Living & breathing: Crafting A Believable Story World

In Writing on June 13, 2012 at 3:49 pm

One of the most complicated, grueling, time-consuming — and, most of all, fun — parts of writing a story set in a fictional place is all the world building you get to (and have to) do along the way.

The story isn’t just the events and characters. After all, if it were, what would be the point of using a fictional setting at all? Great writing gets the setting involved, and an extension of the setting is the whole world in which the story is set. It has to live and breathe and — as a friend of mine pointed out in an unrelated but equally valid context — needs to seem to go on without regard for the characters.

But how do you generate an entire world from nothing? How can you ever be done with the process of inventing a world so you can actually get down to the business of writing your story? Big questions, these, and in an attempt to answer them I present to you…

My Step-By-Step Guide To Creating A Deep World While Making Sure You Still Have Time For The Story:

First: Research, Research, Research

It’s not the most fun ever (though it can be) but research is the backbone of any story world. It needs to play a role in nearly every world-making decision you make, from the history of your world (how do governments rise and fall?  what drives wars and treaties and the economy?) to the geography (how do mountains and rivers form? what factors dictate the shapes of a landmass? where would populations settle?) all the way down to the tiniest details. If your character is going on a boat, you’d better know what kind of boats would be used, what kind of sails and rigging it would have — even what size crew would be needed to man it.

Granted, if your world is a fantasy world or a futuristic science fantasy world, certain details need not be realistic, but that doesn’t mean everything else can be chosen at random or off the top of your head. In fact, the more fantastic the elements of your story, the more important it is to ground your reader in a believable world.

Research done well yields up all kinds of details that will help the world of your story ring true on every level.

History

Every story is preceded by another story. Unless you’re writing the Bible, there are things that happened in your world before you ever got there to write about it. So what are these things? How do they affect the daily lives of your characters? This is especially important, again, in the realms of science fiction and fantasy. Your reader is going to find him or herself in a pretty remarkable situation — you’d better be prepared to tell them how they got there.

Geography

Once you have a handle on the basic backstory and history of your land, I find it’s really helpful to build up your lore by working on the geography of your world. What are the main cities (or if not cities, settlements, ships — collections of humans)? How are they different? What are the big geographical features? Mountains? Forests? Rivers? What happens in these places, and what kind of stories could you tell about just these places and the people who live there?

A lot of this stuff probably won’t make it into your story, but having these kinds of details ready allows you to put your hooks in your reader and really anchor them in your story world at every turn. Even small details like where apricots come from, or leather or cotton or spices, can lend authenticity to your work.

The Details: Choose Wisely, Tell Sparingly

From just the first steps it’s pretty easy to see how your story world almost starts to grow on its own, organically. Once you get started you’ll find you just keep writing down more facts and details, as if you’re just  realizing them rather than making them up: So you have a far northern city? Must be cold there! They wear thick skins woven from game in that forest over there? They must be good hunters! Are they good with bows? Have they ever used them against humans? Could that have to do with that civil war you talked about earlier?

Soon you’ll literally have more details than you know what to do with. This is fine. In an earlier post I alluded to having a crazy person’s penchant for binders of made up information, and soon you will too — Welcome! But surely you can’t include it all, nor should you.

It’s often said of descriptions that they benefit more from one well-chose, telling detail than from a string of adjectives and poorly chosen details. Similarly, how you choose to display your lore in your story will impact how effective it is and how well it grounds your reader.

For instance, I would preference working the details naturally into the thoughts and dialogue of your characters rather than giving it in big expository chunks. But no matter how you do it, even in exposition, remember it’s not necessary to give it all away. You don’t have to say “John could tell the man was wealthy, because his saddle was made from the expensive leather you can buy in Orfburg, where they’re well-known for their leather working and cattle.” Instead, just say “the rider’s saddle was crafted of shining Orfburg leather.”

The mere fact that you’re pointing it out like this will tell your reader it’s important, and more importantly, it leaves the reader asking questions — “What’s so special about Orfburg leather? Where’s Orfburg?” — and any time you have your reader asking questions like this (as if this world you’ve created is a real place) you’re doing your job.

Make It Matter

Finally, none of this stuff matters if it doesn’t matter to your characters. Do they have to travel south to a different bridge because the waters rise in the marsh lands every year? Do they need to travel to Orfburg for some of that awesome leather I keep hearing about? Of course, some details are just details to give flavor to your descriptions (especially good when you want actual flavor; descriptions of food and products are much more interesting if you can say where they actually came from) but the big things — well the big things should matter.

If the details matter to your characters, and your characters matter to your reader, by the law of transitive reader manipulation, your story world should now matter to your reader, too.

The Bigger Picture

By now you’ve probably figured out that these points don’t just apply to entirely fictional worlds. If you’re writing a book about WWII fighter pilots, you’d better do your research and familiarize yourself with the equipment they would have used, the food they would have eaten, the history and events that would have been important to them — even what mountains they would see during their training runs.

Having acquired all this knowledge, the rule for using it in your story is the same as in fantasy or science fiction: use sparing details but telling details, and be sure that these facts you uncover have an impact on your story and the lives of your characters.

So what experiences, fun times and misadventures have you had crafting your own story worlds? What are your strategies? I’d love to hear!

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  1. Even with the Bible, backstory matters. How many times has the question Where did Hod come from? Or who is he talking to in the opening of genesis?

  2. Hey Brian! I need to read this post and I will, tomorrow. For now I’m just dropping by to say I nominated you for a blogger-blogger award. Have a look at my post here if you’re interested. http://wp.me/p1PeVl-7N

    • Thank you kindly! I’d gladly give it right back to you, too, because you’re so consistent with your constructive criticism on my Friday Fiction posts. It really helps!

  3. Thanks for these priceless pieces of nuggets.

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