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Rule-Based Worldbuilding for Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Steampunk

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Katherine Cowley

katherinecowley.comfacebook.com/kathycowleyTwitter: @[email protected]

Selected PublicationsThe Last Bathroom in DefenestrationMisunderstood in 365 TomorrowsThe Clockwork Seer in Steel and BoneThe Five Year Journal in the 2015 Mormon Lit BlitzYongrui and the Tree of Life in Segullah (1st place, fiction contest)Breastfeeding Mama in Tempe Community Writing contest (1st place, nonfiction)Daughter of a Boto in Meeting of the Myths (3rd place)I am not a Writer (2nd place in BYU Studies Personal Essay contest)In Which Eve Names Everything Else in 2013 Mormon Lit Blitz (2nd place)Waiting in Four Centuries of Mormon Stories (3rd place)

Worldbuilding:the process of constructing an imaginary world (Wikipedia)

Kirkus ReviewsOriginal worldbuilding and cosmology spice up a save-the-world romantic adventure.Skillfully blending facets of classic high fantasy, this debut novel will captivate readers with its rich plot and detailed worldbuilding.A tedious tale of teens in purgatory suffers from clumsy prose, erratic worldbuilding, and an overabundance of characters and plotlines.

Kirkus ReviewsExquisite storytelling plus atmospheric worldbuilding equals one stunning teen debut.An imaginative dark fantasy is marred by opaque worldbuilding and clunky characterization.Rich characterization, exquisite worldbuilding and rock-solid storytelling make this a fantasy of unusual intelligence and depth.

Kirkus ReviewsThe worldbuilding continues to shine, getting deeper and more complex and more satisfying as the story goes on. The first book was more concerned with economic class, and while that is certainly dealt with here, too, this one takes a closer look at information and history and perspective.[The novel] incorporates worldbuilding really well, without ever resorting to clumsy info-dumping.

Kirkus ReviewsThe worldbuilding is sparse, and backgrounds are one-notea pleasure planet, a water planet. Characters hint at historical events, technological innovations, and political shifts without expanding on them enough for the reader to appreciate them.Lets cut to the chase: Its awful. In fact, I would, if I could, send [the novel] to the naughty corner for its terrible writing, inane worldbuilding and overreliance on tell-not-show.

Kirkus ReviewsThe worldbuilding is lazy.Once again, stunning worldbuilding is the order of the day.

Cinderella 3 5:07-5:4711

The goal:

To create the inner consistency of reality within a fictional story (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Not just speculative fiction! The teenage spy story- conjugating Chinese. Salvador Dali Galatea of the Spheres12

The willing suspension of disbelief Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Rooted in Aristotle. Suspending our knowledge of reality to embrace a fictional experience. To accept that as reality. Emotional experience with a text. Enjoyment. 13

George MacDonald: The Fantastic Imagination

J. R. R. Tolkien: On Fairy-stories

The Golden Rule

The Golden Ruleof worldbuilding

The Golden Ruleof worldbuildingUnless specified otherwise, everything inside your world is assumed to behave exactly as it would in the real world. Simon Provencher

Myrtle Von Damitz IIIs All Our Fictional Worlds from the book Wonderbook


Worldbuilding ExerciseA 16-year-old girl with a secret that could change everything at her school.As a group, spend 2 minutes building a world, which should include the school she attends.Genres:Paranormal romanceHistorical fantasySteampunkScience fiction with aliens and/or spaceshipsSpy or heistYour group will have up to 30 seconds to explain your world, so focus on the most important details.


Toblers First Law of Geography

"Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things."Image credit: Sean Chaffey via flickr (cc)

Every choice you make creates ripples of consequences20

Writing Excuses21

Fantasy Worldbuilding QuestionsBy Patricia C. Wrede

The Law of OriginalityAn author should never be satisfied with simple imitation of someone elses world.

Nosferatu German version of Dracula by Werner Herzog. VAMPIRE EXERCISE.30


Law of Reality

An authors use of accurate, realistic details aids in the suspension of disbelief and makes the reader more likely to accept the fantastic.

Every choice you make creates ripples of consequences33

Bonus: Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness35

Law of ShortcutsExplaining some scientific principles thoroughly or demonstrating a characters proficiency in science early on allows you to fudge or skip over other details.

Sandersons First Law of Magic

An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.Image credit: zongping zhuo via flickr (cc)

Image credit: Gina Collecchia via flickr (cc)

The Reader-Writer Contract43

Avoiding the information dump.44

Murphys Law

of worldbuildingImage credit: bakaotaku via flickr (cc)

Picture book: Dragons Love Tacos

Sandersons Second Law of MagicLimitations > Power

What a magic system cant do is more interesting for the world and the story than what it can. Limitations, weaknesses, costs.48

Emotion Beats

Deus ex Machina

Helios in his chariot, 4th century BC, Athenas Temple in IlionImage credit: Gryffindor (public domain)


Real Consequences. Real Sacrifices.

Further ResourcesSandersons Third Law of MagicWonderbook by Jeff VandermeerWriting Excuses podcastBuilding Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation by Mark J. P. WolfStory Beats Presentation by Katherine Cowley katherinecowley.com/blog/story-beats