I love worldbuilding, and I was describing alien evolutionary history before I ever thought of writing fiction. When I did turn my attention to storytelling, however, I learned the hard way that it’s not the same thing at all. The best worldbuilding starts at the basics (a planet with lower gravity, say, or a basis for biochemistry other than carbon compounds suspended in water) and works up from there. When you’re writing a story, however, a lot of that deep background won’t be necessary (although some will be). What IS necessary in a story, though, is storytelling.
So if you already have a world (or an idea for one), and you want to turn it into a story, what do you do? You could of course just use your world as stage-dressing, but that’s boring. You’re doing your world a disservice if you plop just any story into it. The best books use the world to explore the story’s theme, provide impetus for plot, and generate interesting characters. And here’s how.
To have a story, you need characters who want things but can’t get them. The process of either getting that thing or coming to terms with the fact that they can’t get it is the PLOT, or the exciting/interesting things that happen over the course of the story. Readers will get more excited and interested if they have a strong connection to the actors in the plot, so you also need to describe and develop the personalities of your CHARACTERS. Finally, even in the most frivolous fiction, the author has something they want to say about the characters’ problems and how we ought to solve them, which comes out in the THEME, or what the objects and events of the story symbolize. Some authors only figure out their theme after they’ve finished the first draft of the story, but everyone at least has some idea of what they want to address in the story.
The world can be woven into each of these three storytelling elements. For the plot, the world can provide a goal to be reached or an obstacle for the characters to overcome. An aggressive animal, a valuable life-form, an impenetrable jungle that need to be crossed, an hostile environment you want to settle in. In “man-vrs-nature” stories, the world is actually a character in the story. Specifically, it’s the antagonist, forcing the protagonist to fight to get what they want (i.e. survive). Of course, you can also make characters out of some of the speculative fauna (sentient or not). Finally, as the setting of the story, the world contributes enormously to the theme, reinforcing the emotional atmosphere of the story and reminding the reader about the issues your story addresses. Environmentalism in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Mutually Assured Destruction in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, Information and Dictatorship in The Knife of Never Letting go and so on.
When I think of the world first, I try to weave it into interesting characters and themes, and let the plot emerge out of that. I ask myself: in this world, what sort of people are winning? What sort of people are losing? What do these people want? What conflicts are there between people or between people and the environment? I zero in on a point-person for this conflict, whose personal problems echo the bigger issues in the world. That’s my protagonist: a guy (or a girl) with an interesting problem. The person in the protagonist’s way is the antagonist. Everyone else either helping or hindering or indifferent is the supporting cast.
I focus on those people and conflicts that are strikingly different from the real world, because I’m writing speculative fiction and my readers expect something strange. I can’t get away from parallels with the real world, though, and I don’t want to. Instead I read up a little on the parts of the real world that most resemble the world I’m describing and form an opinion about them. That opinion is my theme, which I can use to inform my plot (does my protagonist get their way by punching people or by talking or by running away?).
Coming from the other direction at the same time, the world can also generate the theme. Is the environment hostile or hospitable, civilized or barbaric, frightening, interesting, or lovely? Imagine a sub-zero biology based on ice and ethanol—your human characters have to make warm habitats for themselves, but at the cost of boiling the native life to death. BING. A discussion of environmentalism.
Of course any one of these elements get silly if you ignore the others. A perfect story would have believable world building, interesting characters acting out an exciting plot and symbolizing with their actions an idea that will change civilization as we know it. It’s only achieving that balance that’s hard.
To see me apply some of these guidelines practically, take a look at this thread on the Speculative Evolution forum.