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

14.48: How to Practice Worldbuilding

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

The entire year has been about learning how to worldbuild, and we’ve learned a thing or two ourselves while preparing material for you. In this episode we talk about some of those lessons, and try to answer stray questions that didn’t fit into any of previous episode buckets.

Liner Notes: If Dinosaurs Had Body Fat Like Penguins

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take something familiar to you—something you’ve got expertise in—and turn it into a worldbuilding tool.

Thing of the week: The Incomplete Book of Running, by Peter Sagal.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: What insights have you had about writing related to worldbuilding? Your brain isn’t big enough to keep your worldbuilding in your head. Use a tool, and give yourself permission to forget. You don’t have to preplan everything, just use find and a while-writing research document. Randomizers make it feel more real. What you are writing is a snapshot of your life and the way you respond to things in a story Don’t try to fix your snapshots. It’s not about finding the right way, or the best way, to tell this story. If dinosaurs are birds without their feathers, think about the fat on a penguin’s skeleton. What if dinosaurs had that much fat? Practice worldbuilding by turning the knob to 11 and to zero and see what you get. How can you use hobbies or other parts of life as practice for writing? Try using role-playing games to try out scenarios, to see what kind of story comes out of a premise. Consider the dominant pedal and music composition is a metaphor for writing. Recast characters as family members to see how they might react. Look at the politics of game players see how nations might interact. Figure out how human beings work.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 48.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How to Practice Worldbuilding.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] Granted, this entire season has been about practicing your worldbuilding, so I understand if you’ve given me a kind of quizzical look as I have introduced this to you…


[Brandon] Listeners. But we are in our last month of our year of worldbuilding, and I wanted to ask some questions that just didn’t fit into any of the other episodes, and talk about, like, some of our favorite worldbuilding exercises and things like that. So, one thing we like to do when we wrap up a year is kind of ask is there anything you’ve learned this year or anything now you’ve been trying in your fiction, just kind of relating to worldbuilding?

[Howard] Your brain isn’t big enough.

[Brandon] Hmmm.

[Howard] You cannot…

[Dan] Speak for yourself.

[Howard] Keep all of this in your head. So, ultimately, your worldbuilding… You’re trying to build an entire world. Of course it’s not going to fit in your head. Heads go inside worlds. You are going to have to use some sort of tool to record this. It might be index cards, it might be a spreadsheet, it might be a wiki, it might be some sort of relational database, I don’t know. But for me, that discovery that I cannot hold all of these things in my head, and I have to write them down, I have to record them in some way, was intensely liberating. Because the moment I did, I gave myself permission to forget those things. Oh, I can forget that, because I’ve written it down, my computer will remember it. It definitely won’t crash. Ever. Sure enough, the ideas flow faster, the world deepens itself much more quickly, as I commit things to paper.

[Mary Robinette] Ironically, mine is the polar opposite of that.


[Mary Robinette] Which is that I don’t need to preplanned before writing, once I have internalized a lot of other things. So, one of the things that I was working on this year was a novel, just for fun, which is a Alfred Hitchcock writes the Dragonriders of Pern kind of thing.

[I want to read that!]

[Mary Robinette] It… Rather than doing what I would usually do, which is sit down and think about the breeds of dragons and all the… It’s a secondary world and all of that, I just started writing. Because what I realized was anything that wasn’t on the page in the novel isn’t canon. So I only… And if it’s in the novel, then I can use my find function to just go back and find the thing. The only things that I’m writing down in a separate research document are the things that are difficult to search for, like, “What was the name of that dragon? I made up the spelling of the word.” So I’ve got a document that I say breeds of dragon, and I go and put them… At the end of a writing session, I will go and drop it in there if I’ve come up with a new breed of dragon. But it was… It’s been… That novel came faster than pretty much anything that I’ve written up to this point. But… It’s also not something that I would have been able to do early in my career, because of the number of different other pieces of story structure that I would have… That I hadn’t internalized.

[Howard] You already know how to cut worldbuilding… The unnecessary bits from the dialogue, from the exposition, from the whatever. So you can discovery write your way on the way in and it will feel like what you have written before… It’s like kinesthetics. It’s…

[Mary Robinette] I had to learn it. But that has been… It’s been interesting, because it also means that I’m not being bogged down in details that I will never use.

[Dan] One of the things that I have started to rely on more and more this year in my worldbuilding is randomizers.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeah.

[Dan] Because I… If I’m trying to come up with whatever it is, if it’s geography, if it’s a religion, if it’s anything… If it looks exactly like what I need it to look like, it’s going to feel fake. So, using random generators or just asking three-year-olds for ideas, whatever it is that you’re doing, that adds enough noise into it that it feels more real. It forces me to figure out, “Well, why is this religion… Why are horses so important to them?” It’s not something I planned, but the randomizer spat it out and now I’ve got to deal with it. That ends up producing something much more layered and much more textured than what I probably could have come up with on my own.

