World building is a common concern among fantasy writers, since so much of what we do depends on the reader believing IN the setting. You can have the best story and great characters, and torpedo them all with an unconvincing and inconsistent setting. Of course, you can also go too far in the other direction, adding needless details and descriptions that bog down your prose and make the reader skip ahead to the next bit of dialogue.
I’ve written eleven novels in three very different settings: an entirely fictional fantasy world, Memphis in the year 1975, and contemporary Appalachia. It’s safe to say that, for at least some readers, all three count as brand-new unexplored territory. So the challenge in each was essentially the same: create a world that supports the story and themes without overpowering them. In other words (and to paraphrase Elmore Leonard), don’t write the parts that readers tend to skip.
Here are some helpful guidelines (not rules, because there really are no rules) that I’ve developed out of my own process.
1. Decide how your characters relate to the world. Remember how Luke Skywalker stares around the Mos Eisely cantina? It’s all new to him, and when we see it through his eyes, it’s new to us. A few scenes later, Han Solo confronts Greedo, and it’s clear that for him, there is nothing unusual about talking to a bump-headed green alien. That’s two perspectives of the same world. Both are valid, and (an important detail) both scenes tell us about the world and the characters. It’s perfectly acceptable to describe a world omnisciently, if there’s a reason for it. But it’s often more effective to show us the world through the characters, because it does the double duty of establishing both settings, and personalities.
2. Keep it as consistent as possible. Was Dr. Watson shot in the arm or the leg when he served in Afghanistan? If you read Conan Doyle, it turns out to be both, because Doyle simply didn’t remember that he’d established it one way before describing it as the other. Remember the early Star Trek episode, “The Enemy Within,” when ineffective transporters trap Sulu and his landing party on a frozen planet? Why, you might ask, did they not just send down a shuttlecraft? Because that episode was written before they had established the shuttles.
There are lots of examples of this, particularly in the wild, untamed landscape of comics. A world, generally, isn’t developed whole and in detail all at once. It’s put together as needed, often in a hurry, and occasionally with willful disregard of what’s been established (see the long history of Doctor Who). That said, consistency is certainly the goal when inventing a world, if you want your reader to believe in it. So those examples are not excuses, and any mistakes are not the fault of your editor, your beta readers, or anyone else. After all, it’s your name on the cover. So make the best effort you can to keep your world consistent within the rules you establish.
3. The smell pass. I’m going to paraphrase a story I read about, I believe, the great western painter Frederick Remington (and it’s a paraphrase because I can’t recall the source). He showed his mentor a painting he’d done of some horses tied outside a saloon at night. His teacher said, “How long have those horses been out there?”
Remington was taken aback. “I don’t know,” he answered. “A while, I guess.”
“Well, what do you reckon those horses might leave on the ground if they’d been there a while?”
So Remington dutifully painted in the manure. His mentor then asked, “What’s the temperature like?”
“It gets cold in the desert at night,” Remington said. “So I suppose it’s cold.”
“Manure’s warm. What would happen to it in the cold?”
“It would steam, I guess.” Which he dutifully added.
The point for all us writers is to remember that there are other senses than sight and sound that define a world. One of the last revisions I make is what I call a “smell pass,” where I look for moments where the odors of a given setting might register on the characters. It could be good smells, of course; but the ones that register on us are usually the unexpected ones. It’ll test your powers of description to convey it, but when you get it right, your world will have a new, vivid dimension.
4. Don’t forget the climate. Building on the smell pass, don’t forget things like the temperature, humidity, and season. There’s a tendency in fantasy to kind of default to a perpetual spring/summer setting, or to only mention climate when things are really extreme, such as storms or droughts. But everyone checks the weather before deciding what to wear, and we all bitch about the heat, the dry, the cold, or anything that’s not a perfect sunny day. Let your characters do this as well. Decide, too, what they think about the climate: do they prefer hot or cold days? Do certain types of weather bring back memories?
5. Go for the crucial detail, not the in-depth description. This is probably the most useful single thing I’ve learned about establishing a world, and I learned it by doing it wrong many, many times. As I mentioned above, pages of gray unbroken text will just have your reader skipping ahead to the next time a character speaks; they may be fun to write, but they’re death to your pacing.
