Building a Complex World in Simple Steps
What we learned creating cross-platform fantasy storyworld Ballads of the Distant Reaches
Some of today’s most ambitious stories take place within enormous, shared universes. Think of Game of Thrones, Star Wars, The Witcher, Marvel, The Lord of the Rings—the list goes on and on. Typically, these movies, TV shows, books, video games, and comics draw their inspiration from older source material. Storytellers like J.R.R. Tolkien, George Lucas, Andrzej Sapkowski, and George R.R. Martin created these worlds decades ago, but the worlds they built continue to provide rich material for contemporary writers and filmmakers. And there’s near insatiable demand by audiences and Hollywood alike for stories told within these massive fictional universes.
There are, however, distinct challenges to creating new stories in pre-established worlds. Oftentimes, the original stories revolve around a limited cast of characters; consequently, new authors sometimes struggle to expand beyond what’s already written, and fans may resist content that does not meet their expectations.
It can be extraordinarily difficult to branch away from iconic figures such as the Skywalkers and the Sith Lords, Sauron and the Fellowship of the Ring, or the Starks and Targaryens—despite the limitless potential the rest of those worlds afford. Very often, new media within these established universes remain limited by the narrative assumptions of the storytellers who first created them.
Toward the end of 2021, I set out to create a new fantasy universe: the Distant Reaches. Co-creator and co-editor Robert Frankel soon joined the endeavor and became a key part of shaping, defining, and organizing the project, which we soon called Ballads of the Distant Reaches.
From the outset, the Distant Reaches was intended not only to be rich with lore and possibilities, but also to be uniquely narratively flexible. It is designed to span across multiple platforms, growing through the creativity and passion of a host of writers, artists, and creators from day one. Whereas Tolkien, Lucas, and Martin essentially sought to make a singular series of books or movies, the goal for the Distant Reaches was to spring into existence as a universe wherein an unlimited number of stories could be told. We wanted to throw the doors open to many authors with many creative visions.
We launched Ballads of the Distant Reaches in July 2022. Already we’ve gained a sizable audience while telling incredible stories and delving into the riches and mysteries our world has to offer.
Here’s how we created the world of the Distant Reaches and launched a cross-platform storytelling universe in six steps.
Define Your Narrative Engines and Platforms: Before you can build a storyworld, you need to know where and how it will be used. Are you writing a book or a comic? Making a movie or a podcast? Designing an interactive social media experience? All of the above?
The specific media you choose will shape both your narrative and also how you write it. A novelist has complete control over everything that happens between the covers. A filmmaker must work collaboratively with a cast, crew, and producers. Social media requires direct engagement with the audience.
In our case, we knew we wanted to work across a range of platforms, including narrative prose, social media, and podcasts. We wanted to ensure everything we created early on could be readily adapted and expanded into formats from streaming video to novelizations to tabletop games. And we knew we wanted to work with many writers starting at the very beginning.
So, we settled on stand-alone digital short stories, published every other week, to launch the project. Individual stories allow a range of writers to explore different topics and interests within the world, and also provides an easy point of entry for our audience, regardless of when they start reading or how casual or serious their engagement is.
Finally, we committed to a story-within-a-story format I proposed called the Conclave of Bards: Each short story comes from a bard competing to win a boon from the emperor, who judges the contest. Because of this structure, we can editorially shape the frame story—the Conclave—while still allowing individual authors a huge amount of freedom to experiment within their own story.
Define the Rules: What are creators allowed to do within your world? How far can they roam? What’s off-limits? How much do you want them to be able to experiment? These rules don’t have to be explicitly defined, but they’ll help you as you move into creating the lore and the world itself. If you want to afford creators great freedom for experimentation, you’ll need to create tools to enable that. Likewise, if there are areas where you feel a strong need to define the world yourself, note those.
In our case, the story-within-a-story structure means we can exercise considerable control over the frame story and history of the world, while giving individual authors the ability to tell many types of stories—horror, drama, comedy, romance, even westerns—within the overarching fantasy genre.
We also decided early on to limit the variety of magical creatures or non-human intelligent races in our world—partly because that’s what we wanted and partly to avoid the trap of having to create endless compendiums of monsters—but we still wanted our writers to be able to experiment freely. So, we created “Uncannies,” beings from the magical realm of chaos that can manifest themselves in a wide variety of ways to humans. They can look like demons, dragons, unicorns, or vampires, depending on the context in which they appear. The Uncannies are one of many elements that allow our authors to experiment freely without altering the fabric of the world.
Know What You Want: This goes hand-in-hand with the previous step. What you want this world to be? What do you think would be cool? What do you know you don’t want?
Based on those desires, you can build the world, from its cosmogony, history, economy, and religions to its magic system, technology, and anything else. At this stage, you’re still in total control and can put whatever you want in. Or you can deliberately exclude elements from your story world.
We knew we wanted our world to feel uniquely American and to avoid many of the common tropes of high fantasy. To do this, we focused on incorporating elements that felt specifically American in connotation. This includes a foregrounding such concepts of industry, capital, and especially the frontier as thematically important to the Distant Reaches.
Start Big: This is the fun part! Start with the big categories. What is the geography and climate like? Is there magic? How does that magic work? Is there religion? Are the gods real or not? Is there a creation myth? What is the political system? Key historical events? Technology? The economy?
Think in broad terms. It may be helpful to look for precedents in history, myth and literature on which you can put your own unique twist. Record everything in a lore book, a living document explaining your world. At this stage, it can be a rough draft or even in shorthand. It’s for you to organize your thoughts. Now is not the time for self-criticism. Keep everything you think of without judgment, because you never if—or when—it will prove useful. Even typos can lead to interesting discoveries.
Add Detail: We think of this as the fun part of the fun part. Name things. Create cities and neighborhoods. Come up with a few key historical figures, artifacts, and/or monsters. Fill in details another writer must know to tell a story in your world. If it’s not necessary for a writer to know, consider leaving it out to give them freedom to create.
Work back through each section to see where you have too little detail, or too much. Polish the lore document. Your lore book will become the basis for every single story told in your world. But don’t stress! You can always revise it (again, and again, and again—and, sometimes, yet again). We completely forgot a judicial system in our first version, and the document was already 30 pages long!
Stairstep Your Stories: Remember Step 1, when you defined your narrative engines and platforms? As you begin telling stories in your world, look for opportunities to build upon what’s come before. In our case, we started with prose short stories, a lore compendium, and special social media content because they are a great way to explore our world. The stories will eventually become the foundation for podcast development, which may pave the way for streaming.
There are no guarantees in any of this, but rather than trying to tell every story all at once, or attempting to be on every platform, start with a foundation and then build from there.
Of course, none of this is set in stone, and much of it remains experimental. Ballads of the Distant Reaches is still a young project, and we don’t know where we’ll be in six months, much less a year or ten years (we have some ideas, though). What works for us may not work for you. But, hopefully our process can help make the task of building a storyworld feel more manageable.
Have questions for us? Want to collaborate? Work with us? Write a story set in the Distant Reaches? Reach out to us at email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you!
*Feature photo by Kendall Hoopes