We have been talking about ways to create depth in our writing for the last month, and we still have areas of the Word-Pond we call Story to explore. One aspect of depth that we can’t skimp on is setting.
Setting is a surface element but it also has a subliminal role in creating depth.
The problem is, many people believe that world-building requires a massive amount of effort.
It does take some work up front, but once begun, worlds grow as we write them.
Perhaps you have an idea for your story and characters who have great chemistry. However, while you might know how the plot will go, you feel like you can’t quite get a grip on the story. This is because the world is still mostly unformed.
At this early point in the process you don’t yet know their world. So, the setting is the literary equivalent of an empty apartment with a chair and a table but nothing else. You have an idea of what you want it to be when it is fully furnished, but aren’t sure how to make that vision real.
I have a method of building worlds that works for me, and I will share it with you, but you must keep it an absolute secret. This is just between you and me and the internet at large.
I move in and live there, mentally.
I picture the opening scene, and in a separate document labeled something like (story title)_worldbuilding.docx, I begin writing, answering questions about this world as I think of them.
What is the name of the place the story opens?
Does it take place on earth in a real place? On earth in an alternate time/place? Or is it set on some other world entirely?
Where is my protagonist? Does the environment work against him/her?
Looking through their eyes, are they indoors or outdoors?
What does s/he see at that opening moment?
How does the air feel and what scents and odors are common to that place?
How is the lighting both indoors and out? If they are out of doors, what is the weather like?
On this world-building document, write every single detail, from the largest down to the insects. Keep adding to it whenever you think of something new as you are writing the first draft. The act of designing this scenery builds the world in your mind. I go with the world that is familiar to me, with some unfamiliar creatures thrown in for fun.
The Tower of Bones series began life as the story line for an anime-based RPG that never went into production. The world of Neveyah is an alien environment, yet it’s familiar to me because it’s based on the world I live in, the Pacific Northwest. The plants and the way they fit into the geography are directly pulled from the forested hills of Southern Puget Sound and Western Washington State.
I created the maps, so I knew the topography. I had to first build and then destroy the ecology for the game because the dangerous environment and elemental creatures are a core plot point in the story, a threat with which the protagonist must learn to coexist. So, when I began writing the book, all the hard work was done. Ten years of writing work set in Neveyah is why the world seems so solid from the opening paragraphs.
You say you can’t picture a place you haven’t been. But what does that really mean? Open your eyes and look around. At this moment, inside your room and outside your door, you have all the elements you need to create an alien or alternate world. These elements could exist before your eyes, or they exist in your memory. I say, use what you know, reshape it, reuse it and make it yours.
Everyone has a place they want to be more than anywhere else. For me, one place on earth represents my serenity, my creative happy place, and it exists in the real world but is a four-hour drive from my home. Yet, when I need to, I can pull that place up in my mind. By visualizing it, I recharge my serenity-batteries.
Think about a place you love but are parted from. What is the strongest memory about that place, the one that calls to you, lingers in your heart and makes you happy?
If you can describe that feeling, that memory, you can create a world.
The fact is, unless we are there physically, other places don’t really exist for us. We see them on the news, or read about them, but until we visit them, they are distant, merely rumors.
Our consciousness is contained in the packet of water and flesh we call our bodies. For this reason, the only world that really exists in this incarnation is the space we physically occupy as individuals. The only true reality is the space we can see, hear, smell, and touch.
Everywhere else is only a daydream or a memory. When you aren’t there, it doesn’t exist.
However, you can go there in your mind if you picture it strongly enough. We build worlds every day just by planning our next move. We do it by thinking about where we are going next, and where we have just come from. If you can visualize stopping at the mini-mart on your way home after work, you can visualize the convenience store on a space station.
It does take time, but not a lot. Consider spending an evening building the framework of the world for your novel. Use your best, most colorful words to show that place in a word-picture that is just for you.
Get fluffy in your writing—it’s only a practice piece, and no one will see it but you. The smells, the sounds, the way certain doors creak are all good things to know. Draw maps and floor plans. List the furniture the characters interact with and know where it’s placed.
Use all the descriptive words you can think of to build that world in your mind–this research document is where adverbs and adjectives should be used.
Once the world in which the story opens is solid in your mind, rewrite that opening scene again. Allow the world to unfold through the characters’ experiences and interactions. Show us the world your characters inhabit in that scene.
The following passage is from the opening page of my forthcoming novel, Julian Lackland, the third and final installment in the Billy’s Revenge Series. In the opening scene, this is how I show the world my protagonist inhabits.
All the world-building was done ten years ago. Building an RPG world taught me to visualize and describe heavily in my background notes. I used the same method when plotting Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers as I did for Tower of Bones.
Now, ten years on, I’m a leaner writer, so those images are condensed into a only few words, a picture to show where he is on day one of our story. As the novel progresses, his environments change, but it’s my task to keep the word-pictures concise and yet as visual as possible.
Credits and Attributions:
All photography in this post is from Connie J. Jasperson’s portfolio