Bottom-Up Worldbuilding Worksheet
Note: This is a counterpoint to my previous post, Top-Down Worldbuilding Worksheet. Since planners and pantsers use exceedingly different approaches, I’m assuming you bottom-up folks aren’t reading the previous post, which is why I’m recycling some of it. Please forgive me, all y’all folks who use both approaches (although I’m one of you).
Anyway, after speaking with some readers of 101 Worldbuilding Prompts as research for my greatly expanded how-to book on fantasy worldbuilding, I thought I would put together some worksheets for world builders to keep their ideas straight.
These are based around the concept of fantasy functions, which I explore in depth in Worldbuilding for Fantasy Fans and Authors, but should still be useful for those who haven’t gone through all the theories and best practices in that book. I mean, you can drive a car without understanding all the mechanics going on under the hood after all.
As stated in that book, there are two extremes for approaching worldbuilding: top-down, which are those who have a fairly clear concept in mind when they begin their process, and bottom-up, which include discovery writers who begin writing and uncover the rules of their world along the way. Most people exist somewhere between these two extremes, but for our purposes we will approach from either top-down or bottom-up. You should probably already have an inkling of which one you are, but I’ll hopefully put together an online quiz to help you figure it out if you’re unsure. Someday at least.
Anywho, this worksheet is for the discovery writers out there; those who love to just start writing with the bare minimum of a plan in mind and then piece together their rules after the fact. After speaking with my bottom-up friends, I discovered how antithetical this worksheet is to this crowd. That said, we also discovered how useful it is for adding to an existing idea after it has been completed. This is why I also suggest this worksheet to writers who have completed a world and now want to add new stories to it without getting snagged in all the pre-existing continuity issues.
Bottom-up is an interesting approach in that one produces something but then has to decide what it is after the fact. This very much parallels my approach when I make jewelry: I have a stone and a basic idea of what I can make with it, but instead of shaping a stone to match my idea, I just start cutting and soldering silver to fit the stone until I realize what it wants to be. Yes, there are a few missteps (and swear words) along the way, but my best work has come out of it. And, as those who have read my worldbuilding book know, bottom-up discovery writing more closely mirrors how audiences experience stories: from the inside-out, giving them a leg up in the experiential department.
So that means this worksheet is for figuring out exactly what you have and where you can go with it. So, without further ado, let’s dig into the worldbuilding worksheet.
Output Details: For top-down designers, output details are the final product of their fantasy functions, but bottom-up takes the opposite approach. So you’re going to list all the impossible things in your existing story/ world. These are the dragons, fairies, magic spells, second suns, and steampunk airships that exist; e.g. all the things that break the laws of nature in the real world.
Now a couple of rules: First, only find examples from the FIRST HALF of your work. Honestly, it should be from the first quarter, but you may not have explored everything by then, so I’ve doubled the window. This is because, structurally speaking, you really shouldn’t be introducing a new concept so late into your story since it will feel like deus ex machina, my research shows audiences don’t like it, and it feels like a bait and switch in that your audience feels like they’ve been experiencing a story about X, only for you to suddenly make it about Y. When I assessed screenplays for years, we counted off significantly when a script switched tones after the first act, and this is exceedingly similar here in terms of worldbuilding.
Second, you should be as brief as possible. That means if a character has a magic dagger, just write “magic dagger” and move on instead of listing all its abilities and facets. Keeping you succinct is why I’ve kept this space so short.
Thirdly, stop listing examples once you find a pattern. So, to return to the magic dagger listed above, if your next entry is “magic sword,” and two later you have a “magic arrows,” you can stop listing them in favor of just writing “magic weapons.” This should save you space as well as help in the later categorization process. And, as I’m sure we all remember from our algebra classes, you should only consider something a pattern if you have three examples (three points to prove a line, and all that). However, if you see a pattern after two instances, I’m not going to tell you no. It is your worksheet after all.
Finally, these impossible changes to the world generally manifest by either removing something from the world (ex. iron), diverging from reality (humanoids evolved from cats instead of apes), or adding something to the world (magic or monsters).
Analogue Cultures: In my research I found that the vast majority of fantasy world builders use real-world cultures as the starting point for their worldbuilding. This makes sense, as Tolkien pointed out, since all audiences use their understanding of the real world to assess the effectiveness of the worldbuilding details. So list the real world cultures you will be drawing from in your world.
Make sure to list any nearby cultures as well that will be featured in the story.
Also remember that no culture is static, and they change over time. So include the time period of the cultures you will be drawing from.
Ordering: Now that you have a rough list of what will become your fantasy conceits, it’s time to place them in their right sections. The general progression of fantasy conceits runs from Geography, Biology, Physics (magic), Metaphysics, Technology, and Culture in that changes to the fields earlier in that progression have more effect on those that occur later on the list.
What each section entails is off to the side of the worksheet, but if there’s any confusion, just use your best guess since this isn’t set in stone. If you do not have a conceit for a section, then terra de facto is in effect, which means that your world defaults to the rules of reality in this regard.
