So far in this series, we’ve touched on choosing the right setting, describing the setting, and maximizing the setting through various figures of speech and techniques. But what if the world you want to write about doesn’t exist…yet? Then you’ve got some WORLD BUILDING to do. There are dozens of sub-topics I could address when it comes to World Building, but I’m going to focus on two: Rules and Elements.
Rules: the principles under which every aspect of your world operates
Know the Rules
Every world has rules. Consider Earth: water flows downhill; a complete revolution takes 24 hours, resulting in one day and night; people communicate primarily through speech, through a variety of different languages. If you’re going to create a world that readers will buy into, you have to know how everything works: the physical planet, climate, cultures, politics, religion, rules of magic, diet, social structure. I shared this link once before, but I’ve found Patricia Wrede’s World Builder Questions to be a great resource for world building. From this site, I created a 23-page questionnaire that I use when planning. Sounds like overkill, but thorough planning is key. The more you know about your world from the start, the more believable it will be to the reader.
Lay the Foundation EarlyEvery world is different. If they were the same as Earth, we wouldn’t have to create something new. Different is good, but it can also be confusing, so make sure you lay the foundation early for those potentially baffling parts. Do it gradually—a bit here, a little more there, leaving a manageable trail of crumbs for your reader to follow. Foundation-laying is also important when it comes to any rule-breakers in your story: the one member of the aerial community who can’t fly; the boy with healing powers; a group of telepaths. If half the story goes by before the reader learns that the rules don’t apply to someone, they’re going to cry, “Bull Crap!” (as I often do when watching movies. My husband loves this). Leave a couple of clues early on to show there’s something different about that character. That way, when the secret’s revealed, your Huh? moment will be turned into a satisfying Ahhhhhhh.
Elements: any piece of your world that needs to be defined during planning: transport devices, timepieces, eating utensils, living spaces, waste management, power sources, etc.
Make Fantastical Elements ShineRemember that this is a Brand New World, and you can do anything, anything, with it. If there’s nothing unique about it, it might as well be Earth, right? What is it about your world that makes it fabulous? A set of districts ruled by a Capitol that forces the children to kill each other? Dragons that imprint with humans to create a lifelong telepathic bond? Earth, as viewed by a community of rabbits? There must be a reason that you chose to set your story in a place that doesn’t already exist. Whatever that reason, make it the focal point of your setting. Showcase it so your readers come to see your world as a place like no other—one they wish they could visit in person.
Value Existing Elements
On the flip-side, if you have too many way-cool elements, a couple of things are going to happen: 1) you’ll have trouble explaining everything clearly enough so the reader can understand, and 2) your reader will tire of trying to wrap their brains around all the newness and will walk away from your story. So don’t reinvent the wheel—or the clock, matchbooks, democracy, the barter system, or anything else that will fit into your world just as it is. In the name of proportion, keep the simple, everyday things simple so your fantastical elements can shine.
So that’s it. All my worldly knowledge on unforgettable settings. This series has provided a lot of information that you’ve hopefully found useful, but it can mostly be summed up in three words: believability, consistency, and maximization. If you focus on those three things, you pretty much can’t go wrong.
Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Choosing the Right Setting
Part 2: Describing The Setting
Part 3: Maximizing The Setting
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.