations, and where my characters will visit. Early in the planning stages, I am already sketching a map.

Ever since I can remember I loved drawing maps. I would draw imaginary coastlines, continents full of mountains amid forests and winding rivers, but I didn’t connect them to stories until I was a teen. I was just drawing maps. For fun. At times I would look back, and think, who does this kind of stuff?  But now as I’m writing fantasy and creating story worlds, I’m like duh! But I’m dork. Ha!

Every adventurer needs a map. Readers, writers, you and I are adventurers. Maps helps us:

  • To remember where everything is in our story world and keep it consistent.
  • To enhance and deepen the story (even if the main action takes place in a small area, dropping in references to other people groups and locations throughout the narrative can broaden the scope of your world and help make the story seem more real.)
  • Give readers a feel for where the characters are and a promise of what awaits them in the story to come.

Before we can dive into creating our maps and story worlds, we need to brainstorm the type of world we are building.

One of the things I love about writing fantasy is creating a new world, and one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that having a basic understanding of how the real world works helps us build better story worlds

Some of you might be saying, hold up! We’re dealing with speculative fiction. We’re making all this up. We’re trying to escape reality not create it. The beauty of fantasy is being able to create whatever you want, the wonderful question of “What if?” So . . . .

Why should we worry about science, the laws of nature, and so forth when we are dealing with fantastical realms and concepts?

The Suspension of Disbelief.

Have you ever read a book that was hard to believe?

As readers, we have to suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy stories about magic and wizards and middle earth. We want to step into the story world and become a part of it. As authors, it’s our job to do just that. We write to create a fantastical world that is believable, where we can invite others to step inside, become immersed in our creation, and to take them on adventures.  BUT if readers find the immersion hard to believe, they will be jerked from the story, and they won’t enjoy it. They will walk away disappointed, frustrated, maybe even angry. It defeats the very reason why we are creating and why readers read.

But as such, we are writing fantasy and science-fiction for a reason. We will not always follow the laws of our natural world. One of the things authors learn as we pursue our craft—the skills to write stories and paint pictures with words—is that we must learn the rules in order to know how to break them. It’s the same here. Once you know them, you can choose to do what you will as a stylistic choice as long as it makes sense in your world.

As Elizabeth Swan said in Pirates of the Caribbean, “You’re pirates writers! Hang the code and hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines, anyways.”

If there is something in your world that defies the natural laws of science, then you need to have a reason for it that fits your story world.

The water flows upward—why? Ice kingdom in the middle of the desert? How? Perhaps a magical disturbance in the environment or an isolation spell. How does that magic affect that spot but not other locations? What fuels that spell? Can it be broken? Whatever the reason, you’ll need to establish why you broke the rules and remember to be consistent throughout the story.

Some of the first questions we have to answer when it comes to worldbuilding is:

How similar is the story world to our world? Does it follow the same laws of nature? How is the world different than our own? If you’ve strayed from established science and rules, how do you explain it?

So what say you? What are some ways authors have broken the laws of nature and gotten away with it?

Some that come to mind:

  • Harry Potter. Some people are born with magic, some are not.
  • C.S. Lewis’s Space trilogy where the planet Elwin Ransom visits has less gravity on it. So things are taller, lighter, but it also takes a toll on him.

Next week, we’ll discuss Ecology and Cultures.

Have a great rest of the week!

17 thoughts on “Mapping Out Your StoryWorld Part One

  1. Really enjoyed this post. (Also, special place in my heart for the Pirates of the Caribbean quote, and I love that you’ve applied it to writers!) 🙂 🙂

    Can’t wait to read the next part!

    1. Thank you!!! That quote was the founding quote for my “Yo Ho, A Writer’s Life For Me” blogging series I did a loooooooooong time ago. I’m thinking of resurrecting it in some way. We shall see. Thank you so much for stopping by! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! 🙂

  2. Dave Farland says that you can only have one impossible thing in each fantasy world. Then you hinge everything else off that. With Star Wars, it’s the Force. Off that, you hinge Jedi, Sith, lightsabers, all the other impossible things. If Star Wars introduced a thing about water flowing upward but didn’t hinge it to the Force, people would throw a fit. You can’t have two impossible things. Only one. Extremely important for worldbuilding. The story I’m writing, the impossible thing is the Mirror. Off it I can hinge Radiance, the companion spheres, the alien races hunting the Mirror, and so on.

    1. Hi Kessie! That is interesting. I really need to think about that. Right away, my brain is trying to think of some possible exceptions. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  3. So, this is actually a D&D campaign setting, not a book…but it does some seriously fascinating worldbuilding–Eberron.

    Just sticking to the topic of suspension of disbelief and explaining the unusual–there’s a concept in Eberron called a Manifest Zone. The ‘normal world’ of Eberron is tied 13 elemental/conceptual planes–a manifest zone is a place where a little influence from one of those planes bleeds over into Eberron…this lets you have all sorts of weird, fantastical locations that don’t have to entirely ‘make sense’ given geography or many other facets. Just to give a few examples…

    Say you want a nice cozy village way up in the tundra where lumber is scarce. Well, it could easily be built on top a Manifest Zone of Fernia (plane of Fire) and the way that connection manifests is that dark colored stone is hot…the darker the hotter. So you have pitch black stones that are hot enough to cook over, or a dark granite slab that is warm enough to heat your house.

    Or say you want to have a massive city in the desert–well, the Oasis its is built around could be a manifest zone to Lamannia (plane of unbound nature), and in this case, the result is that the growth rates of crops is massively accelerated, and the lake never runs out of fish.

    It’s a fun way to ‘break the rules,’ without actually breaking any rules.

    1. Wow, that is epic and mind-bending. I have seen overlap in D & D campaign settings and world-building for epic fantasies. There is so much we can learn from D & D. I love the idea of the heating stones! And how the different planes can bleed over into each other. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting!

  4. I loved this post!! And I’m so excited that you’re doing this series! Oh, and I totally loved the Elizabeth Swan reference. =D

  5. This sounds like it’s going to be a pretty interesting series. Also, as a writer of fantasy who loves science because it gives her weird what-if worldbuilding ideas, I appreciate your point about needing to know how the world works before we make it work differently.

    1. Thank you, Dave! Those are kind words indeed! Thank you for subscribing. I’m hoping to be more consistent in blogging this year. I have really missed it. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Great post! This serves as a good intro to worldbuilding. Can’t wait to read the next entry. 😀

    One author I’ve enjoyed because of her unique worlds is Kendra Ardnek. The two of the most unique that come to mind are: a world that’s shaped like a cylinder and thus has different horizons, and another where the habitable world exists on the *inside* of a sphere and has different rules for gravity.

    1. Thank you so much, Marlene! Those two examples sound awesome! I will have to check out Kendra Ardnek’s books. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting!

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