Hi writers! We kicked off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we tackle real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about world-building for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Dystopian, and even Historical Fiction novels.
QUESTION: What are some pointers for writers who are working on a story that takes place in another time, place, or fantasy setting?
As exciting as Earth is in the 21st century, sometimes the best setting for a story is another world altogether. Many great stories take place in different timelines and dimensions, places where there are different rules and creatures, where the impossible becomes possible. Why limit your stories to the laws of physics and the history that’s already been written when you can make up your own laws and history?
High fantasy fiction takes place in secondary or parallel worlds, which can take an endless variety of forms. One of the best examples of a richly detailed world is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a diverse world filled with many creatures, lands, and languages that makes it the perfect setting for adventures. It’s a world containing different villages, kingdoms, and landscapes, from the peaceful Shire to the declining kingdom of Gondor to the desolate volcanoes of Mordor. There are elves and dwarves and hobbits and goblins and many more peoples and races that have their own history and personality. This world takes on a life of its own, and it’s an exemplary model of how you want to build your fictional world.
If you’re writing a story in another time or place, you have the power to develop everything from scratch. Creating these immersive and complex worlds can be a complicated process, but by following these steps when building your world, you can ensure your new fantasy setting becomes a believable and engaging place that your readers will never want to leave.
Read other works. Learn from the best works of fiction already written. See how other authors show the elements of their world. As mentioned above, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are critical works to study. Examine how Tolkien develops the setting, characters, and the logic of Middle-earth, granting everything in his made-up world a believable explanation and a consistent history. Other classic fictional worlds include the universe of George Lucas’ Star Wars (and the Extended Universe that sprang up in other media over the years) and “The Known World” in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Find your favorite fantasies and note how they make the world work.
Plan ahead. Writing about this world is difficult as it is. Creating a whole new world requires elaborate histories and backstories that involve thorough planning. You want to have a general idea, as well as specific details, of this world ready to go before you write a single word. Be able to rationalize why things work the way they do in your world. You need to have a complete grasp of the inner workings yourself before you can hope to depict this world for others. The more intimately you know your world, the more intricate your writing can be. Here is a quick list of things you should have fully considered before you start writing.
The people: What are their language, practices, and customs? What do they value?
The geographical layout of the world: How big or small is your world? Are there different regions, and if so, what are their defining characteristics?
The history of the world: How did the present day reach its current state? Are there any historical conflicts that affect the present? What was the most recent event that happened before your story begins? How technically advanced is the world?
Make the world a character. Just as your characters grow throughout the story, so can the characters’ environment. Think of this new world as a character of its own. It should have its own feel, look, sound, and smell. The setting is your own creation that serves an integral role for your story, and it can grow as stories evolve. However, the world shouldn’t be the central character. Each detail you insert about the setting should serve a purpose, whether it’s building imagery or advancing the plot, so it’s best to avoid including superfluous details that don’t enhance the story in the long run.
Use dialogue appropriately. It can be tempting to divulge all the details and histories about your new world in a character’s monologue, but dumping this information all at once is boring and unnecessary. When used sparingly and smartly, dialogue and diction can reveal much about a character’s nature, as well as the society and world in which they live. Aim for a healthy balance that equally favors descriptions, dialogue, and action.
Double check the logic. If you’re writing a story set in an alternate timeline or a brand new world, that naturally means there are more loopholes that your story could fall through, especially as you find yourself taking your story in new directions you didn’t anticipate when you first started writing it. An event may be out place or a fact may contradict something you previously mentioned. Just as you should take the precious time before your writing to map out the details, take some extra time at the end to review what you’ve actually written. It’s important your details line up logically or else the invalidity of your world will undermine your writing.
Just as these tips advise what you should do, here is a quick list of things you shouldn’t do: Don’t write excessive descriptions. Don’t rely on high fantasy clichés. Don’t create stock characters. And don’t stress!
World building is not an easy task, but if planned thoroughly and executed carefully, you’ll enlighten your readers and bring them to a whole new world only you are capable of creating.