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How to Build a World For Your Story
We love writing about world-building here at ProWritingAid - so much so we wrote a book about it! In this article, you'll find our tips for getting started with world-building, from the whys to the whats to the hows.
No matter what genre you write in, you need to build a world for your story. Every writer needs to build a world so that your readers can have a placeholder to figure out the context in which your story is set.
If you’re writing a current-day story, you should know where the story is set and what’s happening in the world around your main characters. Imagine the movie Forrest Gump without the political and cultural wrangling. Without that story’s world, Forrest would have been a seriously flat character.
If you’re writing science fiction or supernatural stories, world-building is extremely important. The more fantastical your setting, the more time you’ll need to spend developing it. Consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy—even Star Wars. Without those rich and textured worlds, the main characters wouldn’t have had the experiences that made those stories come alive.
Why You Should Build Your World
Your characters need a place for the story to unfold. It can’t happen in limbo. A movie or a play without a set and background would be hard to follow. It gives you the context in which the characters are placed in time and space and helps to connect your characters to your story.
Even if the world looks like your own, it’s still essential to build it for your reader. In many ways, the world functions similar to a character, especially for science fiction and fantasy. Think about a novel you’re currently reading. Can you picture his neighborhood or what his home looks like—majestic and imposing or squashed and run-down? Metropolitan, suburban or countryside? Do you have an image in your mind of her office, her car or her local bar? If you can visualise these things, the author has done a good job of setting up their world.
Sometimes the world plays a huge role in the story’s narrative arc. Imagine if To Kill a Mockingbird had not taken place in the deep south during the Great Depression when civil rights weren’t on the horizon. Or if the book Sarah’s Key was not set in both WWII and current day scenarios, would the ending have been as emotional?
The more intimately you know your world and how it affects your story, the richer and deeper your writing will be.
Develop the Specific and the General
Start with the general. Is it set in modern day, a historical period, or on an alien planet? This will guide how deep you need to go in world building.
If your setting is current day, you only need to describe the location and the setting for each scene in your story. But if your story is set in history or in a different culture from your own, you’ll need to research cultural norms, economics, dress, and even technology so that your world rings with authenticity.
In a new fantastical world, you need to build an entire world from the ground up.
Consider the following:
Think about basic infrastructure. What do people eat? Who takes care of public utilities like water, sewage, electricity—or are there even public utilities? You need to create an entire society and its underlying economy when you’re world-building.
Why is your story’s struggle happening now? When all hell breaks loose in your story’s world and your character must respond, you need to know what led up to those events. Is it because of something that happened 20 years ago or something that’s going to happen 20 hours from now?
What about diversity? Our world—or any world for that matter—has a diverse mix of people who don’t hold the same opinions. Don’t create a world where everyone believes in the government or interprets religion in the same manner. No two members of any society will think the same way.
Use 5 senses to create your world. Nothing says more about a story’s world than what its garbage smells like or how it looks after a hard rain. Whatever world you create, what do its transportation vehicles sound like as they rush by? Create a sense of place with sensuous information. For more on this, check out this piece we wrote for DIYAuthor: NLP For Authors: NLP For Authors: How to Write for the 5 Senses.
How to Build Your World
If you’re looking for a way to get started, try these tips:
Read, read, read. Read works by other authors where they’ve created full and rich worlds for their stories. The Harry Potter books are a great example of how a new world informs the story and sometimes compels Harry to act in certain ways.
Watch movies. Movies are also a great way to get inspiration for your own work. Watch supernatural flicks or even animated movies like Avatar to see how someone else has constructed a new world.
Draw a map. Use a big sheet of paper and plot out what your world looks like. Don’t aim for a perfect drawing, just something to show you where everything is located and how your character can get around.
Outline your world’s details. What technology do they use or is on the cusp of being invented? What types of plants and animals live in your world? How are the people different from yourself?
Try on someone else’s world. Take parts of worlds created by others and combine them in a new and fresh way. Then give it a plot twist, and you’ve created an entire new world, one in which your characters can grow and develop.
When to Stop World Building
You don’t need to write an encyclopedia on your newly created world. Just know and understand the basics and a few of the specifics. Don’t inundate your reader with tidbits of information about your world if those tidbits don’t move your story forward.
Your world should inform your characters in ways that provide movement. If you put in a huge section about the flora and fauna of your new world, it better be part of the plot line in chapters to come, something your reader needs to know.
Sometimes it becomes difficult to distinguish between valuable, plot-driving exposition and sections of your writing that are providing detail for the sake of detail. ProWritingAid's Pacing check highlights your slower paced paragraphs so that you can check you're varying your exposition, dialogue and action scenes.
Your world may play a central role in your character’s development and growth, but it should never become the main character. Let it help you develop your main character’s eventual denouement, but never take it over.
And finally, when you’ve written so much about your world you haven’t even started on the story yet, it’s time to stop. You can always flesh out your world in more detail as it becomes necessary.
If you love writing fantasy, this is the event for you.