Which Comes First: World-Building or Plot?

I was speaking to a friend the other day who was unhappy about the way his plot outline was coming. He said his ideas were scattered, disorganised, too many elements that perhaps didn’t belong. His solution? To build the world first.


He’s very excited by this decision and who can blame him? World-building is a mammoth but brilliant task. The laws and the etiquette, the myths and the legends, the hierarchies and the cutlery; they all need to be invented and woven together into a cohesive and believable whole. But it raised a question: should world-building come before the plot or the other way around?


A world doesn’t require a plot. It’s easy to invent a land where sheep are viewed as deities and fail to provide a story about it. And the world can then help birth your plot. If the people worship sheep, what happens to someone who cooks a lamb casserole?


A plot requires a world. Sheep worshippers, for instance, requires a world with grass, a cool climate and sheep. However plot also informs world. If you want to tell the sheep worshipping story, you’ll need to provide your inhabitants with alternatives to woolly jumpers.


I always thought the chicken and egg question was straightforward (it’s obviously the egg). And I find this question just as easy: plot comes first. I can build a world based on this sheep fetish I seem to have, but what if that doesn’t gel with the story I want to tell? If I want to write a romance, this world is pretty useless. But if I want to tell a religious persecution story, I can then build a world to match.


But maybe I’m a minority. What’s your preference? Plot first? Or world-building?


(Image credit: Scaffolding, Burnlaw (Oliver Dixon) / CC BY-SA 2.0)

6 thoughts on “Which Comes First: World-Building or Plot?

Talking rot or making sense? I'd like to hear your two cents!