Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Listing Your World

One of the most effective tools in my world-building process is the keyword list. My keywords are generally nouns or adjectives that define my story in significant ways. When I need to build or invent something in my universe, I'll often make lists of these keywords and study them, take them apart, recombine them and/or use them as prompts.

This kind of wordplay isn't much different from the classic shrink's trick of word association, in which a subject is provided with a prompt word and makes an immediate response with another, which illustrates subconscious correlations that better illustrate the subject's emotional processes. For example, if I prompt you with the word dark, you might come back with an association like light, night, black, knight, or even chocolate (I wonder if that means you're hungry.)

We'll set aside the psych stuff and look at keyword listing as to how it aids a storyteller with forming creative connections, inspiring new directions and defining and deepening knowledge of one's fictional world. To create a keyword list, you need a pen, notepad and your brain. A thesaurus can also be helpful (as long as you don't enslave your imagination to it or become sucked in by the lures of obscure synonyms.) When I work on keyword lists I try to find a quiet spot where I won't be interrupted, because for me this exercise requires some intense focus and thought. Once I've found my corner of solitude, I'll head up my list with a goal word: title, character, setting, or whatever I'm trying to work out and define better for myself.

Let's start with a title keyword list. All of our stories need titles, and often coming up with an original title that fits the world and attracts attention and sounds intriguing can involve weeks if not months of frustration. This is because writers tend to focus on the end result instead of working toward it with keywords. For your story title, you're going to make a list of all the words you can think of that describe not the entire story, but different pieces of it -- those are your keywords. To give you a working example, here is one of my title keyword lists:


I put these together while working on retitling the duology split of Disenchanted & Co. for the e-book releases. From these I reworked the words and create seven possible titles for my editor:

A Lady Cursed
A Nuisance of Curses
Enchanting Kit
Her Ladyship's Curse
Her Ladyship's Secret
Stroke of Dark
Stroke of Night

And once we decided on Her Ladyship's Curse for Part 1, it was even easier to put together this short list for Part 2:

His Lordship Possessed
His Lordship Bespelled
His Lordship Enchanted

Keyword lists can also help you sort out and decide on virtually any story element, from a character name to setting description. The process is the same as the one I used to find my titles; you simply apply it to whatever part of the story you want to tinker on. Quite often when we're writing a story we're too immersed in the world and distracted by the momentum of the events unfolding on the page to pull back and focus on a single aspect that needs work. Writing a word list is much easier than writing story, so it can eliminate a lot of tension and dread. Once the pressure is off and you're relaxed, playing with your keywords can give you a different perspective on your story building materials or even result in some new ideas to fix existing problems.


  1. I've been struggling with a title for a project and my brain is oatmeal. I'm going to try this.

  2. It really does work -- also, if listing still leaves you stumped remember that you can feed your keywords to Wordle and it will rearrange them for you in fun ways that may spark some new ideas.

  3. It's posts like this and the one on World Books, Aug 28 (Amazing post!), which make me think you have the best, most fun job in the world.

    1. Thanks. I do love my job, I'll admit, and when you love what you do you pour all your creativity into it. Also helps that I don't have a boss looking over my shoulder. :)