The trick, then, is to find that crucial detail that conveys much more than it states. A smell can imply its source, the description of one fallen soldier is much more immediate than trying to describe a dead army, the way a word is said can summon up the whole backstory behind it. Of course, sometimes more detailed and vivid description is necessary; but using details also draws your reader in, forcing them to engage with your story in a more active way. Horror has always understood this: the monster you can’t see is always scarier than the one you can, because your mind supplies all the detail, and it’s specific to you.
As I said, these are guidelines, not rules. For every “don’t” warning, you can find a writer who “did” successfully. Rather, these are things I try to always think about when I’m starting a new work, whether in an existing world or a brand-new one. They’ve served me well, and I hope they’re helpful to you.
What guidelines/tips do you find helpful when world building?
Alex Bledsoe was born in west Tennessee an hour from Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (birthplace of Tina Turner). He's been a reporter, photographer, legal copy editor and Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman. He now lives in Wisconsin.
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Excellent post, Alex, and one even contemporary writers have take-aways from! People ask me why I don't try Fantasy, or Historical. I have a hard enough time describing well what I can see!
Great post, Alex! These tips/guidelines are perfect for any genre. I go through a similar "checklist" during each revision pass.
Love having you on WITS. 🙂
Appreciate you inviting me here, Orly!
I was just telling someone I needed to improve my world-building skills. Excellent advice, thank you!
You're very welcome! Glad it was useful. 🙂
Great article, Alex! I'm working on a fantasy novel, and I agree on all five points being crucial in world-building (and am trying to ensure they're covered in my story, too). I'm especially glad that you pointed out #4. My characters go on a mission, so climate (especially inclement weather and changes due to seasons and latitude) is one thing I've made sure to consider.
I had to deliberately pick different seasons at first, to make myself remember that. Writing a fantasy set in winter really opens up a whole new set of imagery.
Such a good point about how often we forget the climate and uncomfortable weather. Can't wait to read the new novel. Going to the bookstore this weekend.
Thanks, Susan! I hope you enjoy it. 🙂
Well said, Alex. I appreciate that you apply world building to all worlds and timeframes since I've most often heard the term applied to fantasy writing. The Remington example is great. Reading this post sparked thoughts on two places in my almost completed WIP where I can go back in for the critical detail. Thanks.
Thanks for the kind words, Carol, and I'm really glad you found it useful.
Love, love #5, Alex. I'm revising and cutting word count. As hard as it is to kill my darlings, the crucial details stay, the wonderful descriptions go. I plan to write much smarter on the next one! Thanks for a post right up my alley!
You have the opposite approach from me: my drafts start short, like skeletons, and then get the meat on them in subsequent drafts. But there's no right or wrong way, just what works for you, and all that counts is what ends up on the page. 🙂
Excellent post. Love suggestions three and four. All the senses should be part of the setting.
It's amazing how a scene can change when you employ the different senses.
Your article has come at the perfect time for me. I am in the process of writing a scene where the weather is turning foul with snow and sleet on a late afternoon in October. I wish I had your talent for writing.
You did a pretty good job conjuring the scene with your description in your comment. Keep writing, and you'll keep getting better.
Interesting post. I am not writing fantasy but I think these tips would benefit an ordinary world. Make it extraordinary. Thanks.
Like you, Alice, I don't write fantasy. But I use very similar guidelines in developing the "worlds" of my women's fiction.
In my experience, the techniques of writing don't really change from genre to genre; a good story is a good story, period. Things that work for romance stories will also work for westerns, or science fiction. Sure, knowledge of genre tropes is useful, but ultimately they're secondary to the rules of good storytelling.
This is great. As someone who read Lord of the Rings as a child it's taken me a long time to shake the need to describe every little detail. I'm getting the hang of describing only what's important to my characters.
I think all fantasy authors go through that phase. I know I did. 🙂
I agree with the others that the "nitty gritty" is the hardest to leave out. We're authors! We've created this amazing world and we want to share it. Only then no one will buy the book...it's a conundrum. 🙂
The trick, in my experience, is to learn to step back and out of ourselves, and see our work the way a reader would. If this were part of someone else's book, would we read it? It's a really helpful technique.
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