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There are three primary things that go into making a novel: character, setting, and plot. The prewriting process is where you design out all of those things before you begin putting words to paper. Authors are all over the map on how exactly they do this. Brandon Sanderson creates detailed plot outlines and figures out all of his setting details, but discovery writes his characters. Many writers start with a strong character, but discovery write the plot. George R. R. Martin discovery writes everything.

I’m somewhat different: I plan my plot and my characters in advance, but I discovery write my setting.

This is somewhat uncommon in the writing world, and it can be very dangerous. But if you have the right mentality, it can work for you.

Iceberg right ahead

The key thing in any speculative fiction novel is the “iceberg” effect. You show the reader the tip of the iceberg—the stuff that’s visible above the water—and you merely hint at everything that’s below the surface. Many times only 10 or 20% of your world is above the water and actually used in your book. Readers love this if it’s done well.

I’ve used this technique to help discovery write my world. I like to constantly play with the reader, to hint at things that even I have no idea about. I’m constantly setting myself up for discoveries that didn’t exist in my planning. These hints tantalize the reader, but more importantly, they tantalize me as a writer.

Promises, promises

Here’s the tricky thing, though. Every time you mention something unexplained, every time you give a hint or ask a question, you are making a promise to the reader.

And readers hate it when you break your promises.

My favorite writers are the best at fulfilling reader expectations, at closing plot holes and answering mysteries. Brandon Sanderson is a great example of this.

But it can be very hard. Notes and outlines are good for this, but luckily I was also blessed with a very good memory. And if I tantalize myself with a mystery enough (which probably means it was a good thing in the first place), I’m likely to remember it. And then I come back to it and answer it. I fulfill the promise I made.

These things are often the coolest and most interesting parts of the book.

And many of them weren’t planned in advance.

Shallow waters

Be careful that you don’t build too shallow of a world. If you don’t build some of your world out in advance, you have nothing to draw from. If you don’t write the mysteries in, the world will be flat and uninteresting. You’ve got to be highly imaginative as you write, constantly inventing new details. You should endlessly strive to drop little hints, little innuendos, into the text as you go.

The iceberg almost writes itself.

Caveat emptor

I’ve been pretty happy with worldbuilding as I go. But there are a few caveats:

  • Magic systems. Figure this out in advance. That being said, don’t be afraid to improvise a little as you go. I introduced some very important things to my magic system through discovery writing, but I had already figured out all the basics.
  • Politics. You need to know your factions and what they want in order to build politics into your world. This isn’t a setting thing, but sometimes it can feel like it. Think about this in advance, but you can also just randomly spout stuff off as you write. Just follow up and fulfill those promises.
  • Religion. Religions tend to manifest themselves throughout every character’s thoughts and actions. They affect the architecture, the way of life, everything. This is one thing you pretty much can’t discovery write effectively, unless you’re a fan of multiple rewrites or have very good instincts.
  • The overarching world. You should know what your setting is, at least in general terms. If you don’t know this, how did you come up with a plot to begin with? You can work out some of the specifics as you go, but ideally you’ll have strong visuals in your mind and a good starting point.
  • If you discovery write your world, don’t discovery write your plot or your characters. There will always be an element of discovery writing to everything, but try to only not plan one of the three pillars. You should plan the others. Unless you’re George R. R. Martin, that is.

Summing up

How do you discover your world? Did you plan it all out in advance before you started writing?