Grouping & Interconnection: Now that you have your rough fantasy conceits in their proper section, it’s time to see if you can streamline them further. Streamlining comes from Brandon Sanderson’ third law of magic that boils down to using what you already have rather than inventing something new.
So in the same way that we realized we didn’t have to copy down every instance of a magical weapon and could just write “magic weapons” we’re going to see if we can consolidate some of these further and tie them together.
For instance, in the first few chapters of my book The Woven Ring, I reveal that: 1) they use modified muskets (Technology), 2) all living things have a glowing essence within them (Biology), 3) some individuals, called Weavers, can tie this life essence together to create lethal monsters (Physics/ Magic), 4) some beings exist made up entirely of this life essence that can be killed by glass (Metaphysics), 5) other individuals, called Shapers, can harness their own essence to create psychic exoskeletons (Physics/ Magic), 6) still others can hear the thoughts of others (Physics/ Magic), 7) they all believe they exist because their creator deity shattered himself to create life on the planet (Culture).
And that’s just in the first two chapters.
In grouping these together, I see that I have several in Physics/ Magic, and that they are all tied together by how they use this life essence. This shows me that this essence (called Breath in the books), is a fantasy conceit of mine. This means I consolidate all these instances together in my head.
If I had multiple entries in other categories, I would see if I could consolidate those as well. If not, no biggie: It is entirely possible to have multiple conceits within a single section, which means they should be listed accordingly. That said, audiences love parsimony, so tying them together doesn’t hurt. So long as you don’t artificially force them. You should just be looking for patterns rather than insisting they exist.
The interconnection aspect means you should see if your ideas link up outside of their designated fields. In my example above of the world of Ayr, I note that the Breath links all the ideas together, from biology on through metaphysics, physics, and even culture (technology too, but it’s not obvious in this example). Seeing how your fantasy conceits link up across your work can be a great tool for streamlining and can help forge natural patterns between them that make sense to your audiences.
Fantasy Conceits: Now that you have your patterns roughly linked in your head, it’s time to write them down.
Fantasy Conceits (pt. 2): Spend a sentence or two writing out your conceits in each section. In my example above, in Physics/ Magic, I would write something to the effect of “individuals with extra Breath manifest powers, including psychic armor, telepathy, and the ability to create monsters.”
Again, this is meant to be succinct, but if you don’t have entries in certain sections, you can definitely use that extra space here. And don’t worry, we’ll expand on these fantasy conceits in a moment. This is still just rough thoughts here.
Antecedents: This section shores up your fantasy conceits by seeing what all they require to be in effect. As stated in the worksheet, if magic is created by the gods, then gods must exist in this world. Or if the magic system is based on the consumption of mythical animals, then those mythical animals must be accounted for in the world.
With any luck this section should reveal any blind spots you still have in your world. It may also show you another way you can streamline your fantasy conceits.
Fantasy Conceits (pt. 3): Time for the rubber to meet the road, and you should rewrite your conceits now you’ve felt them out a little more. Make sure to include their 1) abilities, 2) limitations, 3) weaknesses, and 4) costs for all of your fantasy conceits. These four descriptors are all based on Brandon Sanderson’s three laws of magic, which have been expanded to include fantasy worldbuilding in general.
Prime Mover: Once your conceits are all codified, it’s time to put them in a bit of order. The prime mover conceit is the one around which the whole story revolves, with examples including the Force in Star Wars, the existence of magic in Harry Potter, or bending in Airbender. In each of these the prime mover cannot be removed without the story world completely falling apart.
Not all worlds have prime movers, as is the case of Lord of the Rings, which set the standard of the high fantasy subgenre as a sort of catch-all for numerous fantasy conceits. A Song of Ice and Fire’s prime mover is more thematic in that the lack of regular seasons is symbolic for the subversion of most high fantasy tropes, but that’s a little advanced and not a great example.
For the example of my series, the concept of Breath is certainly the prime mover in that all the other fantasy conceits are dependent upon it.
Ancient History: As the name suggest, this is how your world was created or how your analogue culture believes it was founded, or when magic was discovered, etc. The prime mover should probably come into play here.
Recent History: As it says, this is the stuff that needs to occur in your world before your story for it to make sense. In the case of Harry Potter, that Voldemort was defeated after killing Harry’s parents would fit in this section.
So there you go. After filling out this worksheet, you should have a better handle on your bottom-up world and be able to extrapolate your worldbuilding rules for further entries within it. As I stated in the opening, audiences hate internal inconsistencies as well as adding new worldbuilding rules rather than staying within the established framework, so I would advise to keep all your existing fantasy conceits and analogue cultures in mind. Using them together as fantasy functions should help you extrapolate new possibilities for your world.
And if you get stymied on any particular detail, you can always check out my 101 Fantasy Worldbuilding Prompts for specific questions to answer about your world.