Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.01: Worldbuilding Begins! Up Front, or On the Fly?

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

Season 14 is all about worldbuilding¹, and we’re kicking it off with a discussion of when you do that bit of work. Do you handle worldbuilding before you write the story, as you write the story, or after you’ve finished the story? We’ll talk about how we do it, and the benefits and drawbacks of each approach.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Benjamin Hewett, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

¹ The question of whether this term should be a closed compound (worldbuilding), an open compound (world building), or hyphenated (world-building) is an open one. Our decision to use the closed compound “worldbuilding” in our episode descriptions this year is a matter of personal preference. 

Homework: Dan collected these three worldbuilding elements from Brandon, Mary, and Howard. Your job? Work them into a scene.

  1. Red food is taboo
  2. hairstyles are important
  3. Different species/races of sophont who cannot interbreed or share food.

Thing of the week: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi, narrated by Wil Wheaton.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Season 14 is about setting, a.k.a. worldbuilding. Broad pictures, and refine as needed while writing? Worldbuild until you reach an interesting question, something that will sustain interest for a book, then outline and research. Upfront to find points of conflict and friction. Ramifications and ripples often cause revisions. Sometimes you hang a flag on it, and justify why it has never been noticed before. Sometimes you just put a note in brackets and keep going, sometimes you go back and revise. Sometimes you make it up as you go, until you just have to stop and define it. Frequently, when you are in the middle, you just make a note to revise later, then keep going. Two categories, questions that can be bracketed and keep going, and those that must be checked before further writing. Sometimes you start with worldbuilding in hand, then realize partway in the implications, and have to patch those holes. Restrictions breed creativity. Learn to roll with the holes!

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode One.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Up Front or On the Fly!

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re starting Season 14.

[Brandon] We are. I am Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I am Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] Welcome to Season 14. This is the last in our kind of five-year arc, which we started with Season 10. We have done How to Write a Novel. We have done Elemental Genres. Then we did Plots and Character and now we’re doing Setting. It occurs to me, maybe we should have done that in reverse order.

[Mary Robinette] I think, you know, I feel like everything is happening for a reason. It’s like we planned it…

[Dan] We’re discovery writing our podcasts.

[Howard] It’s not really all that uncommon to get to the end of the novel and start your worldbuilding.

[Brandon] That is true.

[Mary Robinette] That is true.

[Brandon] And this year…

[Dan] What we’re talking about today…

[Brandon] We will be studying worldbuilding. We will have some guests which we’ll introduce to you as their weeks,. This first week, we’re generally going to take some writing topic, general topic, and attack it from worldbuilding directions. So we’re going back to a kind of familiar how much do you do upfront, how much do you do as your writing, and how do you work those two different styles together. But we’re talking specifically about worldbuilding this time. So let me ask you guys. How much worldbuilding do you do upfront before you start writing a given story?

[Mary Robinette] So, for me, it varies. I will either… Like, I usually have some idea of sort of a general shape of things. Then it’s not until I get deeper into it that I start to go, “Oh. Maybe I should really know about…” Which I find is actually very similar to the way that I do research for historical stuff, that I sort of have broad picture ideas, and then I refine my research. It’s just that when I’m doing worldbuilding, the reference library is my own brain.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Howard] I do enough worldbuilding… I worldbuild… I mean, with Schlock Mercenary, I am often appending to the worldbuilding, adding politics or whatever. I worldbuild until I have reached an interesting question.

[Brandon] This is for a given story arc [garbled]

[Howard] For a given story arc. An interesting question, an interesting character twist, something that I feel like I could explore for an entire book. Then I begin outlining the story. Usually within the outline process, I’ll realize, “Oh. I need to answer some more questions, I need to keep worldbuilding.” But that first point, I worldbuild until I found something that is a really fascinating question. When I say question, like a moral question. Like what if or why or…

[Brandon] You can’t… Could you name any of those off on the fly, so to speak? I don’t want to put you on the spot. I know when people asked me questions like this for a specific example in my lines, I always him like, “Oh…”

[Dan] You’re like, “Yes, I do this all the time, but I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.”

[Howard] [chuckles] Sure. If immortality technology is freely available, where is the pain in death?

[Brandon] Okay. That’s a good science-fiction question.

[Howard] I mean, as soon as I ran into that, I realized, “Oh. The stories are going to tell themselves. This is awesome.”


