Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Setting as a Character. For the next few weeks, we will be talking about the humongous and intimidating topic of world building. Today we start by looking at the topic as a whole and how it can be applied to contemporary stories.
At it’s most basic, world building is fun, the height of creativity. Close your eyes and imagine a society as strange and decadent as Panem, the capital in The Hunger Games, or place as real and (to some) familiar as a middle school basketball court. Let your imagination run wild, or keep things simple and true. What will serve as the best backdrop for your characters and action?
- When is the story happening? Past, present, or future?
- Where? Small-town, America or a galaxy far, far away?
- What resources do your characters have at their disposal? Money? Magic? Advanced weapons? Or nothing but their own muscle and ingenuity?
- What do your characters believe and how does that square or contrast with the beliefs of the society around them?
So why is world-building intimidating? Because if you allow yourself to dream up something spectacular and then take the ten or twenty pages to outline your masterpiece of a world, every critique partner will tell you to delete it and get your plot moving. The hard thing about creating a world isn’t dreaming it up, it’s dropping bits and pieces everywhere in your story, not serving it up in one big chunk.
Let’s look at building the world for a story. There are so many potential areas to consider, it’s helpful to have a checklist:
- Geography– environment, terrain, weather, rural/urban setting, natural resources
- Politics– types/roles of governments, stability, power, laws
- Society– population, city/town size, diversity, gender/family roles, education, language, architecture, naming conventions
- Economics– finances, socioeconomic status, cost of living, unemployment, import/export
- Belief Systems– religion, spirituality, practices, freedom, tolerance
- Ideas/Cultures– values, dress, arts, heroes, communication, leisure time
- Technology– types, availability, usage
So how can you avoid the ten-page info-dump? Here are a few hints about slipping your world into the story.
- Character’s actions
- Social context
- Physical descriptions
- Sensory descriptions – smells, sounds, texture
Let’s look, again, at The Hunger Games.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
From The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
In the first paragraph of the book, we learn that Katniss’s family is poor (bare mattress), and we’ll know by the end of the second page that her whole district is. We learn that Prim is important to Katniss. We don’t know what the reaping is, but we know it’s bad and will keep reading to find out more. The trick that Suzanne Collins pulls off so well, is to keep the action moving while you pull the reader about your world. To show the world it in everything the characters see, feel and think.
It is easy to pick out the world building bits in fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction, but what about contemporary stories? On one hand, writers of contemporaries get it easy. The world of their story is the world of the reader, so it’s all out there. That allows some short cuts. On the other hand, ours is a big world. Where does this story take place within it?
Let’s look at the first page of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.
At the top of the key, I’m
MOVING & GROOVING,
POPping and ROCKING—
Why you BUMPING?
Why you LOCKING?
Man, take this THUMPING.
Be careful though,
‘cause now I’m CRUNKing
and my dipping will leave you
G on the floor, while I
to the finish with a fierce finger roll…
Straight in the hole:
from The Crossover by Kwame Alexander*
The constant movement, slang and trash talk sets the world quickly. A sports game. Did you guess we were on a basketball court before the swoosh? In this world, the young player knows he’s good and wants his opponent to know it too. You may not know much about the character yet, but I bet you’re not imagining this gym is in some fancy prep school. This world building is all done while he’s taking the ball to the net.
Tune in next week when we will explore world building in fantasy. You can also find more information on world building here:
*Apologies to Mr. Alexander. I could not get the formatting of his words nearly as cool as it is in print. See the published novel for the full effect!
HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.