Creating Unforgettable Settings, Part 4: World Building

magicalSo 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 Early

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00072]

now available: click to view

Every 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 Shine

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00067]

now available: click to view

Remember 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.


Image: Mystic Art Design @ Pixabay




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. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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[…] 3. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel. As a fantasy author, I know our tendency to go a little crazy with the world building. We’re so into our new world and its uniqueness that we come up with new inventions and new names for everything. But too much of this becomes tiring for readers. If you have a unique element, make sure it’s necessary. Forster’s asars play an important part in the story because they designate which house each girl belongs to. Through this article of clothing, she avoids having to identify each girl’s house when the girls are introduced. So think carefully before coming up with a new form of lighting, time telling, transportation, or messenger service. Keep the unique components that add to your story and stick with what already works for the rest. (For more tips on creating a believable setting, see this post on World Building Rules and Elements). […]

Karen Lange
9 years ago

Wonderful stuff, as always. 🙂 You guys are such a great resource!
Thanks a bunch,

Matthew Rush
9 years ago

Thanks Becca.

Laura Pauling
9 years ago

Great advice. Especially with a different world. It seems to be such a hard balance between world setting and story, but I know when I’m reading when it’s done right. I don’t notice it! And that’s hard!

9 years ago

My stories are set in a post-apolyptic world of the future. Although, a lot of things are the same, there are, of course, some natural changes. I try and keep it simple and to the point. My characters use a lot of the same devices we have now, with a twist to a few. There are still GPS, cell phones, computers etc. But their workings are a bit different. I try and focus on the uniqueness of the culture my characters reside in. Your tips are very sound and of great use to anyone who wants to deepen their backgrounds.

Amos Keppler
9 years ago

A fairly thorough work-through this, but most of it is a given.

It’s just like research, in a way, except that you have to research what initially isn’t there.

Carol Riggs
9 years ago

Hey, good stuff, and very timely for what I’m working on. Thanks!

Lindsay N. Currie
9 years ago

Excellent post. I agree with your thoughts on leaving bread crumb trails, weaving in bits of your setting and world throughout the story so that it’s evenly dispersed and not smacking them in the head repeatedly in the first chapter only:)

The Golden Eagle
9 years ago

Thank you for the advice!

Stina Lindenblatt
9 years ago

Thanks for the great advice! It’ll be helpful for a project I’m planning.

Charlie Pulsipher
9 years ago

Great advice as always. 23 pages?! I will have to work on my questionnaire. Mine is no where near 23 pages. More like two or three pages of random notes. I yell “bull crap” at movies or tv shows too. My poor wife has learned to deal with my rants when shows veer away from their own rules. I think I ranted about Heroes for weeks…maybe longer.
Funny Stuff I Write

Michelle Gregory
9 years ago

i thought i wanted to write fantasy because i could make up my facts, but my world is still set in an earth-like place, so i still have to put earth elements into it and mix them with magic. now i’m starting to think that writing fantasy is harder than writing non-fantasy.

E.J. Wesley
9 years ago

Solid tips!


Jemi Fraser
9 years ago

Creating a whole new world is such a challenge and such fun!! Thanks for the great advice 🙂