[Brandon] That kind of plays into something… It’s not necessarily worldbuilding related, just writing related, that I’ve come more and more to see the books that I’m writing… I talked before about this on the podcast… As performance art. In that you are capturing a moment of my life and the way I respond to things in a story. It’s like, I’ve often thought when I was younger that something was either right or wrong in storytelling. I have to find the right way to tell this story, I have to find the best way to tell this story. The older I get, the more I’m looking at this is a capture, a snapshot of who I am as I’m doing this. So previous things that I feel like now I’ve gotten wrong… I feel more liberated from them. That it’s not like I did this worldbuilding element wrong, or this part of Mistborn One wrong. That was a snapshot of who I was, and how I viewed storytelling, at that moment. Which also helps me to kind of avoid the impulse to Lucas my old things…


[Brandon] Right? Because what they are is, they are a piece of performance art that was me at that point in time. Now, what I’m writing, it’s a piece of performance art that is me. The… Adding the randomizer and things to it kind of captures this essence, because it’s less about making sure that all the pieces are exactly right, and more about what does the person that I am with the skills that I have trained myself in do with this set of inputs? What piece of art comes out of it?

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Sorry. It’s just making me think about the project that we worked on together. Because… So Brandon gave me a story bible, and then I… And an outline, then I wrote from that. There were pieces of the worldbuilding that I’m reading and I’m like, “This makes no frigging sense at all. Brandon, what? You’re supposed to be so good at worldbuilding, what is this?”


[Mary Robinette] The conversation that we had was that… Which I thought was really interesting was that a lot of times, it’s not so much that you have it all worked out ahead of time, it’s that when you get to it, you can make the interstitial pieces work. So, like, coming into it and going, “Okay, so I just need to figure out how to make this work.” It was like having a randomizer. There were a number of things where I’m like, “This does not make any sense at all.”


[Mary Robinette] But the thing that I forced out of not changing it is way more interesting than just like, “Well, I’m going to change it so it makes sense to me.” It’s like, “No, let me see if I can find the connecting pieces that…”

[Howard] So it was a Brandomizer.

[Mary Robinette] It was a randomizer.

[Howard] A Brandon…

[Mary Robinette] A Brandomizer!

[Dan] Whoo ho ho. You know what that is reminding me of is… The current theory that dinoswaurs were most closely related to birds.

[Mary Robinette] Did you say dinoswords, because I really want…

[Dan] I tripped over that. Dinoswords is actually the title of my next writing prompt.


[Dan] So. No. One of the things that I’ve seen recently is there’s this big focus on we think dinosaurs look so weird. But look what happens when we take all the feathers off a swan. That is one freaky looking thing. So that’s kind of what a lot of outlines are, is they are just the swan with no feathers, or the bear with no hair. Of course, it looks weird, and of course, it doesn’t look right. While you’re writing, that’s when you add all the rest of the stuff and make it look like a real thing.

[Howard] The flipside of that, and I would encourage readers to go look this up. What do penguins look like with no fat? What does a penguin’s skeleton look like? A penguin looks like a weird, waddling swan. Their neck is enormous. They don’t have no neck. They’re like all neck. The artist who looked at this says, “Well, what happens if I put that much fat on a dinosaur?”


[Howard] The answer… They all look like very frightening slugs. As a worldbuilding practice, sort of trick, that sort of turn the knob all the way to 11, turn the knob all the way to zero, and see what you get. That visualization is just beautiful.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is a really interesting story… Not story, nonfiction book.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, this is The Incomplete Art of Running by Peter Sagal. I read it because it was given to me, and he’s a friend. I’m like, “Oh, I don’t really like running. But, okay, I’ll read your book.” A book about running should not make me cry as many times as it did. It is part memoir, part why you should run, part kind of reflection on culture, and filled with stories. It begins… Oh, the storytelling in this is so good. But it begins with him running in the Boston Marathon right… He crosses the finish line right before the bomb goes off. That is not the most heartbreaking story in this. It is just wonderful. I… The reason… I’m encouraging you to read it because it’s just good, honestly, and I’m excited about it. But I also feel like it’s one of those books that is useful to apply to other aspects of life. Like, persevering when something is difficult, and finding the reason… One of the things he talks about in this is that you… Sitting down and practicing etudes is not going to get you to Carnegie Hall. Having a goal, that is the thing. I feel like it’s that way with writing, too. It’s not just like, “I’m going to put down a bunch of words.” It’s like, “I’m writing with a goal.” So read this. It’s a great book.

[Brandon] The Incomplete Art of Running.

[Mary Robinette] By Peter Sagal from Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.

