World-Building: Don’t Pants It! A.K.A. The Butterfly Effect

Old-fashioned photo of man with tennis racket wearing white pantsThere’s a lot of talk, especially when NaNoWriMo comes around, about “planning versus pantsing.” To put it succinctly, planning is having a solid outline before you start, while pantsing is just the opposite—writing your novel by the seat of your pants, figuring things out on the fly! Of course, most writers employ a mix of both styles, and that’s perfectly fine. But, as it relates to world-building, I’ve got some words of wisdom about pantsing it( that come from bitter experience). Don’t do it!

Last month, I was working on a novel about a beetle prince who had embarked on a quest to save his kingdom from a hive of evil wasps. Things were going great—I was producing a few thousand words per week—until I needed to put some clothes on one of the beetles (yeah, beetles wear clothes—get your mind out of the gutter). But then, I couldn’t figure out what the beetles would be wearing, in part because I hadn’t thought about the types of trees and plants that were going to be in the forest. Did the beetles weave garments from silk that they collected in the woods? Or from some kind of plant fiber? I didn’t know. So I got frustrated, panicking about what else I was unclear on, and before long, I was super depressed over my inability to figure out if the beetles would be making wine out of mulberries or raspberries. Those damn raspberries. I lost a good two weeks of work because of this, and in the end, I decided that it would be better to start over with a more wholly developed world. I buried my draft, another victim of the pants.

A poorly-planned world can have a butterfly effect on your novel. It’s okay to pants it when it comes to certain events in the story, like how you might suddenly decide that, even though your character just killed the giant hydra, she still needs to work out some internal stuff about how she was abandoned by her father as she recuperates at the goblin chieftain’s hut. That’s helpful—your pantsing just added another layer to your story. But world-building works the opposite way. If you’ve just decided that the goblins in your story eat rat stew every night and you know your character hates rats, you’re going to have to stop and go back to the first time she stayed at the goblin village and re-address it. Retroactively making these changes will make you want to pull your hair out during editing, and that should be the least of your concerns. Like what happened to me, you could end up missing significant details that are too crucial to overlook, and no writer wants to have to stop in the middle of a good writing flow to figure this stuff out. Yeah, it happens, but it’s a quagmire that’s best avoided.

You’re not going to think of every detail in your initial world-building. But, the more you nail down, the fewer headaches you’ll have when you’re writing. Allow yourself to dream before you start writing. I’ve got some tips on dreaming, so check back next time.

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