In reality, these two concepts can be seen as a spectrum upon which your story can sit. On one end you have hard world building, where authors meticulously plan every minute detail to create the most thought-through or realistic story they can. On the other end is soft world building, where authors prefer to let their artistic and creative thoughts flow more freely, creating a more whimsical end result.
A classic example of hard worldbuilding is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien meticulously outlined numerous details about Middle Earth during its creation.
Another fascinating approach to hard worldbuilding is found in stories based on actual history. By drawing from historical records and using them as the foundation for a new story, creators can bypass much of the work involved in hard worldbuilding while still reaping its benefits.
This approach attempts to limit the amount of information given upfront to the audience. While there may be underlying ideas about how the world operates and its intricate details, they remain hidden from the audience’s view.
Typically, stories that employ soft worldbuilding have specific reasons for doing so. They might seek to add a layer of mystique or want to shift the audience’s focus away from those details.
A prime example of soft worldbuilding is seen in Studio Ghibli’s film “Spirited Away.”
While there are some cases where one of the extremes is able to thrive, most stories prefer to borrow some aspects from each side. For example, if you have a high-fantasy tale with an emphasis on magic and fantasy concepts, a softer worldbuilding approach will let that magic system shine.
Alternatively, if you are working on a gritty survival story, you could benefit from a harder worldbuilding structure that lets you create more concrete challenges for your protagonist that necessitate practical solutions.
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