A Worldbuilding Digression: Limiting your Scope

After a brief conversation with Rion the other day, I thought I’d talk about limiting scale.

The thing about worldbuilding in a fantasy or sci-fi world is that your space if effectively limitless. On a fantasy world, you might only have one planet, but you also have the possibility of other planes (or underground worlds, or sky-worlds, and so on).

Sometimes, that’s a bit much, and you want to keep your characters in one place and/or just focus on a small area of world-building.

Starting with Sci-Fi, ways to limit your scope include:

  • Write something set on Future Earth/Future Other Planet without FTL travel or with really expensive FTL travel, so that people are mostly stuck on one place.
  • Write a bubble city/something stuck under a dome (or a sky city, belt city: a self-contained metropolis, at least)
  • Start with a claustrophobic setting: set in a quarantine, or stuck in a locked-down megacity (think Dr. Who, the episode in the flying cars in the perpetual gridlock)

For a fantasy setting:
  • Set the story on an island nation. Maybe a very small island.
  • Your nation is isolated from the rest of the world, if not by water, then by mountains or desserts or a very very tall wall, or possibly by walls and regulation.
  • The portals are cut off. You can only access other worlds (or other cities, or maybe even other blocks) by two portals that open sporadically and otherwise just lead into the bathroom.

The smaller you dial things down – a bunker! A single room! A closet! – the less you have to flesh out about the world outside.

Of course, your characters still live in the world outside, unless they’ve spent their whole lives in this closet (and, even if they have, someone has fed them, someone has spoken to them, we assume. They’ve interacted with something in the world). That means you will have to determine some things: for instance, how their names work, why they are in a closet, etc.

(If you want to write feral children, more power to you, but from my research, this would be an immense challenge, and outside the scope of this particular article.)

But, by pulling the scope in, you’re buying yourself some time – if your character has never seen the next city over, then the most you have to do is give secondhand descriptions of it.

(Come to think of it, Inner Circle and Addergoole both have a lot of limiting-of-scope going on: In Inner Circle/Jumping Rings, you generally move slowly through the rings of your city, if at all, and most people never travel to another city. The government and the walls limit the first, and the monsters and raiders of the waste limit the second. And in Addergoole, you have people ignorant of the “world as it really is,” stuck in an underground bunker with only a few other examples of their species.)

Of course, if you don’t want to limit scope, you’re free to make your world as big as you want to.

For my YA Para-Drama, I haven’t yet decided to narrow the scope, but I’m starting with an insular nation that does not talk much about its neighbors, preferring swords to plowshares. And I have a young student, at a training camp/school, which limits her ability to move around a bit.

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