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Good epic fantasy novels are fun. An epic fantasy world often feels realistic, with a huge history and culture all its own. It often feels like the author lived in another world for a time. J. R. R. Tolkien is said to have spent more than a decade (some sources claim almost two decades) writing the Lord of the Rings books. A decade is a long time. Nobody is arguing the greatness or the groundbreaking influence of Tolkien’s work. However, did he have worldbuilding disease? Worldbuilding disease is where you spend much more time building a world than writing your story.

Discovery writers (often called pantsers) can be known to practice some I have termed Just-In-Time (JIT) worldbuilding. However, this is doesn’t have to limited to them. Outlines can use JIT worldbuilding as well. I am going to use the phrase “while writing your story” and it is going to have a broad meaning. To outlines, it means “writing their outline” or “brainstorming the plot” or “creating character sheets”. Every part of writing a novel outside of worldbuilding itself can be included in that phrase.

There is a principle called YAGNI (You aren’t gonna need it). Often a huge percentage of your worldbuilding goes unused. Wouldn’t that time have been better spent writing? If you don’t need it now, you probably are not going to need it. If you are going to need it later, you’ll find out later and you can add it then.

Where does the term “Just-in-time” come from?

JIT is a term in software engineering (Yes, yes, I am a software engineer). You experience just-in-time every time you hit a web page. Most web pages don’t fully exist until the moment you click to see them. There is code, or a process, that is paired with data, or information, and together the process and information come together to make your web page the moment you need it.

Often the data doesn’t exist, and the first time you hit a web page, it is empty, and you have an add button to populate the data.

For example, you are an author. The first time you went to your blog did you have any blog posts? Now, you had the process to display posts, but no posts yet. Did you have to write new code or processes to display your blog posts? No. They just worked the moment you wrote them. Once you create a post, the process pairs the text from your post with the processes to create your post.

Just-in-Time worldbuilding applies this idea to worldbuilding for an epic fantasy or sci-fi story on a new world.

Just-In-Time Worldbulding End Goal

The end goal is to:

  1. Do the minimal necessary worldbuilding (MNW).
  2. Document all the worldbuilding you do when you do it.
  3. Still feel like the world your story is in has a rich, deep, history.
  4. Write an Epic Fantasy book in under three months, if your write full-time.

If you already have worldbuilding disease (you’ve been building your world for a long time and still haven’t written your novel) the end goal is this:

  1. Stop doing more worldbuilding
  2. Trust that what you have done so far is enough for now.
  3. Trust that if you need more worldbulding, you can add to your world just in time

What does Just-In-Time worldbuilding involve?

First, it isn’t about solving a plot problem by creating something convenient in the world the moment it is needed. That is bad and lazy writing and won’t work outside of middle-grade books.

Also, if you add a new plant to a well-traversed land in your book three-fourths the way through, and don’t go back and add it in throughout, you are doing JIT worldbuilding wrong.

Instead, JIT is about learning what is important to building a world without actually building it upfront. Instead, you do this:

  1. Treat your world as a character
  2. Add to your wold just-in-time, (when you need it)
  3. Know what you need.
  4. Quality and Consistency

Steps 1 and 2 are easy. Step 3 is a bit harder. Step 4 just requires documenting and making sure you stick to your document.

Treat your world as a character

Like any character, you should have a character sheet for your world. It should have headings and/or a checklist of details you might need, but most of the headings and checklists should be blank.

  1. Create a blank document in whatever your favorite note-taking app is. Mine are Notepad++ or MS Word.
  2. Paste in the date below:
  • World Name: (Don’t name it yet)
  • Map: (Don’t draw it yet)
    • Countries:
    • Cities:
    • Coasts:
    • Forests
    • Mountains
    • Waters (Oceans, Lakes, Rivers, Streams)
  • Cultures:
    • Races:
      • Differences/Interracial tensions
    • Caste System:
    • Religions:
  • Non-human life
    • Animals Species:
    • Bug Species:
    • Flora and fauna:
  • History/Past wars:
    • Ruins:
    • History-caused tensions between nations
  • Monetary system:
  • Society State: Hunter gatherers, Agrarian, Indistrial, other
  • Food (may include flaura and fauna, animals, bugs)
  • Drinks (may include flaura and fauna, animals, bugs)
  • Technology/Magic:
  • Sky/Space:

The above is not a complete list. You should google “worldbuilding checklist”. There are dozens of authors who have already created them. Find the ones you like and comment with their links at the end of this post. You should probably read at least three of them and build your own checklist.

