This fine art is about describing places, people, and history rolled into one. In short: this article speaks of how to fit millions of different people, millions of different places, and millions of different events in history together.
World building, like a bunch of other storytelling techniques, is not new. In the story of our world, God creates the universe, describing in graphic detail how everything is made. Tolkien makes his story come to life by the way he binds together different cultures, people, places, and timelines. Lewis does much the same thing, and so have many other writers throughout the ages.
Without this process, your work will resemble a jellyfish: a lot of disconnected, amoeboid, floppy tentacles. If you can’t connect your descriptions of lore, cultures, people, and places, it will be garbage. End of story.
Before you learn how to connect these elements, you first have to create them. If you’re the kind that builds a world in your head before you start the story in it (a good plan), then you must first construct everything you want to include. Quarter off your world. There’s four main factions, you say? That live on the four, different, non-connected continents? Good. Now, what are the histories of these peoples? How did they come to be? What other culture are they like? Answer these questions, and you’ve got the pieces. Name important people, geography, dates, anything relevant that can possibly be imagined. You may not tell most of this to your reader, but as I have said before, you’re doing this for your benefit as well as the readers’.
So, how to connect these elements of world-building into an actual world? The paramount priority is that it is large enough to house the 80% that the reader doesn’t know about. You have to give your reader the impression that he or she doesn’t know the full extent of your world, but you do. But when you know the story in ways that they don’t, it allows you to write better, because the space in which you’re thinking is far more defined. So, make it big and shield a good bit of it from your reader’s view. Remember, you’re doing this for your benefit as well as your readers’.
So, make it big. Now what? Well, Then there comes the actual connecting part. You have to connect the people to events, the events to other people and places, and then you have to connect more people to more events that span more places, until you’ve got a round globe (Or flat, depending on what you want). Be sure that no event goes by without a perpetrator, or that every place has clearly some attached history or clearly NOT (Like, “This is a sleepy town where nothing happens”). Connecting famous people with their works, and then connecting the works to the places is a good place to start. Just make sure you note everyone who DID something, then catalogue WHEN, WHERE, and HOW they did it. Then connect them into other important events that are related.
Now, for the physical: be sure to include a good geography. There’s a reason why Lewis and Tolkien wrote maps for their works. I’m not asking you to draw a map necessarily, but at least tell yourself about land masses and tundras and forests and deserts and things of that sort. This can have a tremendous impact on the story, and it’s worth including.
The general lore bit slots quite easily into this, once the world is mostly built. After you’ve told everything important about the geography, important persons, important events, and historical places, then the general lore bit you can put in there give the reader a feeling of entering strange and unknown world. Use this to your advantage.
One final tip: you may want to cut the lore, people, and places to fit the world you have in mind. This is totally acceptable. Maybe you’ve created a certain society but it doesn’t fit anywhere conveniently. Feel free to cut it out, or add one on the fly that fits. You literally have absolute control over your world.
Creation Challenge: In a few sentences, construct an on-the-fly world. It can be ridiculous, it can be cool, it can be simple. It can be a completely dark earth where the sun no longer gives light and humanity is hunted by nameless horrors that creep in the dark. Just don’t be like Katy from Horton Hears a Who!: “In my world, everyone’s a pony, and they all eat rainbows and poop butterflies.” Okay?
Good luck, and happy writing!