World Building #2: Plot or World?

One of the most rewarding things about both reading and writing is that one informs the other, and by engaging with both we gain a deeper appreciation of how to tell stories through writing. I thought this blog might offer a nice opportunity to spit out some thoughts and observations I've had about the writing process, especially in regards to the all-important fantasy/sci-fi skill of world building. 

In this segment, we discuss what's more important to telling a fantasy story: the world, or the plot? And more importantly, how do you find a balance? 


  The Lord of the Rings  is almost a vehicle that gives Tolkien a way to explore the world that he plotted out league by league, river by river, syllable to syllable. 

The Lord of the Rings is almost a vehicle that gives Tolkien a way to explore the world that he plotted out league by league, river by river, syllable to syllable. 

How much time do you spend on building your fictional world? When do you just get on with the plot? The answer I've found for myself is that there's no fixed formula. From studying great authors, it appears that it depends on the kind of writer you are. Iain M. Banks seems to concoct what he needs out of his 'Culture' universe just to get what he needs to devise each of his very trenchant plots, with little room for detours. But this is not to say his universe is uninteresting, or arbitrary. Quite the contrary, the Culture is one of the coolest sci-fi worlds you can find, with a ton of depth. But the rigidity and pace with which Banks explores his world assures you that both setting and characters are secondary to his plots (he said as much once in a BBC interview, some time back). 

On the other hand, Tolkien is the classic example who focused way more on world-building, to the point where it almost seems like Lord of the Rings is just an excuse to show off his handle on language and mythology. Yet his characters are as iconic as his absurdly in-depth lore. 

Plot and worldbuilding. What is one without the other? One thing I noticed is this: Even if you don't totally flesh out all the minutia of your world before you start writing, nothing will help you undo knots in your plot or find inventive ways to make your story unique then stepping back now and then to dredge up some new worldbuilding elements. Certain plot points, or the justification of a new obstacle or threat to your heroes, for instance, can be made organic and plausible by going back to your worldbuilding white board. In other words, don't think of plot and world as opposing things, but complementary aspects of telling your story.


Agree? Beg to differ? Let me know in the comments!

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