Worldbuilding in Story: How to Create a Compelling Alternate World

What is Worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is how we create an Alternate World for our story where the AVATARS interact and the story events unfold. It is the whole system setting for the story, which includes all the objects and AVATARS inside it and the relationships between them.

In Story Grid, we use the term Alternate World to describe the product of Worldbuilding because we separate the process of creating the world, which occurs in Worldbuilding Binding BEATS, from the resulting Alternate World that is the CONTEXT for our stories.

Worldbuilding in Story: How to Create a Compelling Alternate World

What are the 3 primary things to consider when Worldbuilding?

To successfully create the Alternate World for our story, we should consider the REALITY GENRE, CONTENT GENRE, and our SINGLE AUDIENCE MEMBER’s (SAM’s) problem, knowledge, and experience. 

What’s our Reality Genre?

The REALITY GENRE we choose as part of the GENRE FIVE LEAF CLOVER of the STORY GRID 624 analysis constrains our Alternate World to help us create a seamless experience for the reader. Here we want to understand and set the right expectations for how much readers must suspend disbelief when modeling the world of our story in their minds. 

Which level of reality should we choose for our story? It helps to remember that each of the Reality Genre choices exists on the Chaos / Complexity / Order spectrum. This relates to how we present our story.

  • ABSURDISM presents a chaotic world where events don’t make sense.
  • FACTUALISM and REALISM present a Complex Reality that includes a balance of chaos and order and more closely reflects the complexity of the natural world.
  • FANTASY, including Human, Magical, and Science Fiction, presents highly ordered worlds that allow readers to suspend disbelief.

The Reality Genre choice should complement the CONTENT GENRE and SAM’s problem. 

What’s our Content Genre?

The Alternate World creates the conditions for the protagonist’s problem, which comes from the global INCITING INCIDENT and the protagonist’s relationship to it. 

The CONVENTIONS of the CONTENT GENRE must exist within the Alternate World. Conventions are the selective and enabling constraints for the global genre. They include the qualities of the setting (for example a widescope external or internal setting in a SOCIETY or WAR story), AVATARS to embody specific roles (for example, the Mentor and the Striver who sold out in a Status story) and circumstances that create conflict and put the CORE NEED and CORE VALUE at stake (for example, the ticking clock or deadline and MacGuffin in a CRIME story). 

What is our SAM’s problem? 

When we build an Alternate World well, we transport the SINGLE AUDIENCE MEMBER (SAM) to the story’s CONTEXT. Our goal is to create an Alternate World that allows SAM to focus on the specific narrative question raised by the INCITING INCIDENT so that she can solve her own problem. Remember, SAM’s problem is reflected in the Protagonist’s problem.

We focus our Worldbuilding Binding BEATS to communicate the details of the Alternate World that illuminate the problem. It is a relevance filter that helps us write the story and enables SAM to understand the nature, scope, and stakes of the problem. This includes the physical world as well as the less visible norms, laws, and codes that dictate AVATAR behavior.

For a simple example, in The Hobbit, Bilbo and the other Hobbits do not welcome adventures and avoid entanglements with people outside the Shire. But as Bilbo and the dwarves travel east, they see more and more clues of the rise of the goblins and wargs that would eventually threaten the Shire if not stopped soon. 

In Pride and Prejudice, the Alternate World of Regency England includes rigid class structures and gender roles that limit the ability for authentic love or even encounter potential mates. But individual attitudes compound this problem and make it hard to overcome, even once Elizabeth and Darcy meet. 

When building our Alternate Worlds, we bring attention to the details of forces that, for example, threaten or provide the means to save lives (ACTION) or push lovers together and apart (LOVE) to establishing conventions for the genre. Then we focus on the aspects of the system that show SAM’s real problem. The key thing to remember is that SAM’s problem determines which details are relevant and should be included in the story.

3 Common Problems in Worldbuilding

In our own stories, we can get tripped up in the process of planning our Alternate Worlds but also in how we present these details to our readers. 

Green Screen

The first problem we face in planning and presenting our Alternate Worlds is the failure to create one that is specific to our story’s genre and problem, or when we offer scant details that don’t allow the reader to form a clear picture of the world in their minds. This is the equivalent of having AVATARS perform in front of a green screen. For readers to become engaged in the story and suspend disbelief, the reader needs a world that feels real. Building a convincing Alternate World is one of the key ways we make this happen.

Realistic Alternate Worlds

There is a common misconception that realistic settings don’t require worldbuilding, but this is not true. Choosing Realism for the REALITY GENRE is different from a Magical or Science Fiction Alternate World, but we still must ensure that the world contains the global GENRE CONVENTIONS and details that shed light on SAM’s problem. With a realistic Alternate World, we work to subtract elements from the real world that aren’t needed to support the CONTENT GENRE and problem that our SAM faces.


When we choose a Fantasy REALITY GENRE, our key task is to find common elements that help SAM gain an optimal grip of the world. In the process of creating our stories, we sometimes fall in love with our Alternate Worlds and want to share all the details. We can become prone to what’s commonly known as info-dumping, when we reveal details that are not relevant to the CONTENT GENRE or illuminating SAM’s problem. We sometimes don’t give readers enough credit to be able to suss things out. This is where a specific SAM is really useful. We can consider how familiar SAM is with the Alternate World and let that be our guide. And when in doubt, we can choose not to include more than is necessary for the problem faced in each individual scene. 

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