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April 9, 2019

Worldbuilding a Series: Writing without a Plan

Blank billboard in the desert with text: Worldbuilding without a Plan... Now What?

Last week, we talked about worldbuilding and how one way to approach it is by figuring out our world’s History 101. As I mentioned in the post, some writers plan out their worldbuilding details in advance. Others…not so much. *smile*

I write by the seat of my pants, otherwise known as being a pantser. Pantsers can still successfully worldbuild, as we can simply pause and add worldbuilding details as we pay attention to our plot events and our characters and their interactions. We can let our muse, subconscious, or whatever we want to call our imagination lead us to interesting discoveries about our story world.

I’ve mentioned before that in my novel Pure Sacrifice, I didn’t know until I typed the words that Markos, my unicorn-shifter hero, was a prince. I literally stopped for several minutes—jaw hanging open like a cliché—when a secondary character reacted to Markos’s frustrated demand to get out of his way with the line:

Hipdemos bowed his head and shuffled back. “Yes, my prince.”

I could have doubted my subconscious and deleted the line, not following the lead of such a big revelation, but I’ve learned to trust my muse. That detail created the worldbuilding for the story, as I asked myself what happened to the remainder of my hero’s family and how/why he was out of power. That line was the key to understanding the history of his world, and there wouldn’t be a story without that detail.

Plotters who plan everything out might find that approach stressful, but most writers—plotters or pantsers—find the drafting process revealing, with surprises no matter our level of advance planning. So on some level, plotters can understand how us pantsers make it work.

The difficulty for pantsers, however, jumps to a ludicrous level when we shift the focus from a single book to a series. How does worldbuilding work when we pants our series?

Can a Series Be Pantsed?

Our first question might be whether a series can be pantsed. The answer is “yes, but…it also depends.”

As I’ve discussed before, there are different types of series. In general, books are designated a series because they share at least one element:

  • Setting: These series take place in the same “world” but might each feature different characters. The characters of book two may or may not have been introduced in book one. The events of book two may or may not be dependent on the events of book one.
    Many romance series fall into this category, each book featuring a different couple that receives their “happily ever after” by the end of their story.
  • Characters: These series feature the same characters. The events of book two may or may not be dependent on the events of book one. Many urban fantasy series fall into this category, each book featuring a different bad guy for the protagonist to defeat.
    However, series like Nancy Drew also fall into this category, where each book stands alone and can be read in any order.
  • Story Arc: These series follow a main story over several installments. Each book usually features at least some of the same characters. Sometimes a story will end with a cliffhanger to be resolved in the next book. These books need to be read in order to make sense.
    Typically, these series have a definitive ending rather than going on forever (a story arc needs to end sometime), but for sales reasons, some authors have attempted to turn a story arc series into an open-ended series (to mixed results).

Obviously, series can share more than one common element. Those with a common story arc usually share common characters and settings as well. The Harry Potter series has common characters and settings (and individual book arcs) in addition to its series-long story arc.

What Type of Series Works Best with Pantsing?

Depending on what the comment element(s) is, authors might need to plan ahead more for some types of series than for other types of series. Some styles of series works better for pantsing than others.

As I’ve written about before

  • The least complicated series style to pants are those without story-by-story plot dependencies, such as those with a common setting or some types of common-character series (like Nancy Drew).
  • The most complicated series style to pants are those with an overall story arc, where the whole series acts as one big story and might even feature cliffhanger endings.

But even with the most complicated style, some pantsers can make series arcs work better than others. As I mentioned in the post linked for these bullet points, some pantsers are blessed with logical muses or the ability to adapt in ways that work—even over the big picture of a series.

What Does This Have to Do with Worldbuilding?

Similarly, some pantsers are able to worldbuild a series in a logical way that builds from book to book. Let’s revisit the three types of pantsers I referenced in the post linked above…

Pantser Type #1: Extensive Editor
“What Am I Writing Again?”

Do we often have to extensively edit after pantsing a story just to make all the pieces make sense? If so, worldbuilding on the fly with a strong series arc might be difficult for us.

