Five Ways to Build a Story World
4th Jun 2018 in Writing
‘World-building’ is usually used to describe fantasy or science fiction stories, but all stories happen somewhere. Narratives set in the real world are created by the writer too: smells, colours and temperatures can vary wildly depending whether your story is set in Ghana or Liverpool or New York, the present day or ten years ago or the late 1800s. Writers must build a strong sense of place without dumping paragraphs of rambling description into the story, and there are lots of techniques to help you set historical time, season, and location quickly and effectively.
- Choose details well. Include enough so that the reader can picture the setting, but only if they’re relevant to the story. Details are a great way to set the scene: if a story opens with a character eating fish and chips from newspaper, we can assume we’re in a British seaside town; if they’re eating a beignet, we’re in New Orleans. There’s no need to resort to cliché, but a few telling details can quickly convey a huge amount of information.
- Use all the senses. Descriptions are usually based on sight and sound, but smell, taste and touch can be far more vivid. The sugary pop of sherbet, the texture of wet sand, the cloying smell of rapeseed: these sorts of details will help your reader to inhabit the world of the story. Pick a few and sprinkle them through your writing.
- Don’t describe what can be assumed. We know that the sky is blue and grass is green, so there’s no need to mention it. But if something is unlike what we’d expect, that makes it significant and worth describing. For example, a green lawn is unremarkable, but a yellowing lawn tells us a lot about the weather and the personality of the house’s occupants.
- Pay attention to place – and take notes. When you think about holidays you’ve been on, or even just places around your hometown, what brings it most vividly to life for you? Is it the peeling paint on a shed’s boards, the shush of the sea, candyfloss dissolving on your tongue? If a detail sparks vivid memories for you, it’s likely to be a strong description for your story. When you’re in another country, pay attention to details like the sound of the dial tone, the weight and texture of the currency, the plumbing, the quality of the light, the public tranport, and the types of litter. These tiny details will make your story-world feel real and individual, rather than a cut-out.
- Let the reader inhabit the location. You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’, and it’s particularly relevant to setting. Rather than making dispassionate statements like ‘it was cold’, mention how the setting affects the characters. How does extreme cold – or extreme heat – affect your body? Uncontrollable shivering, the burn of freezing air in your nostrils, numbing fingers: these details will make a setting feel real.
Place is more than physical location: it’s culture, language, customs, cuisine, traditions and a way of life. By building a vivid setting, you’ll make the reader feel a part of your story.
(Originally published at IdeasTap)