Story planning and creation – stories within worlds

Text over a line drawing of an ancient city: Story Planning and Creation - Stories Within WorldsMention ‘worldbuilding’ and writers start talking about like places, races, creatures, politics, religion, culture, magic systems, etc. While they’re all very important elements of worldbuilding, I want you to think broader. Much broader.

When Prophecy of Power: Prey (formerly Transcendence of Power: Genesis) was accepted for publication, I wanted a four-book deal.

The publisher at the time (Satalyte) was happy to go with that.

My agent, however, suggested it was the wrong move.

Why?

If the first book flopped I’d be stuck writing three useless sequels. I interpreted that as ‘years of my writing career which could be better utilised’.

I went with my agent’s advice, although there are arguments for and against (but that’s another blog post).

So rather than write three sequels I wrote four brand new novels, and here’s where the topic of worldbuilding kicks in.

I set each of these standalone novels within the broader Noramgaell Saga story universe – the same story universe as Prophecy of Power: Prey.

Why? Three reasons:

  1. It makes commercial sense. Although they are standalone stories, they share the same backdrop and therefore (distantly, or sometimes closely) tie in into each other. If readers like one story, the familiarity may lead them to the others without any need to have read sequels or prequels.
  2. It makes logical sense. Although I write fantasy I’m not primarily a worldbuilder, so it avoids duplicating effort in a process I’m not a huge fan of.
  3. It saves time. Wordbuilding takes up considerable time which could be better utilized for stories rather than writing story backdrops.

Reusing your worldbuilding is similar to writing a series of standalone books with a single protagonist (such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, for example). Same story universe, different stories. A whole lot of advantages.

Now take that concept and think far more broadly. Apply it to all of your story universe, not just the world surrounding a single protagonist. This then becomes more like the hugely successful Marvel cinematic universe.

A line drawing of hands holding a globe.A horror/fantasy short story I wrote called Wyvern’s Blood was my first foray into this concept, and it happened long before I understood there was a concept.

Wyvern’s Blood now forms the groundwork for two separate storylines (the purple and green sections in the circles diagram on this page), all of it within the broader Noramgaell Saga.

In a similar vein, I created a loose history between two races including a war that lasted a millennia, but I didn’t know much about that war. All I knew was which side had won. Around the same time I had an idea for a star-crossed lovers story where an immortal girl from another universe falls in love with a human boy.

Tying these ideas together created a whole new storyline set twenty thousand years before the Noramgaell Saga’s conclusion, and it too is partially built on the foundations I created for Wyvern’s Blood.

Putting it into practice

A diagram of how all my novels interrelate
How my novels interrelate – coloured-in means the first in a series or standalone, bevelled means it’s been written, and coloured outlines designate which storyline the novel belongs to. The smaller squares are short stories.
When I come up with a story idea now, one of the first things I do is figure out if it fits into an existing story universe I’ve already created. Of course many don’t, particularly high-concept stories, but when they do I try to take advantage of what I already have.

The circle diagram on this page represents where stories fit into the Noramgaell Saga story universe. Purple and green represent two separate storylines set here on Earth, in the present. The blue, red and yellow circles represent storylines set in the future on another world in a parallel universe.

And so here I am, beginning to plot a new novel based on a single image – a woman waking up alone in the woods with no memory of what happened to her.

It could fit almost anywhere in the Noramgaell Saga story universe, but as I know what happened to her (something I haven’t revealed yet), there are several places it would work better than others. Therefore I’m setting it here on Earth.

I know a lot of writers are working on their first novel and story world and may not think this concept is for them. While you can apply it at any point, it actually works best at the start of the worldbuilding process.

Here’s why. If you were creating a new world, how many stories could you set in:

  • a hospital
  • a police station
  • a war
  • anywhere in human history
  • another planet
  • another universe?

Just take a look at television and you’ll find the answer – lots. Hundreds. Thousands. More. Layering the groundwork at the start could save you massive headaches later on.

Consider it another way; human history alone is the catalyst for millions of stories, and that’s just one possible story universe you could explore. It’s also free and doesn’t take any effort beyond research.

If you’re not currently in the thick of worldbuilding, pick something you’ve already created and consider the possibilities it represents. Start with unexplored conflicts you already know about and then move into into history, culture, character beliefs, politics – whatever floats your boat.

That’s the true power of worldbuilding – the ability to extract endless stories from a single story universe and its history.

When you’re thinking about worldbuilding, I strongly suggest you think of story possibilities from the outset, not just detail.

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