Like the ripples in a pond disturbed by a stone, each rule we set down for our fictional world pushes out a series of consequences.

When our world’s rules become unaligned, we strand our readers in a chaotic landscape.  Their suspension of disbelief stalls and the narrative unravels.

It takes planning and attention to detail to ensure our fictional rules maintain logical consistency and do not contradict each other as the story plays out.

The Futures Wheel

Allow me to share a quality improvement brainstorming tool that can help you think through the ramifications of your world-building choices.

The tool, the Futures Wheel, created by Jerome Glenn, is often used by planners to understand possible repercussions of a proposed modification to a system by brainstorming first the direct (first-order) consequences of a change, followed by thinking through further indirect (second-order, third-order, and so on) consequences.

As you can see from the simplified Futures Wheel segment below, lines trace a path from a precipitating issue to each direct consequence and then on through further indirect consequences.

Simplified Futures Wheel Segment

Let’s make this clear with a simple example.

Below, the precipitating issue is that my work schedule has changed, and I must stay one hour later every day. There are five first-order, direct consequences of this on the Futures Wheel. I have chosen to map out the indirect consequences of only one of them to keep things simple. Ideally, all the direct consequences would get the same treatment. Tracing this through you can see how working an hour later each day might lead to a police citation and a stained carpet.

Futures Wheel Example

Applying the Futures Wheel to Writing

I used the Futures Wheel to explore the implications of how my ghosts eat in a story I am writing. In this case, the short story was already in a more-or-less complete rough draft, and I was testing out my logic. I wrote what I thought was the foundation of my world in the middle and started applying my rules in waves of consequences to see if everything fit together.

My big revelation: What I had put in the middle was really a consequence of something else. (That my protagonist is really tasty to ghosts!)I had to do some digging to figure out what the real fundamental issue was for my world, the idea from which everything else flowed. This thought process unearthed a gap that needed filling in my story that I might have otherwise missed.

Complete Futures Wheel for Short Story

How to Make a Futures Wheel

  • All you need is some paper, a pencil, and an eraser. Trust me, you will be erasing and moving things around. You will keep coming up with new ideas and ways to refine. This is an iterative process. You can write in numbers to keep track of the consequence levels until you are ready to finalize with some color.
  • Write your precipitating issue or event in the center of your paper.
  • Write out the direct consequences of this idea and place them in a circle around it.
  • Write out the indirect consequences that flow from each of these direct consequences.
  • Repeat.
  • Use lines to connect the flow of each family of direct and indirect consequences back to the precipitating event.

Pro Tips

  • Giving each order of consequence its own color makes the wheel easier to follow.
  • Be as concise as possible with language.
  • Remember that consequences can be positive too.
  • Be willing to change your precipitating issue. Like me, you might start with a consequence and have to go back a step, or two, to get to where things really begin. This process can help clarify your thinking.
  • Finding the right level of abstraction can be tricky. Get as detailed as you need to understand what’s going on, but don’t stress out over it.
  • Share your Futures Wheel with some friends and see if they agree with your logic.  This will save you from confirmation bias.
  • What matters is the understanding you gain and the ‘Ah-ha’ moments, not a beautiful map at the end. Allow it to be a big mess as long as you understand it.
  • I made my Futures Wheel in PowerPoint because I like being able to move things around cleanly, but that requires at least intermediate PowerPoint skills. A whiteboard and colored dry-erase markers would work well too.

Let me know how this tool works for you, or if you have any questions, in the comments below!