Top Down Worldbuilding Worksheet
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.
Anyways, this worksheet is for those who are top-down designers who already have a fairly good idea as to what concepts they’ll explore in their fantasy world. With any luck, it and 101 Worldbuilding Prompts should give you an easy means to flesh out your ideas.
It should be noted that this worldbuilding worksheet is based loosely off of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet from Save the Cat. When it first came out you could download the 1-page Word doc and fill out the sections, and Snyder said it was meant to be one page when filled out so as to force people to remain succinct and focus on the broad strokes rather than get mired in the minutia of details. These fantasy worldbuilding worksheets are a bit longer but maintain the same aim of parsimony by forcing you to keep your ideas within the provided fields. This is the beginning stage of figuring out your world, and more space will be provided later for the worldbuilding bible itself.
So, with all that in mind, here we go:
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.
Then think about how you are going to get this information across to your audience. This is most often down with toehold details, which are signifiers as to the audience as to which cultures and time periods you will be drawing from. For instance, if the culture in the fantasy world carried katanas and wore kimonos, this this would communicate a very different analogue than a six-shooter and cowboy boots.
Fantasy Conceits: These are the big, impossible changes you intent to explore in your worldbuilding and are the fundamental ways it deviates from the real world. Since this is the fantasy genre, this most likely involves the inclusion of magic or impossible creatures, although there are four other ways generally used to alter reality. 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.
In this section you should match your conceits to the proper sections. If there is not 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.
Fantasy conceits 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).
Again, remember to keep your ideas succinct since you’re not provided much space and still need to include 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.
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 have in your world.
Extrapolations: This section is to see the big, global changes that have been wrought due to your fantasy conceits by logically following your ideas to their natural conclusions. For instance, if you created a world wherein alchemy is real and one could easily transmute one material to another, this would most likely affect industry in that mining for specific elements would be unnecessary, which could in turn mean a more green equivalent of the Industrial Revolution.
Like the top-down conception of the conceits themselves, extrapolations should be big-picture rather than granular in terms of details (the next section). Here we are just looking for the places the world would have changed due to your conceits rather than exactly how.
Output Details: As we discuss in Worldbuilding for Fantasy Fans and Authors, while authors adhere to either top-down or bottom-up strategies in creating their worlds, audiences experience the world inside-out, which means they piece together their mental conception based on each individual detail provided in the story.
For instance, in my own world of Ayr, ley lines exist of energy that can pass through anything but glass. My output details of this conceit included glass-bottomed trains to float along the ley lines, electric generators used to harness the ley lines to power cities, and their muskets using crude batteries rather than flint to ignite the powder.
This is just one example of how a fantasy conceit (ley lines) goes from concept to extrapolation as to how it would affect the development of the world itself, finally to specific output details that appear on the page for the audience to absorb from the inside-out. These output details from the ley lines are by no means exhaustive (just check out the Conceit + Maps + Factions + Lexicon sections if you don’t believe me) but serve as good example of the type of output details you should be aiming for. This section, like the others, is intentionally short to force you to get into the creative mindset instead of getting mired in all the specific details themselves. That phase should probably be saved for your worldbuilding bible later down the line.
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, with all this in hand, you should have a better handle on your world and be ready to create with abandon. That said, no matter how exceptional of a top-down planner you are, there will be a point where something organically occurs in your world that you didn't account for at the outset. No worries, that's all part and parcel of the creative process. And it's also why you might want to check out the bottom-up worksheet and strategy to see how they deal with ideas that spring up.
And if you get stymied on any particular output details, you can always check out my 101 Worldbuilding Prompts for specific questions to answer about your world.