A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels

Harry Potter ring

Hi everyone! So happy to be talking to you today from the awesomness that is Author Allsorts, about one of my favourite writing topics – worldbuilding.

I am a sucker for science fiction and fantasy. I love other worlds, exotic spaces, new places and times and the shiver of the extraordinary lying just beneath the surface. I do read plenty of books without these fantastical elements, but I’ve a soft spot for a novel that can take me to a new world or show me the magic in my own that I never knew existed (see the picture above for a particular favourite series of mine ;)). And I’ve not yet had a story idea that doesn’t somehow have a touch of sci-fi or fantasy to it. So if you’re like me, read on for my tips on worldbuilding – or rather, what I think is the harder topic of how to actually incorporate your worldbuilding into your novels as seamlessly as possible, without overloading the reader with information and back-story or bogging them down in description.

Know Your World

Every teeny tiny little detail of it. Whether you’re writing urban fantasy, sci-fi, or straight up fantasy, you have to know your world inside out. And this doesn’t just mean how it looks – it means how it runs. You need to know the very fabric of your world, the history that thrums beneath it all, the whys and hows and who, what, whens. Never worry about having too much detail – in fact, hoard that detail. Gather it up in notes, inspiring pictures you’ve found on the internet, little bits of writing, character profiles, anything and everything.

You won’t use it all, but it’s important for you to have gone through this process. Knowing your world well means when you come to writing, the little details and descriptions will flow more easily, and it’ll give you the authority to write with confidence, so the things you write will feel real. When I came to write my debut novel The Elites, I had so much info on my futuristic world that I could have written a whole encyclopaedia to accompany it. And even though so many things I loved about the world and little settings and details I wanted to incorporate had to be forgone for the sake of the story, they were still there, a current in my fingertips as I wrote, breathing life into every word.

Live Your World

Before I write a scene, I like to picture it in my mind, play it for myself like a movie. This might not be your style of writing, but I find it can really help with incorporating worldbuilding details into your scenes. By making myself experience the scene as though I’m there – and I mean, right in there, living it, dancing along with my characters and feeling every heartbeat of a moment with them – I can find details to drop into my prose that hopefully capture a more 360 experience for my readers. And by 360, I mean every sense, every tiny shiver and nugget of detail that will help give my scenes texture and life.

Sometimes when I read over my work, I come across a bit that I just can’t picture – no, feel – as strongly as the rest. This is where the ‘live your world’ technique helps. By throwing myself deep into the scene, I might find a new smell, texture, emotion, sound, and as if by magic, that one little line of prose really brings the scene to life. If you know your world inside out, these details will come much easier.

Less is More

I love you, Mr. Tolkein, but even I have to admit – I’ve skipped whole paragraphs and pages of your back-story  exposition and worldbuilding descriptions. The truth is, as modern-day readers, we’re more impatient when it comes to books. There’s so many other things to distract us – Twitter, Facebook, mobile phone games, other books – that writers have to be careful to hold on to their reader’s attention. This is especially true for children’s and YA fiction, where the pace usually has to be swifter, the story more to the point. So rummage through your worldbuilding details, find the shiniest, most delicious nuggets, and drop them into your prose like sweets, little bursts of flavour to delight your reader’s tongue.

Don’t worry too much about this in your first draft. There’s plenty of time to take out extra description, back-story etc and really hone the details you do share when you start your rounds of edits. By then, you’ll be a little more detached from your book, so it’ll be easier to cut things. Just flag up anywhere in the story where it feels like the pace is dragging a little, or the description is becoming a bit heavy, and figure out a way to tighten it up. Try that ‘live your world’ thing I told you about above – it’ll help give you a more rounded range of senses and emotions to play with. Then you can streamline it all, have a feel for what adds to the atmosphere and tension, and what is just excess fat.

Learn from Others

We all have our favourites, those authors whose work we read again and again, thinking I will never in a million years be this good. The writers whose prose and characters and concepts are like liquid gold to us. Well, use that admiration and awe to your advantage. Read over your favourite bits from their novels and ask yourself what it is about these lines that you love so much. De-construct their writing to find out how it works. Don’t copy or steal, of course, but learn, understand, adapt.

For example, Philip Reeve is in my eyes a complete genius when it comes to worldbuilding. He knows how to get those tiny little details into his prose in the smallest, briefest, most throw-away of lines, but they fizz with so much energy and truth they give his story so much life, so much grounding. His Mortal Engines series taught me much about the 360 reader experience, and I still flick through it to get hints and tips on how to incorporate worldbuilding details into my stories whilst remaining concise and never dragging down the pace of the story.

Trust Your Instincts!

These ideas and tips I’ve outlined are just things I find useful. There aren’t any rules or laws about worldbuilding. The important things is to trust your own instincts, and listen to your heart. That’s the beauty of writing – we all have our different styles and voices and quirks, so don’t be afraid to use them and write your novel as truthfully as you alone can. 🙂


IMG_7259Natasha Ngan
Natasha Ngan was born in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and spent her childhood in both the UK and Malaysia, where the Chinese side of her family is from. She also spent it living in two other worlds – reality, and her imagination. As an only child, books were her best friends, and though she now has real, physical, human friends, books are still every bit as important to her.

Natasha has always (only) wanted to be an author. THE ELITES is her first novel, and she regularly blogs about her experiences of being a debut author. Outside of writing YA fiction, Natasha works as a freelance social media consultant and runs a fashion and photography blog with her boyfriend Callum (

About Natasha Ngan

NYT Bestselling author of Girls of Paper and Fire, published by Little Brown

9 comments on “Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels

  1. Rose
    May 10, 2013

    This artcile was so beautifully written I know I’ll like Natasha’s book. Thank you for the tips.

  2. natashanganauthor
    May 10, 2013

    Thanks Rose!! x

  3. Emma Pass
    May 10, 2013

    This is such a fantastic post, Natasha! I was nodding in agreement all the way through. And Rose is right, your writing is amazing – can’t wait for THE ELITES!

  4. natashanganauthor
    May 10, 2013

    Aww thank you so much Emma!

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