a gate in the middle of a forest. The gate is surrounded by bricks, creating an unusual contrast.

Worldbuilding: from style sheets to Snowpiercer

This is the first in a series of blog posts on issues that relate to worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy writing.

You’ve written your book and sent it to the publisher or editor. Sometime later you receive a marked-up manuscript with a style sheet.

Editorial worldbuilding

Style sheets could be described as editorial worldbuilding. They make top-level decisions about key features of a text. Some of these decisions are made beforehand and applied ‘globally’. This may include decisions on UK or US spelling, using a particular dictionary as an authority, and so on.

Other details are worked out ‘on the ground’ when your editor reads the manuscript and is forced to decide over possible spellings (Despatch or dispatch? Competences or competencies? Medieval or mediaeval?).

Decisions made beforehand and applied globally are a kind of top-down editorial worldbuilding.

Details worked out ‘on the ground’ are a kind of bottom-up editorial worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy

Top-down and bottom-up approaches can also be applied to worldbuilding in science-fiction and fantasy writing. You can make a list of global characteristics (top-down) about the fantasy world you are creating. Top-down descriptions can be helpful when you are taking notes and researching your ideas. However, there is a danger of inserting them into your novel as infodumps. This top-down approach suits more general characteristics, and the more logic- and reason-driven features of the world. It offers a more ‘godlike’ perspective (‘the omniscient observer’) on the text.

A top-down description of the Snowpiercer world:

  • The temperature has plunged to -120 degrees Celsius.
  • The only known remaining humans live on a train, designed as a luxury liner and powered by a perpetual motion engine.

The fantasy author M.D. Presley discusses how such worldbuilding should come in the first half (even better, quarter) of your novel. Any big shift in understanding that comes across late in the novel can appear disingenuous and contrived. How you convey such details is a separate issue, but to engage the reader, drip feeding and showing (rather than telling) often works best.

Compare for example…

“Outside everything was covered in white. I looked up through the glass dome above my head, out on to the top of the train, and watched the stars as I smoked a joint”.

“The stars were twinkling more than usual as I pressed my face against the cold glass. Moonlight glinted off the train roof, while inside the smoke from the joint was making me cough”.

Bottom-up worldbuilding

Writers work out other details in the minutiae of everyday life; in the scenes that we come across in the story. For example, in Snowpiercer we don’t automatically know that taking a bath would be a luxury enjoyed by a select few, but this makes perfect sense within the world that has been created.

The status and desire attached to taking a bath is a kind of social or cultural bottom-up worldbuilding. Such bottom-up details are handled on a case-by-case basis. In other words, they demand a different kind of engagement with the text (and world) compared with top-down worldbuilding. Indeed, there is a more experiential imagination at play, as Presley writes:

 ‘bottom-up discovery writing more closely mirrors how audiences experience stories: from the inside-out, giving them a leg up in the experiential department’.

How much consistency?

As a writer, you need to make decisions about how much you want to respect the science, history, linguistics of the real (Primary) world. Indeed, perhaps you are OK with your story having completely nonsensical and fantastic elements (Hello, Alice?). This can lead to some conflict between top-down and bottom-up decisions made.

When you work on bottom-up details, how does this interact with the top-down decisions you have made about the fantasy world? Some of these details will depend on science, logic, or social, and cultural knowledge. Consequently, you may wish to resolve these inconsistencies, or simply disregard them.

For example:

  • In a fantasy world set on an ice planet covered in liquid and solid carbon dioxide, would icebergs sink to the bottom of the ocean or not?
  • Can you have giant insects without an increase in oxygen concentration in the atmosphere?
  • Can you have desktop computers without a microchip revolution?
  • Does your world have ‘peoples’ and rigid ‘cultures’? What are the implications of someone not belonging to a ‘people’ or a ‘culture’?

Getting the order right

The writer M.D. Presley suggests looking at the fantastical elements in a certain order. Within the fantasy world, there is what he called ‘fantasy conceit’:

Fantasy Conceit:  What the creator intends to explore in the world, it is where the constructed world deviates from the real world, usually in the form of geography, biology, physics, metaphysics, technology, or culture’.

In the Harry Potter books, this would be magic. Furthermore, in the His Dark Materials series, this would be the idea of being able to travel between worlds (portal fantasy) in which different rules apply, and of having an externalised version of your personality in animal form (the daemons).

Presley suggests looking at the elements of your world in the order given above (starting with geography, ending with culture) as the earlier elements tend to influence the latter more strongly.

Let’s return to Snowpiercer:

GeographyOn a world like ours, with a global train network. The temperature has plunged to well below zero
BiologyHuman biology (with some medical adaptations to the cold)
Physics/magicThe perpetual motion engine
MetaphysicsPrinciple of ecosystem balance; underlying concept of maintaining balance in the train environment in terms of ecosystem AND social relations
TechnologyThe Eternal Engine; a perpetual motion machine using hydrogen from the snow outside [serves the plot function of making the long-term perpetual motion of the train possible]; some medical developments (creating humans who can survive in the freezing conditions)
CultureEthnicities – nationalities (e.g. Mexican, Australian) from the real (Primary) world. There is a clear class system on the train, with new words invented to describe it (e.g. tailies)

To conclude…

In short, all stories require some top-down and bottom-up worldbuilding. These interventions may lead to inconsistencies that you may try and resolve, or simply disregard. Both top-down and bottom-up worldbuilding often includes cultural elements that are based on societies in the real (Primary) world. Top-down descriptions include overarching descriptions (e.g. matrilineal, agricultural), while bottom-up descriptions may describe particular rituals.

Copying a culture or society directly leaves you open to charges of cultural appropriation. Indeed, this is especially true when you have no connection to that culture and there are power relations involved. Yet fantasy writers often do something slightly more subtle. They create ‘analogue cultures’ that are inspired by real-existing culture yet are imaginary. This act opens a whole set of issues to do with representation, which I will explore in the next blog post.

Introductory worldbuilding resources

Here are a few links that offer an introduction to worldbuilding. Feel free to post more in the comments!


Photo by Anna Gru on Unsplash

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