Worldbuilding: Clouds and Caves

I know I’ve threatened so much to get back into writing, but this time I’m actually taking a whole class about it, so hopefully something will come of it!

The class I’m taking (via Atlas Obscura, a site I’ve fangirled about for a long time) is focused on Facts-Based Worldbuilding, which right away intrigued me. I’m writing and developing multiple shows right now which involve elaborate worldbuilding, so the timing of getting that email notification about the course couldn’t have been more excellent. I’ve also struggled a lot with writer’s block (hence the vast silences on this here blog, and my previous and long departed one). I think part of it is that I’m so hung up on needing a plot and storyline – without really recognizing that the worldbuilding aspect is usually what lures me in. I’m hoping this will kick my ass AND help me rediscover my love of writing – it’s not a chore, it’s a form of escape! (And literally the only one I have access to, in these COVID-times).

Here’s an exercise we were given during our first class. It was very brief – we had about 5 minutes to come up with this world! – but I kind of like some of what I came up with, and want to keep workshopping it. So here it is:

The prompt: a world which has thick clouds that block out most outside light.

How did it get that way? A series of nuclear explosions as well as ill-timed volcanic activity. (Basically this is a post-apocalypse Earth).

No one presently alive really knows or remembers this, but a lot of folklore alludes to some terrible event brought about by moral misdeeds, resulting in the sky exploding.

The physical environment is mostly dark, icy tundra all over the planet’s surface. Some parts are more arid than others. But for the most part, everything is dark and cold, except on occasion when there is a brief break in the clouds and flashes of bright sunlight shine through.

There is not a huge diversity of flora and fauna that lives on the surface. Most of the plants are ones that thrive in low light, eternally damp environs. There are many species of fungi.

One of the sentient species of this world (what came after humans, essentially) are creatures that are kind of Gollum-like in terms of physique. Huge eyes that are fairly nearsighted. Not much muscle mass or fat. Elaborate nostril systems for filtration of impurities in the air, both on the surface and below.

Below is where this species mainly prefers to dwell, although they are required to come up to the surface every now and then for the limited supply of oxygen up top. These creatures inhabit homes in elaborate cavern structures. They mostly subsist on fish and algae. Movements are low, slow and deliberate – to us, this would look a lot like skulking around, but to the creatures this is totally normal and reasonable walking.

Culturally, they have developed a fear of the outer surface, even though they need to come up to survive. The wind is a source of fear and anxiety; rock and earth is where they draw comfort. In many religions and spiritual traditions, “hell” is conceived of as a place that exists in the sky above – a bright, windy horror. In contrast, “heaven” can be found in the heart of the planet, closer to its core. Only worthy ones are chosen to descend deep into the core.

“Flighty, airy” people are considered to be not just unreliable, but deeply immoral and suspect. Those who transgress against societal norms are often flung out of the caverns or, in circumstances prompting capital punishment, yeeted with extreme prejudice off a cliff.

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