[Brandon] So, another question I had, that didn’t quite fit into anything else, but I think kind of comes here. Have you guys ever used non-writing hobbies or parts of your life, things you’ve done, as practice for your writing? I’m, of course, targeting RPG playing, because I know Dan and I have both done this. How has playing role-playing games…

[Dan] So here’s one that I would… The most fascinating part of the Sleeping Beauty story for me are all the people who woke up after 40 or 80 years or whatever it was and found their home and their whole country covered with thorns and realized that they now lived in what was essentially this post-apocalyptic wasteland because of a curse that it happened generations ago that everyone had slept through. I would love to tell that story. But I don’t know exactly how everyone would react. So putting that into a role-playing game, presenting a group of four or five players and saying, “Okay. You wake up. Check it out. What do you do?” is a really great way to kind of run an experiment and say, “Well, how would people react to that situation? What would they do? What would that look like?” Then, kind of collaboratively figure out here’s a really compelling story that could come out of that premise.

[Brandon] Howard, have you ever used role-playing as a way to try out a character, an idea?

[Howard] I don’t know that I’ve done it with role-playing in that way. The thing that I keep coming back to is the music composition study that I did. The shaping of a piece of music is very similar to the shaping of a story. The dominant pedal which is that key change thing that happens right towards the end in a lot of Western music that tells you we are approaching the end. That exists in fiction. That’s a thing. Often I will look at what I’m writing and ask myself, “Okay, which of these threads is the dominant pedal?” Which is not a question anybody who doesn’t know something about music would ever ask. You wouldn’t think about it that way. It’s perfectly possible… Perfectly possible? Lots of writers don’t have any music training at all. They successfully signal we’re approaching the end of the book. They talk about it differently. I think that’s part of what gives us… I’m moving wide now… That’s part of what gives us our different voices, is that the analogies, the metaphors, that we use for the tools that are in our toolbox cause us to deploy them perhaps a little differently.

[Brandon] Now, I would pitch this at you, Mary Robinette, but we know that there is nothing in your past…


[Brandon] Like a another career that has ever informed the way that you…

[Mary Robinette] I know. Just go… Was it Season Three, Episode Six, I think? Yeah, or whatever it is. Yeah. You hear me talk about puppets all the time. The thing that you probably don’t hear me talk about is… As much, is the relationship that I have with my family, which winds up informing pretty much everything that I write. It’s not quite using role-playing where I’m running scenarios with them. But I will… I will think about how like, my mom would react to a situation, or how my dad would react. They’re very different people. They’re best friends, but they’re very different people in a lot of ways and where their commonalities are. So sometimes, I will cast… Recast a character briefly as a family member in order to figure out a true honest reaction for that character. Even if that’s the only piece of the family member that goes in there.

[Brandon] People ask me a lot, because they know one of my nerd hobbies is Magic, the Gathering. They say, “Oh, how does Magic, the Gathering influence your stories?” I’ve had to think about this. They, I think, are going to assume, oh, it’s the worldbuilding or you like cool magic systems, so maybe the game mechanics or things like that. It’s very hard for me to separate that out, because I just grew up in an era where you played video games, you played lots of boardgames. All of these things are a jumble in my brain. I can’t point to any one that Magic has done with that. But there’s an unexpected one. Which is the politics of four people playing a competitive game against one another…


[Mary Robinette] Ooooh!

[Brandon] Where you’re each trying to win the game and have certain tools and resources at your disposal, has really influenced the way I do political work between nations in my books. In fact, I was writing an outline yesterday where I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to use this aspect.” How, if you are the weaker party, how do you win in a war? Well, if there’s three people, you look for the person who’s strongest, and you gang up on the strong person with the other weak party. Almost always, the person who is doing best in the game loses first. Almost always. Because if they’re a threat, everyone else gangs up on them. So… That’s not the case in a one-on-one…


[Brandon] But in a four-person free-for-all, you don’t want to be the strongest party. So I actually wrote in my outline, a character’s like, “I know how I can bring this person down. It’s by exposing how strong they are, so everyone else will gang up on them.” Those sort of political games has been really handy for me in designing epic fantasy stories.

[Dan] This is why, back in college, the number one rule of any Magic game we played was kill Brandon first.

[Brandon] They always ignored you when you told them that.

[Dan] Nobody ever believed me. You always kill Brandon first.

[Brandon] If you don’t, I will figure out how to get everyone to gang up on you, and then… But that sort of stuff was really fun for me to figure out…


[Brandon] How human beings work. So, there you go. You can trace my political intrigue stories to me playing Magic with Dan.

[Dan] To multiplayer Magic.

[Brandon] We are out of time. So, homework. What we would really like you to do is do the thing that we have done in our writing careers. Take something that’s very familiar to you that may not seem like it has anything to do with writing. Like audio engineering. Or puppetry. Or playing card games. Look at something you’re fascinated by. Try to see if you can extrapolate from that storytelling principles that’ll help you understand the way that you might tell stories and the way that your life experience might turn you into a better writer. Kind of a philosophical one for you this week. But, hopefully, it will be really handy for you. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.