[Howard] As the stories, as I write, people are answering that question, characters are answering that question for themselves. They are finding their pain points. I’m discovering that. As I discover them, there are related pieces elsewhere in the worldbuilding that I know I’m going to need to lock down.

[Brandon] For me, a lot of my worldbuilding upfront that I’m doing is searching for those points of friction and conflict. I’ll often be looking for what’s going to make a problem for the characters, what’s going to make a problem in the world. An example of this being Stormlight Archives, it’s pretty obvious. I started with the storms. This is going to change all life around it. That’s the sort of thing I spend a lot of time worldbuilding upfront.

[Mary Robinette] I find that… It’s similar for me. There’s often ramifications and ripples. So I’ve talked before about in Ghost Talkers that Mrs. Richardson was not… She’s not in my outline it all. Anywhere. But as soon as I have… I just had her knitting because I needed something for her to do with her hands. Then I learned about knitted codes. That gave me all of these ripples that went through the world. This is a thing that all say often happens that you’ll… Sometimes you’ll discover something deeper in and then you have to go back and do revisions. I’m actually going to flag one that you all may have noticed which is that I introduced myself as Mary Robinette. This is an example of worldbuilding, that when we set up to do the podcast initially, I introduced… I had to make the choice, do I introduce myself as Mary Robinette, which in the South is a double-barreled name, or do I introduce myself as Mary, which is easier. I made that choice because I’d given up decades ago. But the ramification of that is that no one… Everyone thinks that Mary is the correct thing. So I was like, “Uh… Let me adjust my worldbuilding.” But it has this ripple effect on everything else. That’s one of the things that I think is really interesting when you’re looking at… When you’re looking at your novel, you’ll discover something about a character or about the world, and then you have to go back and make it consistent.

[Dan] Fix it all. So we’re retconning the podcast now.

[Mary Robinette] We’re retconning the podcast.

[Dan] So that you’ve been Mary Robinette for…

[Mary Robinette] The whole time.

[Dan] Like 12 years.

[Howard] Except we’re not… I mean, you’re making a joke, and it’s funny, and I like that, but we’re not [garbled]

[Dan] Thank you, Howard.

[Howard] Most deadpan…


[Howard] That was actually a very good joke, Dan, you should write that down.


[Howard] We’re not retconning it, though. What we’re doing by now naming the person who used to be Mary, Mary Robinette, is exploring an aspect of Mary’s character which has always been present, but which, for various reasons, Mary has not floated up into the foreground of the story. Now she is, and the audience learns new and exciting things.

[Dan] There we go.

[Mary Robinette] It’s like… It’s also… It’s a hanging a flag on it technique which we use a lot, too, when we have those moments where we’re like, “Ah…” Because sometimes I will do this, too. I’ve discovered a thing, and rather than going back and fix it, I will justify why no one has noticed it up until this point.


[Brandon] I have never done that before.

[Dan] Never.


[Brandon] Let me ask you, Mary Robinette, then… When you discovered the knitting thing. At what point did you go and study that, and at what point did you put it into the story? So when you were creating this character, you’re adding knitting to their character… Did you write the whole book? Did you stop? Did you worldbuild and then go back to the book?

[Mary Robinette] So what I did was I made a note to self in brackets and then kept going. Then… A couple of different points where I’m kind of waffling on something anyway, I’m procrastinating a little bit. I remember very specifically going back and adding her bringing a sweater. That someone in the circle was now wearing a sweater that she had made for them. I remember going back and adding that to highlight the importance of the knitting and bring it to the foreground. So that was… But the… She’d already knit wrist warmers for everybody.

[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Because… I think that was actually… So that was actually why I made her knit, was because I wanted to… It was a worldbuilding detail that I put in to talk about how cold it was, because of the spirits. So that worldbuilding… So that’s one of those…

[Brandon] Oh. Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Details that, like, totally ripples down. It’s like they all have wrist warmers…

[Brandon] Right. You need to show that it’s cold, not just tell us it’s cold.

[Mary Robinette] Right.

[Brandon] You need a character, therefore, who is doing this thing. You hit on that… I love it when that comes together in a story.

[Dan] Yeah. All these other things pop up. One of the worldbuilding details that I completely made up late is how the monsters work in the John Cleaver series. I did not actually codify it until book four.

[Mary Robinette] Nice.

