Five Tools for Better World-Building For Your Next Book
When it comes to world-building, some authors just make up a world as they write the story, while others take the time to invent cultural rules defining gremlin marriages and divorces.
No matter which group you fall into, the simple truth is that collecting all of a story’s important details in a single place is really the best way to keep track of all the many different and possibly conflicting details and avoid mistakes like changing the name of the hero’s horse halfway through the book.
And it helps to have the entries cataloged and indexed by keyword so that you can avoid running into the same problem as the creators of Lost, who recorded all of their background details in a paper notebook and were themselves lost as the seasons added up.
Here are five tools that you can use to construct a world as background for your next story.
If your favorite tool isn’t listed here, why not tell us about it in the comments?
This platform is still in beta, but when it’s done it will be specifically designed for world-building. It enables you to organize your world, search through everything and anything with ease, present it publicly and get feedback from a community of world-builders around the globe.
You can start out with a private project, and then invite feedback from fans as well as other users on World Anvil. The world can be organized both geographically as well as chronologically across multiple story timelines. You can even create maps to tie it all together.
You’ve used Wikipedia, right?
Mediawiki is an open source website platform that was originally designed for Wikipedia, and is now used on dozens of sites. Setting it up takes a fair amount of technical skill, but once you’re done you can build a wiki that looks as professional as Wikipedia.
On the other hand, your wiki will also be as public as Wikipedia unless you take steps to keep it private and secret. This can be a bad idea if you want to keep plot twists from leaking.
Originally crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 2015, Story Shop was developed by creators for creators. it has everything – story planning, the option to build a series bible, unlimited character bios, an integrated writing app that keeps your research nearby, and more!
This service isn’t free – although it does have a 7-day free trial – so investing in this tool takes a serious commitment.
If you don’t mind letting spoilers get out, or perhaps if you want to bond with your readers by working with them to build the wiki, you could try Wikia. This is a service that hosts fan-made wikis.
This is very much a platform for fan-supported projects, so if you need to organize the plots for your next three epic maga-fantasy novels, it’s not for you. But if you want to draw in your readers and form a community then this could be it. All the software management details are taken care of, leaving only community management.
But if secrecy or privacy is desirable then try Notebook.ai.
This service bills itself as a digital notebook for writers, dungeon masters, designers, and other creators. It is designed from the ground up to let you name and describe characters, locations, organizations, belief systems, and equipment.
"Instead of reading backward in your story to find out how old you said that one character was, every little detail about them is organized and just a click away."
The basic plan is free and let’s you build up to 5 universes, while the unlimited plan is only $9 a month.
If you want to organize your source material into a notebook then why not use Evernote?
This is probably not the first thing you think of when the topic of world-building comes up, but there’s no reason why you can’t use it this way – in fact, Evernote has a lot to recommend it for this purpose.
While it is a general purpose notebook and thus not as niche focused as some of the alternatives mentioned above, Evernote has so many extensions and integrations that it would be a great tool for gathering all your background research together in one place.
With some of the above tools, you have to copy content to a new entry and catalog, but Evernote has browser extensions that you can use to clip content from web pages, save it in Evernote, and automatically link back to your source.
As enticing as these tools may be, you should keep in mind why you are building the world. It shouldn’t be an exercise in building an intricate castle in your own private sandbox; instead, it should always serve to enhance the story or bring more enjoyment to the reader and fan.
If you use one of these tools, just make sure they drive you back to the open page so you can finish the story so you can share it with others.
Felix July 10, 2018 um 12:22 am
High-five for World Anvil! I might add they also have a huge and thriving Discord community. And while it may still be nominally in beta, it’s also much more full-featured than the usually cited alternatives… that also cost more. Totally worth it.
Dimitris September 15, 2018 um 3:12 am
Thank you so very much for including my work (World Anvil) on the article Nate, it’s really appreciated.
Keith Nelson May 24, 2019 um 10:36 am
Longevity – books, at least the paper editions are around, some for centuries. These software based "books" (stories, games, whatever) are only around as long as the software that created them, and is the only software to present the material comprising the book. A year, two, or ten – while your article is very informative, an added benefit would be addressing the utility of these programs over the long haul. This is not a complaint toward any of the producers of these wonderful word/world builders, but as a photo buff who bought in to the Apple-ittes Aperture photo software, I’ve been burned.
Annie September 5, 2019 um 7:25 pm
Personally I use WorldAnvil and Notebook.ai. They go well hand in hand, though I would suggest you keep your stuff in WorldAnvil simple since it is not private unless you pay.