Add to your world Just-in-time

While writing your novel, you will need to populate parts of your worldbuilding document (again, that could include plotting, outlining, character creation, etc.)

Example of not knowing something ever or until the very last minute:

Question: When do you need to know the name of your world?

Answer: Do you ever use the name of your world in your novel? If not, you never need to name it. If f you use the name of your in your novel, you still don’t have to name it the moment you first use it, as you don’t actually need it yet. Just type: {wordname}. Yes, include the squirly brackets: {}. A great name might come to you in the second to last chapter, or even in your third revision. At that time, you can document your world name and then simply do a find and replace all:
Find: {worldname}
Replace: Awesomelandia

Example of needing to know something

You have to start writing something. On your first page, you are going to find a lot of minimal necessary worldbuilding (MNW).

It is best to learn by example, so let’s imagine a first chapter or an inciting incident. Now, if you are a discovery writer (pantser), you likely will just start writing, but if you are an outliner (plotter) you might start outlining. For the sake of this post, I have to write something and to keep it short, I’ll use an outline.

Setting: A Tavern Inn.
Setup: {MC} (notice we don’t have a name yet?) and {MCFather} walk into a tavern to find a place to stay.
Conflict: A flippant {Lord} of the area is there, looking to show off his sword dueling skills. He cares nothing for human life. Challenges {MCFather} to a duel. Despite {MCFather} refusing, {Lord} forces a rapier into {MCFather}’s hand, and runs him through in front of {MC}.
Plot: {MC} vows revenge. Grows up waiting and preparing for his chance.

You have succeeded in doing minimal necessary worldbuilding. We were able to start writing/outlining without any type of worldbuilding yet.

Know what you need

Now, to write the above scene, you have will likely have the following characters and settings:

  • {MC} = Main character
    • How old is he?
    • Describe him (or cast him using an image from online)
    • Race? Worldbuilding discovered: You have a race. However, it doesn’t have to be too concrete of a race yet. In fact, you could just call it {MCRace} and describe him with things like {MCAge}, {MCHairColor}, etc..
  • {MCFather} = Main character’s father
    • How old is he?
    • Describe him (or cast him using an image from online)
    • Race?
  • {Lord} = Some type of landruler
    • How old is he?
    • Describe him (or cast him using an image from online)
    • Race?
    • Worldbuilding discovered: You have a fuedal system.
    • Worldbuilding discovered: You have the caste system common to the fuedal system: Land owners and serfs.
  • {Barkeep}
    • How old is he?
    • Describe him (or cast him using an image from online)
    • Race:
  • Background people (in gaming we would call these NPCs or non-player characters)
    • Are there other races? Do you discover more of your wold just-in-time to write about it?
  • {Tavern inn}
    • Worldbuilding discovered: You can draw a tavern on your map. It might be a blank white sheet of paper other than the tavern so far, but it is a start.
    • What drinks do they serve? Beer, or ale? Worldbuilding discovered: You may have to name flaura and fauna the ale is made from. It could be green ale of the {GreenWeed}.
    • What food do they server? Meat? Fruit or vegetables? Worldbuilding discovered: You may have to name a meat producting creature of your world, as well more flaua and fauna.
    • How does {MCFather} plan to pay? Worldbuilding discovered: You have a money system.

Know what you need part 2 – Avoiding the white background

JIT worldbuilding is a different style. Each style has its pros and cons. The pro of this style is to minimize worldbuilding, increase the speed to finishing an epic fantasy novel. However, a con could be the feeling of a white-background world. A world that has no history and is not flushed out. However, this con is both preventable and fixable if not prevented.

If you are aware of this con, you can avoid it or fix it later. This is why the worldbuilding checklists are important to have, not necessarily important to fill out. I would propose that it is far easier and takes less time to paint the white background with cool worldbuilding details than to spend time filling out a worldbuilding checklist in its entirety before ever starting your novel.

How do you avoid this con? Paint the white background world with seemingly useless (but not useless) worldbuilding details.