[Dan] Like, I personally didn’t even know how it worked until book four. We started, and I turned the first one in. My editor, Moshe, he said, “Well, you need to make sure for the rest of the series that there’s some kind of consistent element.” So on his recommendation… That’s when I had all the monsters dissolve into tar, basically. Eventually, in book four, I realized I have to know how they work. I have to know how they function. So that is something that I had to make up throughout the series. I kept throwing in more details, and finally had to sit down and go, “Okay, let’s define this.”

[Howard] One of the reasons that that was so effective… Because what you were writing is horror. If, as a writer, you’ve already determined how the demons work and fallen in love with it, you are more likely to reveal that detail early rather than late. By saving… We don’t know through the entire first trilogy, and that keeps the first trilogy scary in a way that the second… The second trilogy, you had to do different things because we now had an understanding of how the demons work.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Although… With the caution, dear listener, that withholding of information from the reader is usually not as interesting as giving them information.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week.

[Mary Robinette] So, our book of the week is The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. In this book, there is a big Galactic Empire, and people travel from point A to point B through the Flow. What is happening is that the Flow is suddenly shutting down. They don’t actually know how it works. It existed before they got there. So this Empire, that’s basically built on these… Well, we’ll call them wormholes although they’re not… That’s built on being able to travel these vast intergalactic distances is collapsing. It’s wonderful storytelling about what it’s like to be on a world where you know that you are not going to be able to leave that planet.

[Brandon] You’re used to the idea.

[Mary Robinette] Used to the idea of being able to… Specifically, the way it’s collapsing in on itself, you can go to the planet, but you cannot get off of it again. During this period. So it’s a really interesting thing. Part of the reason that I thought this would be a good example for our listeners for this particular episode is that I know that John had those big ideas about the Flow and the idea of it collapsing. But I also know that he is very far on the pantser end of the spectrum, and that most of the other details, a lot of those other things, he figured out as he was writing it. You cannot tell which is which.

[Brandon] Excellent. So that is The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.

[Brandon] So I’m really interested in this specific idea. I think on the podcast in previous years, we’ve talked a lot about how to research and do your worldbuilding, but I’m really interested in this idea of times when you’re in the middle, in the thick of it, and then you stop and realize you need something, and how you actually go about doing that. For me, it is almost exclusively coming from character, because character’s the thing I do the least upfront work on. When I’m writing the book, often the passions of a given character and their interests and how religious they are or whatever on whatever axis we’re looking at suddenly drives me into saying, “Well, I need to have these steps.” A lot of times, even though I’m an outliner, I will just keep going and say, “Make sure you know more about this when you come back to the story.” Even as an outliner, I do a lot of that. A lot of the asterisks, a lot of the make sure you add this in here sort of thing. Do you guys do that?

[Mary Robinette] Oh, no. Never!


[Howard] There are two categories of questions for me. Category one is I don’t remember how many ships they actually had in that one fleet or I haven’t determined how many ships they have in that fleet. Anything I write now needs to be in brackets [Howard figure out what this number is] or it needs to be a strip that allows it to continue to be nebulous. Then there are places where… There’s a recent strip that was a good example of this. If I don’t have the fact exactly right, the punchline doesn’t work. I cannot write this scene until I have that piece of information. In which case, I will stop writing in order to go research a thing or figure out a thing. In this case, I had to email Myke Cole and ask if an executive officer… The joke was the captain goes down with the ship, the executive officer musters the dead. Because the XO… They’re in a place where the dead are recovering in a virtual space, and the XO is taking roll. The XO musters the dead. Myke’s response was, “That is something that an XO would say. I’ve never heard it before.” I was like, “Oh. Oh, Myke, thank you so much. That is perfect.”


[Howard] That is exactly the ground I want to be on. I could not have written the joke, though, without somebody telling me that.

[Brandon] Any other examples? Specific ones from your books or stories?

