Techniques for world building in science fiction
In conversation with Ian Nettleton

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On this week’s podcast: Dive into the science fiction genre with an in-depth look at world building with tutor Ian Nettleton. We discuss alternate realities, imagined futures and how world building relates to plot, character and story.

Hosted by Simon Jones, writer and Digital Marketing Manager at the National Centre for Writing.

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All fiction is building some kind of world, so what is it about science fiction that introduces particular challenges or opportunities?

World building is important in any story, but with science fiction it’s of particular importance. It’s been described as being like another character in the story, and the plot can be decided by the world in a way that it may not be in realist fiction.

One of the things to think about that isn’t in realist fiction is if you say “I’m going to put the kettle on,” or “Mary walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on”, you don’t have to describe the kettle. You don’t have to go into detail. There are assumed things about western society — but of course the reality is that no two people put the kettle on in the same way..There are rituals attached to that, so just starting with that I find very interesting. I set that as an exercise sometimes: I ask students to describe making themselves a drink in the morning, and no two students do it in the same way.

With science fiction there’s more to it than that. You can’t assume that when someone walks into their kitchen and puts the kettle on and makes a drink that it’s going to be the same as it is on Earth. How do you make a drink in zero gravity? Suddenly everything changes.

That’s just one example, but what I hope it illustrates is that building the world in science fiction is one of the major tasks for any writer. It’s a very exciting task and it’s quite exacting, depending on what kind of world you’re building in the first place.


So realist fiction at the time of writing is representative of that contemporary culture. As that book gets older and older it suddenly turns into a period piece, and what then was ‘normal’ culture at the time of writing can become strange to an observer a long time later. Science fiction is almost the other way around, when you’re kind of projecting out the other way.

That’s an interesting point. I spoke to a writer of historical fiction and I knew I was treading in unknown territory for me, but I said that I imagine writing historical fiction — if you’re writing Victorian period — it’s a little like writing science fiction. She said absolutely, yes, because the world suddenly becomes strange to us in the early 21st century.

A lot of those details do become more strange. The curious thing about science fiction is that, yes, you bring in newer and surprising things — like William Gibson did with Neuromancer, for example, with the internet which was in its relative infancy and now it dates. What seems futuristic when it’s created very quickly starts to look quite old. That’s just a curious aspect of science fiction.

So in terms of world building in science fiction, there’s different approaches to it. In terms of the concept of ‘the world’ that you’re building that can mean slightly different things depending on the story being told. Eg alternative realities compared to fully imagined new worlds. What’s the difference?

Alternate realities are ‘almost now’, but with slight changes. Never Let Me Go is a good example. I know Kazuo Ishiguro said that he deliberately set out to make it as un-science fictiony as he could. But there’s farming of organs. So that was the science fiction element; the fantastical element. But it’s grounding it in a reality that we recognise, while adding other elements.

Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which is set in the 1980s, has a lot of elements which are recognisable — but there are superheroes as well, and that’s the fantastical element. And Richard Nixon is running for another term in office. So it’s the matching of the fantastical with what we find very accessible.

With fully imagined worlds, there’s a good example in a Philip K Dick story called A Game of Unchance, and I use it quite a lot. It’s not entirely fantastical, but is set on Mars — and he find a way of making it accessible, and that’s important even in the most fantastical of worlds. It starts with a man rolling a 20 gallon drum of water across a landscape, and we think OK — is this a farmer? It’s a desert land. He’s watering his potatoes. And then he looks up into the mid-afternoon Martian sky and sees a ‘carnie’ ship coming to land. So we go from what is accessible for the reader to something which is fantastical, while at the same time being almost old fashioned as well: a carnival ship, just like in a Victorian freak show. He’s mixing the fantastical with elements which are of the everyday, regardless of the fact it’s set on Mars. There’s still an element that we can get a hold of and understand.

It’s using what’s called ‘verisimilitude’ — the semblance of the real — so that it isn’t outside our grasp as a reader.

That’s about having defined rules of some sort, even within the fictional construct. Having something that obeys its own internal logic.

It’s interesting because Brian Aldiss said that both science fiction and fantasy are in the same kind of area. There are elements of fantasy in science fiction, just as with fantasy — although fantasy deals with things that don’t and probably can’t exist — it has to work on its own terms. If somebody can just suddenly cast a spell, where is the narrative tension? If suddenly a deus ex machina happens where god comes out of the machine, solves everything, appears on the stage. There has to be limitations, and it’s the same with science fiction.

