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Top Down vs. Bottom Up: Starting Big

In Design Strategies, Written by Thomas on March 14, 2011 at 6:19 pm

People’s opinions on the top down vs. bottom up debate are often only marginally more rational than on the raging issue of which way a roll of toilet paper should hang. In the spirit of neutrality, over the next three weeks I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of top down, bottom up, and my own special approach: both.

(The bottom up article is here.)

Let’s face it, world building is an audacious task. You or your team have to come up with a coherent world, whether it’s a city, a continent, or a multiverse. Everything has to make sense, and everything has to be interesting.

Alright, maybe not everything.

There are two main groups when it comes to world building. Top downers start with large-scale stuff and work down. Bottom uppers start with details and work up. I say with a task as comprehensive as world building, don’t limit your options. Do what fits the situation. If you’re building a whole world, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to use both.

But before we get into marrying the two, let’s take a look at them individually. This week I’ll be talking about top down design strategy.

Broadly speaking, building top down means first imagining your world at the aggregate level. For the sake of simplicity, you treat large, complex entities as single objects. You deal with countries, corporations, or pantheons. You might map out the whole world or work out some juicy international politics. You might write up rough descriptions of all your world’s races or sketch the major factions that operate in your city.

After you’ve got the aggregates taken care of, you start breaking them apart. This is where you start making exceptions. You know that elves in your world hate magic and live in tribal savagery, but probably not all elves. What are the exceptions like? Are they all lonely outcasts, or are there groups of them? Are they organized? What’s their relationship with the majority? Are they reviled or revered?

The advantage here is that top down design helps the pieces of your world relate to each other. From the moment of conception, all parts of your world have a place; they make sense in context. This interconnectedness reinforces the credibility of your world, and the more credible your world is, the more immersive it feels to the audience.

This is the main reason top down design is important. Nearly every world tries to be immersive. It’s something that only world building offers. As much as you might enjoy solitaire, there’s hardly a world behind it to learn about.

On top of that, knowing how things work out in the big picture before you iron out how they work out in the small picture means you can strategically plant critical information early in the story.

This ability to plan ahead isn’t essential in every medium. If you’re writing a standalone novel and realize you should’ve already told the reader something, you can go back and insert it. But for serialized media – comics, TV shows, tabletop RPGs, book series – where the finished product isn’t released all at once, planning ahead is a major advantage. With a top down design model, you can easily refer to events later in the series, creating a sense of interconnectedness throughout your work.

On top of that, referring ahead has a certain awesome factor to it. At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire there’s a “harmless” incident mentioned involving the paranoid Mad-Eye Moody and some exploding dustbins. At the end of the novel it’s revealed that the incident was actually far from harmless. It was a ruckus concocted by Barty Crouch, Jr. (the villain of the movie) to cover up the struggle as he subdued and impersonated Mad-Eye. In this clip from the movie you see Crouch “un-masked”:


There are disadvantages, though, too. Going strictly top down means it’ll be a while until you get to material that you can use. Without a lot of work, your world will never get more detailed than encyclopedia entries. And when you get to small-scale stuff, you might have realizations that make you go back and tweak the large-scale stuff.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t use it. Or maybe it is. Where do you guys stand on the issue? In any case, stick around. Next week I’ll be taking a look at bottom up, and then, finally, at putting the two together.

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