Worldbuilding can be hard, and worldbuilding for a whole series can be even more complicated... Click To TweetWe might develop worldbuilding for a secondary character, such as the protagonist’s best friend, to have a certain job or background, and struggle to adapt in the next book when we need the friend to have different skills or background details. We might write ourselves into a corner due to a mishmash of magic rules or by making our setting too limiting.

As I mentioned in the post referenced above, series arcs can be difficult for writers used to being able to edit many aspects in a story to bring the pieces together. Pantsers of this type might be better off writing the whole series before release, or at least planning their worldbuilding details in advance.

Pantser Type #2: Normal Editor
“I’ll Figure It Out”

Some pantsers avoid worldbuilding details that might be too limiting later on. They might instinctively know when to leave the world’s “rules” a bit vague so they don’t come back and bite them later.

At the same time, this type of pantser is often skilled at being able to adapt when they do need to give specifics that later don’t work quite as well for other book’s situations. They’ve learned how to incorporate inconsistencies into the story or they’ve become skilled at explaining when a world’s rules change.

How can those who write by the seat of their pants create worldbuilding for not just a story—but a whole series? Click To TweetFor example, this type of pantser might let the best friend in the “wrong” job for their story idea inspire them to change that idea to fit the job they do have, or they might explain it away with a subplot of the best friend’s midlife-crisis job change. In fantasy-style worldbuilding, the fact that the protagonist’s idea won’t work given the story world’s rules could lead to a failure for them, incorporating the problem into the plot, or a reason for why the impossible suddenly works could be used to explain away the inconsistency.

Obviously too much of the latter could feel too convenient to the story. Taking that route every time can create a Gary Stu/Mary Sue issue, where everything just works for the protagonist, no matter the story world’s internal logic. Worse, it can rob a story of conflict and obstacles, so these types of pantsers need to be careful about relying on the “easy” explanations too frequently.

Pantser Type #3: Instinctive Drafter
“My Muse Knows All”

As I’ve mentioned before, some (rare) pantsers are blessed with a logical subconscious. Even though they might not consciously know where their story is going, their subconscious already has it figured out, from clues and subtext to foreshadowing and themes, and their writing includes those elements naturally.

For these pantsers, they’ve learned to trust their muse. That includes trusting when to include worldbuilding details, when to get specific (even though it might seem to be limiting), etc.

These authors would trust that there’s a reason for the protagonist’s best friend to have the “wrong” job for the story idea. Maybe that “wrong” job will be important for the next story and they need to add a different character to fit the role for this story, etc.

However, it takes time and experience to know if our subconscious is actually this skilled, or if we’re just engaging in wishful thinking. New writers should be cautious before relying on this approach.

Worldbuilding without a Plan

It can be hard to worldbuild a single story, and it’s even more difficult to create a story world that will work over an entire series. But whether we plan our series in advance or not, whether we’re a plotter or a pantser, it’s good to understand our options.

Even those who plot their stories in advance might appreciate a few worldbuilding tricks picked up from pantsers... Click To TweetEven plotters can run into trouble. They might need to fall back on one of the usual pantsing techniques—such as incorporating problems into the story—to write themselves out of a corner.

Even plotters might want to keep in mind that limiting the specifics we share in a story to only what’s necessary can be good. Not only do we avoid potential issues down the line when our series doesn’t come together quite like we planned, but we also ensure that we’re not dumping a bunch of unnecessary worldbuilding information into our story.

We all have options when we write ourselves into one of those corners. Oops…we wrote character A and B to get along and now we want their respective groups to be in conflict?

We can all let that situation inspire us to be more creative with our worldbuilding. Fine, those groups don’t usually get along, why are our characters exceptions? Let that detail add layers to our story, making character interactions less superficial.

Worldbuilding Is Writing

Worldbuilding is so much more than we often think it to be. It’s not just about contemporary New York City vs. a fantasy world with magic.