In something like 2001 gravity is still a problem: they have little hooks on their feet so they can walk upside-down. We have to have a sense of the concrete in order to make the fantastical accessible.

You can compare something like The Expanse, where the tension in the show and the books comes from applying fairly real science to dramatic events, to something like Star Wars where the drama comes first and the science fits around that.

There’s like a sliding scale for science fiction. You can start with something like ‘hard’ science fiction, and something like The Expanse or 2001 — although it has its fantastical elements — is grounded in a sense of what could be, slightly in the future. Something like Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is about genetic engineering taken to an extreme, but it could potentially happen in the future. And then as you move along you’ve got things like space opera, which is the Culture series by Iain M Banks and Star Wars with knights with swords and ray guns and hearing sound in space.

The genres lines can get blurred. I don’t want to get too deep into discussions of genre because it’s a bit of a rabbit-hole when it comes to science fiction and fantasy, but you get some people for whom science fiction means that it should be possible, even if it’s highly unlikely or far-future. That’s how they define it and separate it from fantasy. Do you think that works, or is it too hard a definition?

I was having this discussion with someone yesterday, and he said he knew somebody who was trying to get a student to do a science degree but he had to study English and he had a problem with studying O-level English. So he gave him some Asimov science fiction to read, because he felt Asimov was hard science fiction, and the student with their scientific mind then passed their exams and got into the degree.

So there are people who feel that they need to have a sense of logically possible. I don’t personally think it matters — I prefer somewhere in-between; in the end it’s still telling me a good story. Stanislaw Lem said that one of the things he didn’t like about Star Trek was that no-one ever goes to the toilet. And you watch it and no-one does! You don’t necessarily want to see that, but they should at least have ‘WC’ on a door in the corridor.

But in the end it’s about a really good story, and character and plot. Character has to come first. I remember those books in the ’70s where you’d have a painting on the cover by Chris Foss: fantastic big spaceships and they look great, and sometimes you’d have them on an Earth-like planet but the one thing that didn’t work in those paintings were the people. They looked a bit like mannequins and not real people. You can get so carried away with the world and how real the science is that you forget that actually what we engage with the most is the human story.

I’m saying that and I’m just thinking about 2001 again. The characters are hard to access. The most human character is the computer HAL and we really feel for it as his memory starts to go.

I was listening to an interview with Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther, and he was saying when they were world building for Wakanda it was critical for him to show people eating, because for him until you show people eating it’s not a real place. It’s those background details that you don’t necessarily need to focus on which are critical to that verisimilitude you were talking about.

I was thinking the other day about the first Blade Runner and how Harrison Ford’s character Deckard is ordering sushi, and you’ve got the mix of cultures and you’ve got bicycles — and why wouldn’t there be bicycles in the near future? It makes it accessible.

People interpret world building slightly differently. So one example is the film The Fifth Element, which depicts this visually stunning world which is full of funny little details like cigarettes that are entirely filters and they’ve thought of all these individual bits and pieces, but it’s all a bit surface and slightly gimmicky. You don’t get a particularly good sense of the society or the culture compared to something like Iain M Banks’Culture novels or Kim Stanley Robinson’s stuff where he goes into intricate detail about how everything slots together.

It’s not uncommon for people to say that science fiction is really about now; it’s a reflection of what’s going on in society at the moment. So first of all theme is really important — world building comes from that. Also characterisation, by which I mean ritual and habits. There’s that term ‘objective correlative’, which is that the world which is depicted is filtered through the emotions of the character. If you put a character in any room, whether it’s a science fiction story or anything else, you should see the world through the character.

What do you do first thing in the morning? How do you interact with your world? Everything ultimately is filtered through the characters. How you build that world — is it a desert planet? Dune for example, what do we know about desert communities? Frank Herbert knew about nomadic tribes in North Africa and the Middle East and he used that knowledge and then extended it to create these people on the planet Arrakis. It would be the same on an ice planet, or a jungle planet — it’s good to go and ask questions about people who know about living in the Amazon. And then you can exaggerate it for dramatic purposes.

It’s the same way any writer of realist fiction does. Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness is based on his experiences of going through the Belgian Congo. He didn’t find a Commander Kurtz, he didn’t have the experiences Marlowe has as he travels to the Central Station — what Conrad did was heighten the drama. In a lot of science fiction that’s what they do.

You mentioned an ice planet and I recently read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. That’s a really good example of taking how you survive in an icy environment, ramping it up to 11 and then the book almost anchors itself through bureaucratic politics, in a very mundane level. That’s the recognisable thing, and then how they survive on this incredibly inhospitable planet is the kind of science fictional, extreme exaggeration.

