The Magic IF:
I am a theatre teacher by training, so I take a number of ideas presented for producing theatre and acting and use them to help tell my stories. What is theatre but a different way of telling a story?
Konstantin Stanislavski was a theatre practitioner and theorist at the turn of the century in Russia. In many ways, he is the beginning of the natural or realistic style of acting most people use and think of today when we watch theatrical performances.
One of his many contributions was the concept of the Magic IF. I’m not going to go into great detail, but instead give credit where credit is due.
I have read several writers who use the “What if…” question to start their world-building. It is normally how I start my location/settings for the worlds I write in.
A few examples from me or things I’ve read:
What if the plants could kill humans for revenge?
What if the dead came to life?
What if machines took over the world and started killing people?
What if magic was real but hidden?
What if legendary creatures lived alongside humans?
What if the moon exploded or was flung out of earth’s orbit?
What if women were in charge, and men were treated as second-class citizens?
Hopefully, you can see how this is a great way to start the setting of your new world. A number of these fall into tropes of certain genres. I highly suggest you learn the many tropes floating around, as well as the stock characters, both traditional commedia dell’arte and those described by Carl Jung. They are part of our collective conscious and translate over several traditions.
Once you have the bones of your world, then you need to start populating it, rules and organization become my foundation.
If I have magic in my world, what are the rules, I need to start with at least some idea of what the magic can or can’t do, what the cost is and how prevalent it is. Once I set up the rules, I need to follow them, unless I have some compelling reason to break the rules, or readers will find my world to deus ex machina, which is never good… unless that is what you are going for.
Rules are a funny thing really, all rules. Authors need to know the rules and then become willing to break them when needed for effect. This includes all the rules we as authors have placed on us or we place on ourselves.
With organizations, I start to flush out the systems that help a world to be, believable. I know some people need to work out in great detail each and every aspect of the world they are writing in. I don’t… I world-build to the knowledge level of the characters in the book would know, and maybe the next higher level. These organizations can be the birthplace of my protagonist and antagonist.
As an example, if I am writing about a gutter snipe fighting to survive on the streets of a dystopian world, I don’t need to world-build the leadership of each branch of the universe that surrounds them, only the level they will be interacting with. I will leave the higher level until I need to fill in the story.
If the guttersnipe only deals with the front-line enforcers of society, there is no reason to create higher levels. If the ragamuffin works his way up to become the leader of the resistance to overthrow the bad guys, then I need all the stepping stones between the gutter to the big giant head.
I could spend years, creating a world. I love world-building, but I love telling compelling stories more. When I world-build, I start with what I need to start my rough outline for the story if it is a standalone or a multi-book series. One more note, once I have the bones of the world down on paper, and even if I have an outline filled out on my spreadsheet, things change. Every time I sit down to write, the Characters takes over. If they have different ideas where the story needs to go, I normally let them run with it. That is why my outline will only be one or two sentences per chapter and a paragraph or so per book. Everything can change for me while I write.
One last note that might help. When I am working on outlining, or world-building in general, I have a couple of items to help. Music in the style I am working in plays a huge role. I also have Pinterest files I use for inspiration. I will keep specific historical maps and inspiration pictures in my files so I can reference them if I don’t have access to the internet.
I hope this gives some insight to the crazy way I write.