I make no secret that I’m largely a pantser when it comes to a lot of aspects of writing. When it comes to world building, though, I’m definitely a planner. I’ve done the top-down method (creating a whole world and then narrowing it down to a more specific setting to start with) and the bottom-up method (starting with a certain culture/setting/group and building outward), and the sideways-and-upside-down method. I’ve also tried pantsing and building the world as I go along and figure out what I need.
And I’m here to say, the latter method is complete bullshit.
Maybe this is just me–maybe people can legitimately pants it the whole way. Some people can just dive into a story and see where it takes them. I cannot, and I’m not completely convinced that anyone benefits as much as they think they do from winging the world building. Here’s what’s happened to me, and what I know has happened to many people I know: they dive in, and everything’s good. The excitement is still there, and they’re just trucking right along. Then they get a couple chapters in, and all of a sudden, they hit a snag, because they don’t know what the hell to do next.
This is where a little planning would have helped. There is such thing as too much planning, where you get to the point where all you’re doing is world building and researching as a clever form of procrastination (not that I’ve ever done that…nope, of course not). But you have to know the basic milieu of the story, the things that will affect how you proceed toward the important aspects and turning points, before you get too far in. It’s like getting that particleboard entertainment center home and diving right in before you even glance at the directions (not that I’ve ever done that, nope). All of a sudden, oh shit! Where does this one piece go? What’s this thing supposed to look like, anyway?
How the hell are you ever supposed to know where you’re going and how to get there if you can’t answer the basic “journalist questions” about your story, or if you don’t know the place and setting your characters are interacting with? You don’t want them to bump around a big empty vacuum of a room. Setting ain’t just for scenery, folks. Unless characters interact with the setting, unless the story could happen in no other place and time without significantly altering, it’s not believable.
So, you have this fantasy story. There’s this guy. He’s sort of short and he has hairy feet. And there’s a dragon! And another guy, who’s ugly and has a lisp and talks to himself a lot. And, um, the short guy with hairy feet…goes…somewhere. And there’s this thing he finds. It’s a piece of jewelry. A necklace, maybe? Or a ring. Not sure what the ring does, but it’s a ring. And there’s writing on it.
Somehow, I doubt Tolkien dove in with half a page of notes.
There are some people who argue that you don’t have to know where you’re going when you start. I don’t understand these people and I think they’re freaks (kidding, mostly), but I can understand wanting to build a story organically. I’ve done it, though granted it was never by myself. But pantsing plot vs. pantsing the entire world? I just don’t see how the latter works. At all.
I’m fully willing to make the concession that no, you don’t have to have it all figured out before you start writing. I never do. I’m one of those, “Eh, that’s enough” types. I make shit up as I go along all the time, but I know where I’m going, how I’m going to get there and what’s most important, and that actually helps me get stuff done. Writing is all about momentum. You lose it, and it’s really hard to get it back again. You lose it because you have to go back and figure something out, fuhgeddaboudit. It’s one thing if your story takes a left turn you didn’t expect, or if there’s something you just didn’t anticipate, but another thing to have done shoddy pre-work and have to pay for it later. No excuse for that, IMHO.