As a writer, let’s say you’ve developed your world. You understand all the intricacies, whether you’ve jotted down a couple of pages or a 50-page bible. Once you’ve put in all that effort to building a world, how do you then expose it in the story without just resorting to paragraph after paragraph of exposition?

Every writer’s challenge is how to release information without it being obvious that the information is being released. As with any story writing, there are any number of devices and ways of doing that. You’re absolutely right — the last thing you want is an infodump. One of the ways is to introduce a character who has never been there before — the ‘stranger in a strange land’. A character comes in, and someone explains things to them. You do have to be careful with that: dialogue which is pure exposition is dead language; it’s runs the risk of just becoming an infodump.

But if they discover things it can become part of the narrative tension, as they find out about the place, the planet, the community. Back to Dune, there’s a point where one of the desert people spits on the table, and that would be an insult to us now, in this room. But in the desert community that is a sign of respect; because to waste fluid when water is so scarce is actually a real sacrifice. It’s a way of releasing information about the planet.

Dialogue is a good way of releasing information, but how you do that is dramatically. Always you want to release information dramatically. If you have two people talking about an alien race, you need to make sure the dialogue isn’t dead in the water. You don’t want to release information overtly. Instead, you want to bring in character so that the information is being released while at the same time there’s some kind of conflict going on between the characters. It’s about reactions to information rather than the information itself, so you don’t notice the information is being released.

Science fiction writers have a particular challenge, to go back to your example of boiling a kettle, in that in realist fiction you can just say “they boiled a kettle”, whereas in your science fiction world if they just want a hot drink but for some reason inherent in your world building that’s a really complicated, tricky process, how do you get that across without having a tedious paragraph about how to make a drink in a forced context?

Well, you don’t have to explain everything. If you assume it’s true as a writer you can put the information in there and let the reader take it on trust. You might even have some terms which don’t even exist. I’m actually thinking of a comic by Moebius. There’s one great story where this spaceship lands and a man goes into town — just like a ship docking in New York harbour — and this man goes into the local market and has some sort of weird drink, but he hasn’t ‘frapped’ it. I’ve no idea what that even means and it’s never explained, but as the aliens are watching the man suddenly his face explodes. It’s very amusing and disturbing at the same time, and it’s all because he didn’t ‘frap’ his drink.

It’s never explained and it’s just one of those things that happens on this planet. We go along with it because it’s humourous and distinct, and as with realist fiction you don’t have to explain everything.

Leaving stuff out is important. The writer has to know more than the reader, and the reader sees the top of the iceberg. But that only has verisimilitude if there’s a lot more below the surface that the writer is aware of.

That’s it. The tip of the iceberg is there for all elements in writing. You wouldn’t sit and describe it all — it would be tedious. David Lodge said that if you were to describe a room in full detail you’d probably fill a full novel with just description — and there’s no need to. You just need the small details, which are what the reader is looking out for. Just enough, the same way with character you leave a lot for the reader to work out. Give hints of what’s going on emotionally, but you don’t tell the reader. You don’t say “the man was angry as he walked in” — you try and dramatise it by making his dialogue be a bit off, have him be a little curt with somebody. Clues on the page, in the same way that you build a world.

it’s those gaps where the reader has to fill in some of it which really gets a world to lodge in your brain. And yet you look at some of the more popular stuff, like Star Wars, and they’ve got this never-ending urge to fill in all the gaps with spin-offs and making whole films about minor characters. It feels like it diminishes it more often than enhances it.

In Alien what was great was that they find this calcified creature which seems to be part of what seems like a cannon, and I remember seeing pictures of that as a teenager and being mesmerised. Not knowing what it was was part of the great mystery of the story. It’s not explaining it which makes it disturbing, because the reader or viewer can’t find an explanation. Mystery is particularly important when it comes to certain genres.

That brings me on to something Charles Stross has talked about, which is ‘cultural estrangement’. His point is that if you’re dealing with a story which is set way in the future — thousands, millions of years in the future, or off in some completely different place that you should feel estranged from — if it is too familiar or too comfortable or too easy to read that it’s not quite doing its job, in terms of world building. Left Hand of Darkness was like that, in that it deliberately holds back key details so for half the book you don’t really know what’s going on culturally. You don’t understand the society. But by the end of the book you feel like you’ve been to a place which was different. I was wondering how you do that without completely losing the reader.