  • Perhaps one of the background NPC characters in the tavern has a diamond tattoo on his forehead and shies away from the duel because the diamond is the sign of one who has rejected all weapons for peace and would sooner die than fight. Worldbuilding discovered: You have a new religion. Write it down.
  • Perhaps another background character is a man with a slave. The slave has no pinkies because they are cut off of all slaves. Worldbuilding discovered: You have slaves and slave owners in your caste system.
  • Perhaps another character in the taern ends every sentence with a praise to a god? Worldbuilding discovered: You have another new religion. Write it down.

How do you fix a white background world if you failed to avoid it? You can paint away that white background in a revision (or a pass). See my article on Writing like a painter: in layers (12 steps to making your novel better).

Add a pass on worldbuilding. Add in details as you do those passes. For example, #3 of the 12 steps is making scenes more intense could happen by including worldbuilding details. Perhaps two characters hate each other. Well, you could make them come from different countries that warred with each other and hate the other.

Again, I would propose that if you do a special pass on it, you will do more worldbuilding, but it will still be minimal necessary worldbuilding (MNW) and you will save a lot of time and avoid worldbuilding disease.

Know what you need part 3 – Publishing

Be prepared, your first draft likely won’t be publish-worthy with JIT. Though, who are kidding, no first draft is publish-worthy.

However, with JIT, it is important to know that you may find unfinished work. We already mentioned the white background caused by not enough worldbuilding. We mention the fuzzy background in Quality and Consistency below. However, you can also finish your book with not enough worldbuilding.

If you are writing epic fantasy, you need a cool, well-drawn world map. It has to be pretty artistic. If you finish your book with minimal necessary worldbuilding, you still have to finish a map. It may not affect your novel at all and you may have to add cities, rivers, oceans, towns, not in your novel. A quality artistic map does not fall under the YAGNI principle because you will need it.

However, in a series, you can extend your map in later books. So you if you stay in one country, you may only have to have an artistic map of one country for book 1, and then in a later book. You can expand that map just in time.

Quality and Consistency

Quality: Just-in-time doesn’t mean skipping the hard work. If you need a piece of worldbuilding, you still have to do the work to imagine and document in detail that piece of worldbuilding. And you have to do it well. If you slack on detail when needed, this will show up with fuzzy descriptions, or descriptions that aren’t crisp and clear (like how an image is fuzzy if it is too small and has been blown up big). Fuzzy description could be another or fixable con of JIT. Again, knowing the pros and cons can help you either avoid them or fix them in a revision.

Consistency: Whether you are a discovery writer or an outliner, take good notes on your world and keep your notes handy. If you fail to write something down, you won’t be consistent. Drawings and images always help as a picture helps with consistency, details, etc.

Get your unpublishable books out of the way faster

I’m going to be honest with you. Your first book is likely never going to be published. Mine never will be. It was really poor writing and probably couldn’t even be fixed in 20 full passes. However, I could write a new story in that world. In fact, I did. Drindél the Winged One is a novella set in that world. It was easy to write because the world was already created. If you spend only three months writing your first book (assuming full-time), you are leveling up your writing skills immediately. If you spend a year worldbuilding, you’re still writing your first book with first book skills after that year. However, with JIT, at a book every three months, you would have four books after that year with MNW.

With worldbuilding disease, you could find yourself worldbuilding for a decade and writing your first book with first book skills ten years later while other authors put out 10 to 40 books in that time.

Practicing the skill of writing is far more important than the skill of worldbuilding.


JIT is even more important for a hobbyist. If you have a day job and write as a hobby, as I do, you have even less time to waste on unnecessary worldbuilding. Write.


There is no right style for worldbuilding. Any author can succeed with any style. The goal is to find one that fits you.

If this style doesn’t fit you, move on. If this fits you, use it.

Also, there is nothing wrong with mixing two styles. You can think of worldbuilding upfront versus JIT worldbuilding as a sliding scale. Worldbuilding upfront for a day or even a week before starting your novel probably isn’t going to lead to worldbuilding disease. Often, a day or a week of worldbuilding upfront still fits inside MNW.

Also, if you are stuck in your novel, worldbuilding can often loosen the creative juices, so JIT is not saying to avoid it ever when not needed. JIT worldbuilding is just a method to avoid wasting time on worldbuilding that you may not need. If you are stuck and worldbuilding gets you unstuck, even if you don’t use some piece of the world, it got you unstuck.