Worldbuilding in Progress!

A carved angel on the tower at Exeter School

An excellent day today at Exeter School, talking to three different groups of pupils, answering questions and signing books.  This morning I did a creative writing session with some of the Upper Fifth.  Creative writing sessions aren't really my cup of tea and I've seldom done them in the past, but today I tried somethingI've never done before: a worldbuilding exercise.

I started by talking about different invented worlds - Narnia and Middle Earth, Lilliput, Oz, Burrough's and then Bradbury's Mars, the further-flung alien planets of Star Wars and Avatar, and (coughs significantly and gestures modestly to self) the future world of Mortal Engines.  Then I divided the class into six groups and asked them to devise a world of their own, with some sort of internal logic, history and geography.

To be honest, this was the point at which it could all have fallen horribly apart.  In the past when I've done writing exercises there have always been a few pupils who, when it's time to put pen to paper, just stare blankly and say 'I haven't got any ideas'.  That's fair enough: coming up with stories isn't everybody's cup of tea, and often when it's time to put pen to paper I stare blankly and say, 'I haven't got any ideas!'.  But they're made of better stuff than that at Exeter School, and all six groups instantly started coming up with very intriguing worlds.

After ten minutes or so we started trying to combine elements of each group's work into one world, which we mapped on the whiteboard.  Obviously this meant a certain amount of compromise, and a lot of nice details had to be left out.  But luckily many of the six worlds the students had developed had some similarities: there were a lot of underground societies, a lot of hierarchical social structures, and a lot of looming environmental catastrophes.  The map was drawn very quickly, so is rather sketchy, and it was difficult to photograph. (Hopefully the yellowish cast of these instagram pictures gives it the look of Ancient Parchment.  Or not...)

Anyway, here's what we ended up with.  It's a world in which most people live underground, in a vast maze of passages called Underland.  Only two societies live on the surface, or 'Uptop' as it's known: the people of Willow City, which is a giant tree, and the fearsome-seeming ant-folk of Moretonantstead...

Here's a closer look at Willow City, the Air Camels which hang around its outer branches, and Philbert the Wise, a wise old man who lives there.  The Vertical Railway descends into Underland.

Here's one of the Air Camels...

While in the swamps which surround the vast tree's roots there lurks a hungry Jellis:

The Ant People of Moretonantstead have dug down to create their own underground burrow-city, Penzants:

The Underlanders use giant centipedes as buses, and giant woodlice as cars:

Underland is powered by a mysterious Orb which is able to erase matter, and into which the Underlanders throw their refuse, dead bodies, etc.  But the Orb has begun to grow, leading to fears that the whole of Underland will soon be erased (which indeed it undoubtedly was, as soon as the next lesson started).  The story's hero, Stevebob of Hrrrr, is on a quest to warn his neighbours in the other underground cities of the danger: unfortunately most of them are giant-expanding-erasey-orb deniers who only want to silence him...

Meanwhile, a ravenous and badly-drawn (by me) giant worm approaches the peaceful underground kingdom of Hrrrr:

All in all, considering that Underland was created in about forty minutes by twenty five different people, I think it's a remarkably complex and interesting fantasy world, and I hope the groups will do a bit more work on it, refining it and adding new details.  They certainly have no shortage of ideas, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with them.

And the moral of all this?  Wordbuilding is fun!

Exeter School in better weather...
Underland is the copyright of its creators, the students of Exeter School...