Balance is everything in writing. How much information do you withhold and how much do you release? Maintaining the narrative tension in that way is interesting — making the reader feel that they’re in a strange place, in a way which still maintains their interest.

Releasing just enough information is an editing job, to be honest. With a short story it doesn’t matter so much because it’s often read in one sitting, so the reader will go along for the ride as long as there’s enough story and character to draw them in.

The first example that came to mind is The Time Machine, which is a love story to a fair degree. HG Wells is one of the fathers of science fiction — the mother being Mary Shelley with Frankenstein. We don’t understand the world that the time traveller goes to — he’s never named — but we’re intrigued and it’s only halfway through the story that we start to understand what’s happened to society. There’s a sense of unease, that there’s trouble in paradise, and that’s why utopias are interesting. Like Brave New Worlds — something has to be destructive, or over-bearing, but you don’t get it straight away. You just know there’s something not quite right. We’re curious in the first place, but once we get drawn in we then ask certain questions and sometimes they’re only answered with further questions.

It comes back to the mystery you were talking about earlier. The world itself can be part of the mystery, even if the characters know what’s going on. As the reader you can be piecing information together, trying to figure it out.

Lastly, when someone is approaching writing a science fiction novel, especially if it’s the first time they’ve written in the genre, world building is crucial but it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg story. Is it world building, characters, plot — what comes first? I was thinking of Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan’s series and the Netflix show, which is a semi-cyberpunk story where the plot of the story can only occur within the context of that world. So as a writer, when you’re constructing what your book is going to be, where do you start?

I’m sure there are as many answers to there are writers. But it’s a great question. I know just by writing long fiction generally that you have to have some sense of your world before you start writing. You can explore it and find out more about it as you’re writing, in the same way as when you’re creating characters.

Some people find that the easiest way to create characters is to write pages about them, so they know their likes and dislikes, their educational background, all those kind of things. Tolkien had a very fully realised world which was distinct and a turning point for fantasy, but as you create a world like that you have to have in mind that this is going to be a story and you have to be thinking how am I going to use this? Or else you might find that you have all this information and you’ve still got to write the story and you don’t know where to start.

If I was going to write a longer piece of science fiction my personal approach would be to have a bit of an idea of the place it’s going to be set, so I have as much information as I need just to get the thing going, and then take it from there.

There are different approaches according to subject matter and what kind of writer you are. You have to find that out — one of the great things about being a writer is that you find the things that work for you and you find the things that don’t. No-one can ever tell you what is the right way; they can only say what works better for them.

As far as world building is concerned, it’s very exciting to do world building regardless of the genre you’re writing it, but with science fiction the excitement is that you can bring in things which really add to the drama. It’s what works for you as a writer — if you feel you need to create a big world I think that would be a lot of fun. Personally, I would have just enough information, then I would research it to see what was possible, and then that would help the story open out a little bit, or shift its direction.

Without a doubt, the world of the story has a direct impact on most if not all science fiction stories. It’s an essential part of the plot.

It comes back to what you were saying earlier about editing. As you’re writing the first draft you might not understand all the nuance of the world, but that’s where editing comes in.

Never worry about putting implausible things on the page. That’s fine! Science fiction lends itself to the implausible. You want to keep away from cliche — people appearing from nowhere like in Star Trek, which has already been done. Find a new way to do things which makes sense. If you just have ray guns and spaceships it can be fun but you’ve got to find a way of creating a world which you believe in which is distinct. Those details are what make that story and that world exciting for the reader, because they haven’t read quite that thing before.

It’s the same with fantasy — wizards don’t mean anything, but if you’ve got a wizard who can’t cast a spell it then becomes interesting. I thought of Game of Thrones — and I know we’re off-genre here — but that was great because you don’t see any dragons, they’re just talked about. There’s hardly any magic at all, and by the time it starts coming in you’re already fully into the world that seems accessible and historical, instead of fantastical.

I always preferred the early parts of that story because it’s a fantasy world in which everyone’s forgotten it’s a fantasy world. It’s a really interesting way to approach world building.

It’s great! And back to verisimilitude, he based it on British history and the War of the Roses. You’ve got to read a lot of science fiction to write science fiction. You need to be aware of what is happening in science fiction writing, in the same way as any fiction or genre writer.

If you liked this interview, do consider signing up to Ian’s 12-week online writing course. It introduces you to the fundamentals of the genre and shares a wealth of tips and techniques — plus it’s fully tutored, with constructive feedback from Ian and a chance to interact with students from around the world.

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