I’ve had this problem for a long time now—in fact, it’s always been a big part of my assertion that I’d actually rather be a worldbuilder.
I have this entire world that I created… and no story to write in it.
While I can think of various fragments of stories, none come together to actually make it all the way. This leaves me feeling like a stopped-up bottle filling with pressure; so much of me wants to share my world and these various fragments, but I can’t find a way to release them.
This is a problem I obviously have to work on, but it made me think about storytelling and how worldbuilding just isn’t enough. Even Harry Potter, for all its incredible worldbuilding (it has a theme park… I mean, come on), wouldn’t be what it is without the characters and the story.
My most common attempts to rectify the situation involve using what I call “layer development.” I treat the world like a layer, and then try to develop character and plot layers to go over it. It might work, if I could find layers that interest me as much as the world alone does.
But I think one thing to keep in mind is to that the world becomes a part of the story—if the layers are all separate and can’t flow together into one unit, the story will feel disjointed and strange. So if what you’ve got is a world and nothing else, try and figure out what the heart of that world is. What is its story? What drives conflict in this world? If it’s a relatively happy world, what might threaten it? If it’s a dark world, what might fix it?
Not all conflicts are world-wide; some are intimate and personal. Is a made-up world a place for such a conflict? Sure! But in these cases, it probably makes the most sense to have some element of the world play a role in the personal conflict—for example, a lot of contemporary fantasy worlds use the supernatural elements to drive conflicts about identity, keeping secrets, fitting in, etc. Or conflicts in the world can be shown through individual conflicts—a conflict between species or nations could come down to a single relationship across the lines.
I don’t know if a world alone is enough to build a story, or if the story has to come first. My gut says that it can be done, because I think art has no rules and no limits. But as I’m still struggling with this issue, I can’t say definitively either way.
But until people want to read lists of worldbuilding elements with no story and no characters, then at this point: the world is not enough.