“You’re building a WHAT?”
“The whole THING?”
That’s where the next response will be different for each writer. Yes, some of us do build an entire world for our stories. No, some of us don’t.
But regardless of how detailed or how sketchy it might be, we can never write a story without creating SOME kind of world.
It might be as simple as a few lines about the setting. “Twelfth-century France, on the way to the Third Crusade.”
“A doughnut shop on Main Street where all the townspeople come to get their news.”
“The camp for women who served with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.”
Sometimes, that’s all the author—and the readers—need to envision where the book is set. For them, the world takes second place (or third, seventh or fifteenth place) to other aspects of the story ... like plot twists, character journeys, dramatic dialogue, emotional arcs, entertaining events and more.
Other times the world is an essential part of the book, without which the story would feel emptier. Lacking in richness. Imagine a Harry Potter story without Hogwarts Academy or an Eve Dallas story without the New York Police Department. Readers would feel cheated.
Series readers, especially, like seeing the touchstones they’ve come to expect in a particular story world. J.R. Ward, Susan Mallery, Robert B. Parker, J.R.R. Tolkien and dozens of other authors have created worlds that live far beyond the covers of each book in the series.
Other writers create a fresh world for every book, and their readers are perfectly satisfied with each new one they come across.
What belongs in your story world?
Obviously, it’s more than just the physical setting.
That doesn’t mean the place and time aren’t important. Where the characters are located, what surrounds the active area, what the weather is like, what hour of the day different scenes take place in, what seasonal events will affect the plot ... all of those matter to the story.
And that setting can be described in lavish detail or quick brushstrokes, whichever best suits the author’s voice.
There are times when it’s crucial for readers to have a solid grasp of the setting, like when clues are related to “the distance from the dock to the barn” or “whether sunset actually happened along the way home.”
There are also times when knowing details like the color of the heroine’s bedroom quilt and the sound of her clock gives the reader a welcome sense of being fully immersed in the story world.
Then there are times when such details diminish the reader’s interest, taking them away from character or plot elements and shifting the focus to things they view as immaterial.
Why time and place matter
Regardless of how extensively or briefly your physical setting is described, though, the time-and-place location plays a crucial role in making your story’s characters do what they do.
Taking real-life locations as an example. Nobody would expect the same response to news of a kidnapped child from someone living in present-day Jerusalem and from someone living in an Antarctic research station.
Likewise, the characters’ setting—whether or not it appears during story action—has already played a role in making your people who they are. If Elizabeth Bennet and Katniss Everdeen were faced with one another’s choices, we can figure each one would still value her beloved sister’s well- being above her own ... but what she’d do to preserve it would be completely different, based on the world she grew up in.
So whether or not the characters’ coming-of-age setting is included in your present-day story, it’s still going to affect what happens. Because it’s made them who they are, whether or not that’s something they embrace or want to change.
Accept it? Or change it?
Just as characters are faced with the decision of whether they’re satisfied with who they are, or whether they need to alter it somehow, that same question can apply to the world that surrounds them.
In fact, it often provides the conflict that gets a story started. Someone who perceives injustice in the way feudal serfs are treated by the local barons, or someone who dreams of a more exciting life in the big city rather than on an isolated ranch, is someone with a story ready to happen.
Conflict doesn’t have to come because of dissatisfaction with their setting, though. It can also come from someone else who wants to change it.
Say, the new boss who decides to transfer everyone to the upgraded headquarters office two hours away. Or the character’s true love who plans to pursue a new opportunity on the frontier. Again, there’s a conflict waiting to unfold.
And that’s still only the beginning of how the story world plays into making your book memorable.
We’ll go into more detail on that from August 12-23 during “More Than Setting: World-Building” at WriterUniv.com, but meanwhile I’d love to know what story world comes to mind when you think about those you’ve enjoyed reading ... or writing.
Somebody who responds will win free registration to the class, and everybody who responds will give the rest of us great ideas for books we want to read or re-read. So that’s my question for you:
What story world did you love reading or writing?
I’ll check back for answers throughout the day and tomorrow and congratulate the winner of the registration for the free class on Saturday night. I’m looking forward to hearing about some fabulous story worlds!
A novelist who won “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell always has trouble choosing her favorite activity: writing, reading or teaching. Her newest course explores building story worlds, whether they’re a completely fictional creation or an actual setting the author knows well.