Worldbuilding incorporates not just the “rules” and history of our story world, but also…

  • what our characters believe about that world
  • how it makes them act and react
  • how characters and groups think about and treat each other
  • how our characters compare to the “norm” of their situation

In other words, almost every aspect of our story contributes to worldbuilding. The dialogue our characters say, the clothes they wear, their attitude and reaction in every situation, how others react to them, the obstacles they encounter, who respects or disrespects who, etc.—all that contributes to readers’ understanding of the story world. That’s worldbuilding.

Obviously, we can’t come up with all those details until we actually write our story—no matter how much of a plotter we are. At the same time, that perspective also emphasizes how worldbuilding doesn’t have to be seen as a separate skill we have to learn. If we understand how to add appropriate details that create a bigger sense of a whole, our worldbuilding can be developed—and revealed to readers—naturally and organically.

That understanding can help us when we write series as well. The story world—and thus the series world—is what we make it to be in every detail we include. An organic view of worldbuilding can help us when we write series, even if we don’t plan our series in advance. *smile*

Do you write series with a common story world? Have you wondered how to approach worldbuilding for the series? Does this perspective of worldbuilding help you understand the challenges—and the flexibility—we can use to our advantage? If you write by the seat of your pants, do you know what style of pantsing you lean toward? Do you have any questions about worldbuilding?

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P.I. Barrington

Sorry, but I had to actually laugh out loud when I got to “Yes, my Prince,” Why? Because I’ve experienced the same thing myself! I also sat slack-jawed when I got to that point. Plus, I LOVE worldbuilding any world, any time, any place it’s all fun! Great article!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

I’ve had the unexpected pop up too!
Great post and I will have to read it again after exam time.
I write vague plot and arc from planning (which I can do as I go) but character and detail from pantsing. The characters wouldn’t have it any other way.

K.S. Barton

I’ve recently finished writing the final book in a trilogy. I decided to write all three books before publishing the first one, just in case something happened or changed towards the end. I’m mostly a pantser with a little plotter mixed in. I’m sure I could have figured out how to deal with changes or getting stuck, but I figured it would be easier to just keep the books close until all three were ready. It’s been difficult to be patient! But I’m a big girl and I think the final product will be better because of it. My next project will be a series and each book will be a stand-alone, so that will make it easier.

BTW, I love those moments when some bit of character development and world building pop up out of nowhere! They make writing so much fun.

Sieran

I’m the instinctive drafter; I trust that my muse will tell me later why things don’t seem to make sense. Even if little mistakes happen, we can easily edit this later, so I’m not worried. Oh yes, I’ve pantsed almost all of my Chinese series (the series with 11 books), so I know it’s possible. There are some loose ends, but I realized most of these have to be resolved in the sequel series (these are plot-related, though, not world-building-related.) I am currently pantsing a fantasy LGBTQ romance series, and am on the fourth and hopefully last book.

Robin LeeAnn

What you said about worldbuilding is so true! It’s in almost every detail we place within the book.
Worldbuilding is what I have been working on in my novel as well. It’s a critical part of any story.
Great blog! I enjoyed the read.

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[…] Creating a believable setting can take a lot of work. Jami Gold considers worldbuilding in a series when writing without a plan. […]

Jaq D Hawkins

Part of the fun of writing my Goblin series was discovering the world as I went along. Somehow it all just fit together neatly. I’ll never forget the time a favourite character was about to die and first I knew of it was the paragraph leading up to the incident. I had tears streaming down my face as I wrote what had to be.

acflory

Amazing post! Thank you. I’ve published one, single story-arc, three book series [sci-fi] and am working on a second, and it /is/ hard. Very hard. I wrote the entire first series in one go. It took about four years, but writing the whole story before publishing allowed me to make the plot really tight. That said, I’m a pantster hybrid. I never know exactly how my stories will end. In fact, I try very hard /not/ to settle on an ending because I am logical, and I don’t want my stories to become a neat series of this-then-that-then-something. I think I’m somewhere between panster 1 and 3. 🙂

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