• Stagecrafting is creating just enough in your world to make the book work.
• Stagecrafting is faster and focuses on storytelling more than setting. But it can feel shallow.
• Worldbuilding is creating the entire world: cultures, religions, languages, histories, etc.
• Worldbuilding immerses readers, but takes a lot of time, and can lead to worldbuilding paralysis (not writing because you’re developing/researching), and tourism (showcasing irrelevant things you’ve developed that detracts from the story).
• Try both methods and use whichever aspects work from each of them.
I was in a few high school musicals and one thing that stood out was being backstage. It was a whirlwind of costume changing, switching props, running to the other side, swapping microphones, applying makeup, moving set pieces, and other technical work. If the audience could see it, it would have destroyed any attempt at storytelling. But all they saw was when the props/actors/actresses came together in front of them, creating a world that had no reality beyond the stage.
Writing can be a similar experience. You can create just enough to present a reality without having much else behind the scenes. Or you can build the world so it’s a living, breathing thing that extends beyond the story, with places that will never be seen and are never meant to be experienced. Most of us fall in a spectrum between these two development types, but it’s useful too look at each one separately.
Stagecrafting Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
The concept of stagecrafting is simple: you build just enough of your world to make it seem believable and vibrant and you do nothing else. As a discovery writer who likes to just get started, this is the easiest method for me. You don’t have to waste time creating ancient histories, deep diving into cultures, creating new languages or magic systems, etc. You only need to determine what will be shown in each scene and what someone might mention as a one off.
You get to write a lot more and don’t get stuck doing tons of research and development. You work on getting each chapter right, focusing more on the story itself and the characters rather than the world. It makes for tight stories that are enjoyable to read. It will still take a lot of work to plan everything that’s showcased but you don’t have to go much further beyond what’s presented. When done right, stagecrafting is a simple and effective way to complete a novel and give it living breath without ever letting your readers know you didn’t pour years into developing the world.
The weakness of doing this is lack of depth, which may become visible to the reader, depending on how well you’ve built your scenery. It also means that your worldbuilding might feel disjointed since it wasn’t thought out up front. It might also mean more time spent cobbling together aspects as you go along, which may feel like jury rigging instead of being solid.
• Faster writing.
• Focus is placed on story rather than setting.
• Lack of depth.
• World may feel disjointed and non-cohesive.
Worldbuilding Building a dam
The main strength of worldbuilding is power. When I was a teacher, an instructor told us that powerful teaching depended on how much knowledge we had stored up. He likened it to a dam–what we taught was what came out of the dam (the smaller, visible portion) but what drove that power was everything behind it (what we had studied, memorized, our preparation, etc.). The same is true in storytelling. Building a great deal of the world will give immense vibrancy to the world. Small tidbits will have huge stories behind them. Characters will be completely fleshed out. Magic systems will be well developed and grounded. Readers will feel the immensity and depth you’ve created through every page of the book. That will draw them in and wanting more. It also means you can write multiple stories in the world as the setting won’t be limited to just one novel.
But there’s a catch. Worldbuilding (in its true sense), takes A LOT of time. Cultures, religions, characters, languages, flora/fauna, and the rest need to be developed without even considering the story. JRR Tolkien spent years developing Middle-earth before he published the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. That can quickly lead to worldbuilding paralysis where you become so engrossed with creating fictionalized worlds that you never do anything with them (e.g. write stories!). Another issue is that focusing so much on world building can take away from the importance of writing a good story. Hardly anyone will care about your book if your world is amazing but your story is horrible. Phenomenal magic systems or in depth cultures are great, but if they don’t have matching plots and characters, the story will fall flat.
Worldbuilding also can lead to tourism. Since you’ve spent SO much time developing your world, you want to showcase it to readers, which is understandable. You may be tempted to take them on tour, showing off all the great things you’ve created, sharing all the in-depth history and research you did to make things realistic. This can drastically take away from the actual story and infuriate those readers who want a plot! I like when tourism happens every now and then, but hate it when it’s overused.
• In-depth mastery of world.
• Vibrant settings, characters, magic systems, etc.
• Cohesive everything.
• Lots of extraneous material for a passionate reader to get lost in.
• Large requirement for time.
• Possibility of worldbuilding paralysis.
• Lack of focus on the actual story.
• Potential for too much tourism.
Taking the Best of Both Worlds
Like most things, I recommend finding your own balance and trying elements from both methods. I’ve found that the more worldbuilding takes place, the better the setting/structure for the story. IF worldbuilding doesn’t come at the expense of the story, so much the better. For me, I tend more to use stagecrafting more because it allows me to get writing faster and I don’t have the patience to build the entire world. I’ve found, however, that when I do take the time (either before writing the novel or afterward) to really flesh out the world, it shines through and is worth it.
Try both, see what works, and stick with what helps in your own writing goals. Do you tend to be a stagecrafter or a worldbuilder?