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‘Worldbuilding’ is the process of creating a fictional world. This process can be very complex, such as creating a new universe with its own natural laws, but it can also consist of just a slight adaptation of the real world to the requirements of the story.

The storyworld forms the background against which the story takes place. It represents, in a sense, the closed system within which the story takes place. It defines which boundaries, natural laws and “rules of the game” apply to all its actors. A story often begins in a familiar, known world until the main character crosses the threshold into an unknown world (prototypically seen e.g. in “The Neverending Story”, “Harry Potter”, “Avatar”). This unknown world must be actively created in a creative process by conceiving it as a fictional counterpart to the familiar world.

The more differences there are between the real world and the story world, the more helpful and important it is to carefully build this world with all its facets and rules so that it is coherent and the perfect breeding ground for the story. While for fantasy, mystery, near future or science fiction you first have to create the world and its rules, for historical material or stories that are (partly) set in foreign countries or cultures you have to research them.

What characterizes a strong story world?

1. Richness of detail to make the world believable and alive. John Truby is talking here about the effect that the more the storyworld is condensed into a complex and detailed network, the more the story expands in the minds of the recipients. While richness of detail is important to create an immersive world, unnecessary complexity can overload the story, slow down the plot or make it difficult to understand. The storyworld should be able to be understood intuitively and without an “info dump”.

2. Coherence: An invented world must be logical and consistent in itself, the rules established must apply consistently. In order to develop a storyworld precisely and consistently, you not only have to create the present of the world, but also think about what the past of this world looked like. This means that you also have to deal with the question of how, why and through which events the world developed into the world that it is at the time in which the story takes place.

3. Storyworld as an actor: The storyworld does not serve as a mere backdrop against which the story takes place, but it actively influences the story and characters and is deeply integrated into the narrative. There must be an organic connection between the story world and the characters. According to John Truby, the story world is a physical expression of the network of characters or an infinitely detailed manifestation of the main characters.

4. Symbolic meaning: The story world should challenge the protagonists and give them the opportunity to face their greatest fears or to surpass themselves. According to John Truby, the story world is a physical expression of the network of characters or an infinitely detailed manifestation of the main characters and their themes.

5. Analogies to the real world: Allusions create a-ha effect. The story world serves as a means or mirror to say something about the real world and thus incorporate lessons or insights about our society.

6. Contrasts: The fact that the story world should be coherent does not mean that it should be uniform, consistent and predictable – on the contrary: an exciting world is characterized by contrasts, conflicts and secrets. In order to work out these dynamics, it can be useful to divide the story world into several subworlds. These can also be very different in their form – within the globally valid story world system. For example, the subworlds or settings can each have a completely different atmosphere or additional rules of their own or reveal surprising dimensions and in this way characterize the characters or peoples who inhabit them – as long as they fit into the overarching rule system of the entire world.

How do you go about creating a story world?

The first question to ask is what approach the material idea suggests: Does the story tend to be character-driven, plot-driven or world-driven? Depending on the answer, either the characters or the plot or the story world are at the beginning of all considerations.

Taking the story world as a starting point can be particularly narratively productive if you want to tell something about a certain (social) system, a future technology or magical phenomena, if understanding the world is essential for understanding the story or if the settings of the story are very special. However, the world-driven approach harbours the danger of focusing too much on world building. Instead, it is important to think about possible protagonists and storylines early on and develop them in parallel.

World building, character development and plot should go hand in hand and always be based on the theme of the story. The story world not only influences where and how the characters live, but also their personalities, behaviors and relationships: The cultural, economic or political conditions of the world, its (social) dynamics, (spatial) boundaries, (magical) possibilities or unique characteristics shape the values, goals and challenges of the characters. In order for a real synergy to emerge between the story world, characters and plot, world building should not only affect the protagonists’ conflicts, but also their decisions, and in this way help to advance the plot.

There are two basic methodological approaches to this:

Top-Down Worldbuilding:
The top-down (or outside-in) approach starts with a broad overview of the world and then works its way down to the more specific details. This approach is useful if you want to create a comprehensive and coherent world that is logical and structured within itself. You typically start with the general aspects and overarching features of the world, such as geography or major cultural movements. Then you define more specific elements such as political systems, economic structures, and finally individual settings and characters. When creating a fantasy world, for example, you might first outline the physical structure of the continent, establish the predominant climate zones, and then define the various kingdoms or peoples that live on that continent. You could then delve deeper into the cultures, languages, and religions of those societies.

Bottom-Up Worldbuilding:
The bottom-up (or inside-out) approach starts with a small part of the world that is important to the story and gradually builds up these micro-elements to form a larger overall picture. This approach is particularly suitable for developing deep and detailed aspects of a story that depend heavily on the characters or settings. You start with a specific place or group within the world. This could be a single village, a specific institution or a community. The next step is to develop the surrounding elements such as local customs, regional politics and finally the wider world with its global systems and rules. When developing a dystopian world, for example, you could start with a small group of rebels fighting against an oppressive system and develop their daily challenges, goals and immediate environment. You then expand the world around them by defining the government and social order they are fighting against.

What aspects does world building include?


  • Geography
  • Climate
  • Laws of nature
  • Plants
  • Animals


  • Supernatural phenomena
  • Types of magic
  • Magical societies
  • Magical beings
  • Spiritual practices
  • Mystical/magical places
  • Mystical/magical objects


  • Calendar
  • Seasons
  • Time zones
  • Units of time
  • Time measurement


  • Religion
  • Philosophy
  • Art
  • Entertainment
  • Sports


  • Groups (classes/ethnicities/communities)
  • Norms & values
  • Language
  • Nutrition
  • Housing & urban development
  • Demography
  • VIPs


  • Form of government
  • Laws
  • Political institutions
  • Parties & political movements
  • Corruption


  • Form of economy
  • Trade
  • Means of production
  • Currency
  • Occupations & labor market


  • Mobility
  • Communication
  • Energy generation
  • New professions


  • Educational institutions
  • Curriculum
  • Educational methods
  • Training


  • Military
  • Military weapon systems
  • Defense facilities
  • Defense strategies


  • Types of crime
  • Criminal organizations
  • Weapons
  • Law enforcement


  • Epochs
  • Events
  • Myths & legends
  • Traditions
  • Key artifacts

Not all aspects and details of the story world are directly relevant to the story. Even if they do not make it into the final story as specific locations or characters, they make it richer and more believable by indirectly influencing the plot. A clever integration of the story world into the plot can be done through descriptions, dialogues or through the plot itself.

Further ReadingFurther Reading
  • Truby, John: The Anatomy of Genres: How Story Forms Explain the Way the World Works. New York 2022.
  • Truby, John: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. New York 2007.

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