Every story will have a certain amount of worldbuilding tied to it, and some will have more than others. Crafting a world that feels realistic, layered, and logical, whether it’s part of our own or one made of your imagination, is a crucial element of storytelling.
It’s important to plan it enough so each scene rings with authenticity. And if it’s a world that’s unusual or alien to readers, we need to describe those otherworldly elements in a way that readers can imagine them, enabling them to let go of what they know to be true so they can fully immerse themselves in the character’s reality.
With worldbuilding, especially if we’re creating a new world, the layers are important. Constructs of the real world need to be applied to the fictional one, meaning we need to think about…
The geography of the world.
Water, earth, flora, and fauna. Does your world have mountains, deserts, lakes, and valleys? Something else? Does the story take place at the planetary level in a spaceship, in a void between realities, or as part of a strange dreamscape? Whatever it is, readers need to understand what this looks like.
Key species or creatures.
Unless a world is devoid of life, something will live there. What are these things, and what are their patterns and life cycles? Do they migrate? What do they eat and are they territorial or nomadic? Are they dangerous? Even real world locations will have species that are native to various areas. As the writer, you should know what these are.
Let’s not forget people!
Very likely, the story revolves around humans or a substitute, and they’ll have societal rules, a hierarchy, government, a military, factions, or castes. Some will have power and some won’t. Some will rule and some will be ruled.
People have cultural beliefs and practices.
What traditions, religions, roles, careers, superstitions, rituals, philosophies, political leanings, and the like do your people adhere to, abide by, and practice?
Climate and weather.
In our world, weather and climate influence everything, from where people live, to what they wear, eat, do, and feel. It should be the same for your characters.
Science, technology, and possibly magic.
The backbone of knowledge lies in what we understand of the world, and it will be the same for characters. What laws of science shape this world? What technological advances have been made? Do people have magic or special powers? If so, what does this look like and are there limits that keep it all in check?
In each place, there will be homes, buildings, meeting places, towns, cities, and more. And to get from point A to point B, people must have transportation. These aspects of society can look very different depending on technological advances, the materials they have to work with, and the climate and geography.
Every world started from something, evolving from humble beginnings to where it is now. What events have shaped the world, societies, and land? What wars, celestial events, and natural occurrences have left their mark?
There are many great questionnaires to help you unearth the logic of your world. We created one ourselves at One Stop for Writers called Worldbuilding Surveys. (There’s a free trial if you’d like to give it a whirl.) HOT TIP: While you’re there, use the Weather Thesaurus to help you plan your climate and seasons.
Creating a Credible Magic System
Introducing Unique Elements without Confusing Readers
OS Worldbuilding Surveys
Weather & Earthly Phenomenon Thesaurus
Shout Out to the Setting
Plot and characters tend to get all the glory, but each scene has a secret superpower to make it successful. Yep, we’re talking about the setting! The location for each scene should be so much more than a “backdrop” for the action. Used properly, it can become an active participant that deepens the story moment.
There’s so much setting goodness to share with you, we can’t put it all here; we’d have to write a book. Oh, that’s right, we did! Two books, in fact. That’s how amazing your setting is, people—enough to fill two books! And an even larger descriptive database for settings is at One Stop for Writers, so check that out when you get a chance.
Setting Bookmarks to look over:
Setting Tip Sheets
The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces
The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places
Using Real-World Locations to Ground Your Story’s Setting
Creating Mood with Light and Shadow
How to Describe a Setting You’ve Never Visited
Setting as a Characterization Tool
Setting as a Character
Setting & Symbolism, the Perfect Marriage
Writing Powerful Scenes: Why Choosing the Right Setting Is so Important
Picking the Right Setting Details
5 Setting Mistakes that Will Weaken Your Story
Three Ways the Setting Can Steer Your Story’s Plot
Using the Setting to Create Conflict
Generic Won’t Do: Choosing Locations that Have Emotional Value
How to Turn Your Setting into an Obstacle Course
Setting & Emotion: A Masterclass-in-a-Podcast