[Dan] Well, in the Mirador series, my cyberpunk, I did a lot of upfront worldbuilding on the kinds of technology that I wanted to have and… Drones that did everything and everyone has a computer in their head, and started writing and realized that I had inadvertently created what was either a post scarcity or an incredibly wealthy society in order to have that level of ubiquitous technology. So, kind of the off-the-cuff worldbuilding that I had to do was to figure out, well, I don’t want that, how can I still have all the toys without… While also having economic pressure? That is where the idea that robots have taken all our jobs and that there’s nothing left for humans to really do. That’s where that came from, was me trying to patch the hole and make the rest of the worldbuilding work.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. I’m familiar with those holes. One of the things that I’ve got in the Glamorous Histories is that I have… I decided that… And I’ve talked about this on the podcast before, that the glamour does not actually cast light. Because if it does, then why would you have candles and all of that? But astute readers will notice that I also refer to a warming charm, and that… The problem is that if you can actually generate heat with this, that a lot of different things start to unravel.


[Mary Robinette] By the time I realized that, the book was already published. So then I had to justify it. I’m like, “Well, okay. So why… Maybe it’s really dangerous.” But if you can do this heat transfer… That was what, more or less, like that was what caused the cold mongers to happen. Was having to justify this decision that I had already made.

[Brandon] There’s a… There’s an adage that the game designer, the head designer of [garbled Magic: the Gathering… Magic uses?] Which is restrictions breed creativity.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeah.

[Brandon] Which I’ve always heard, and I’m sure he got somewhere. I think a lot of times people are afraid that their worldbuilding is going to have holes. But you’re going to inevitably have holes in your worldbuilding. Learning how to take that and kind of roll with it can often lead to stronger and more interesting storytelling later on.

[Mary Robinette] There’s a saying in puppetry, “If you can’t fix it, feature it.”

[Brandon] Yeah. That’s a great saying.

[Mary Robinette] At the same time, there are times when you’re like, “This makes complete and total sense.” People will still see it as a problem. Like, in Calculating Stars, I have an email that you can write to me and say anachronism that. I genuinely want to know. But the number of people who have written to me to complain about the transistor radio… I am like, “I’ve launched satellites…”


[Mary Robinette] We’ve got three satellites in 1952 already in orbit. Part of the reason that we did that was because actually transistors come in a little sooner, and the reason a transistor radio is there is to let you know that. But it reads as a mistake.

[Brandon] Right, right. Yeah. I would say one of the most interesting aspects of this for me was… I’ve spoken about this a lot. With The Way of Kings, there was a main character in the final product who was not a main character in the original draft. His name is Adolin. What happened is I needed to split off a bunch of chapters from a different main character because they were feeling to at conflict with themselves. I needed two strong characters who had strong opinions, rather than one character who was vacillating between two opinions. That’s the easy way of putting it. So I said, “Well, I’m going to make his son a viewpoint character and give his son the other perspective.” It ended up working really well. But then the son, who’s a duelist and very interested in high-fashion and things like this, made me say, “Well, I need the stuff that he’s passionate about. I need to know this.” He’s become a very big part of the books, because of this thing I changed in the first book. I think that a lot of times, writers are scared of this, when they don’t need to be. Certainly you do want to try to not have holes, but you’re going to anyway. So learning to roll with them is the way to go.

[Mary Robinette] Sometimes even when you don’t, people will think you do.

[Brandon] Yes.

[Dan] Well, something we’ve talked about before and you can see a lot in writing is when the characters are driving the story and when the story is driving the character. I think characters like Adilon… One of the reasons that he is so interesting is because you built the rest of the characters first, and he came out of the world. He was developed more organically, because he had to be, because the world already existed.

[Howard] So he’s native. Everybody else moved in.

[Dan] The world drove him in a way that he didn’t… That it didn’t drive the creation of the other characters. I think that that… You can tell.

[Brandon] Right. It creates, in some ways, a much stronger… Well, strong in a different way…

[Brandon] We are out of time. But Dan has some homework.

[Dan] All right. So, we decided we were going to gamify this for ourselves to keep this fun. So, because we’ve been talking about kind of improving your worldbuilding, we are going to give you three worldbuilding elements. Then you need to write a scene incorporating them. So these are set for you in advance. The rest of the worldbuilding you have to make up on the fly to patch all the holes.

[Brandon] Dan doesn’t know what these are.

[Dan] I don’t know what they are. The three of them have written something down on these little cards, and I’m going to read them. Here are your three worldbuilding elements. Red food is taboo. Hairstyles are important. Different species or races of sophont who cannot interbreed or share food. All existing in the same space. So there you go. We have two food related ones. That’s kind of cool. So there are your three elements. Write a scene using those. Fill in the rest of the holes as you go as they appear.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.