I don’t have to tell you; world building is an essential part of storytelling. Your setting anchors the unfolding events of your story to a specific time and place.
So, where do you begin? We’ll walk you through the elements that will create realistic and vivid settings.
The setting should be more than just a backdrop for your characters and plot. Great settings play a major part in your storyline, and the conflicts your character’s face.
An enticing setting can create a magical bond with your readers.
Your setting should be a rich tapestry of details woven into your story.
These tips will help you create alluring settings your readers will love.
Tip #1 Setting the Stage
Setting the stage for your characters to live and interact on is crucial to your readers understanding of your plot. Keep in mind, your setting should enrich both your plot and your characters.
Create a folder on your storyboard to keep a list of details which will help anchor your setting to the specific time and place of your story. For more details about storyboards see: Creative Writing Storyboard, How to Quickly Start Your Own.
Tip #2 Let Your World Building Unfold
Allow your setting to evolve as your reader moves deeper into your fictional world. Bring your readers along on the same journey as your characters. Actively work at keeping your reader engaged.
Add depth and intimacy to your character’s environment as your story unfolds. This expansive approach to world building helps prevent an unchanging and ultimately boring setting.
It is tempting to throw large chunks of information at your readers. After all, you have done a lot of research. You know the history of the time and the details of the place.
Remember, readers don’t need all that information. Your setting should progress just like your characters. Leave some uncertainty in your setting. Preserve some mystery in your world building. Let your readers discover your setting piece by piece.
You want your reader to keep turning pages, anxious to learn more about this universe you’ve created.
Save a Little Mystery for the next Chapter
John and I have created a workbook that may help you to create an exciting fantasy world. We created the workbook for us. We are sharing it now with you.
Tip #3 Establish Time
Time is a vital component of world building.
For your reader to understand your story you must quickly give them a sense of the era in which your story is set. The best way to establish the time is by using items your characters interact with. Things like vehicles, clothes, technology, or weapons will “show” your readers the time of your story.
If your story spans months, years, or even decades, think about how that might impact your setting. What physical changes would happen. Time can also change cultures, governments, and prevailing attitudes.
That’s not the only thing about time. As the writer you can manipulate time to create a sense of urgency. The task must be completed. The serial killer must be found.
One purpose of your setting is to establish time.
Tip #4 Real World Locations
If you are choosing a real-world location. Take the time to get to know the place. You must still write it and that is not always easy. If you’re familiar with the place and it is a real location, you are dealing more with fact than with fiction.
Your readers may also be familiar with this setting so you must be accurate. Of course, many writers take liberties when describing real places. You should know the history, climate, and landmarks of the place.
I live in Richmond Virginia. This area is full of history, from the first English settlement at Jamestown, to the capital of the Confederacy. If I planned to write historical fiction, I would visit the historical plantations and museums in the area.
Search for quirky little details that would make your setting come alive.
Strive to create a world with personality
Tip #5 Build a Fantasy World
World building is more than just setting. World building covers everything and anything inside that world. Creating an interesting and engaging fantasy world will take time and effort. Think about how your fantasy world is different from your own.
What is interesting about your setting?
Weave a web of details so complete, your reader feels there is no way you could have made this place up. It must really exist, somewhere. A made-up setting can be fun. You have the freedom to make up the world anyway you want. No one can refute you. It is your world.
Consider these things in your fantasy world
- Building materials
- Customs and traditions
All of these will have an impact on the people in your story. If you are creating a fantasy world you must take the time to build a complete society.
For more about world building check out: World building on Now Novel
You must know the rules of the world you create for your characters. However, you don’t need to spell out everything to your reader.
Let your readers figure some things for themselves, It will make them feel more a part of your story.
Tip # 6 World Building and Plot
Another important point. Does your setting actively contribute to your plot?
Every environment produces certain advantages and certain limitations. Every culture has a specific code of conduct and ideologies for its inhabitants. The time and place you choose for your setting will contribute to the possibilities and restrictions of what your characters can achieve.
Do your characters accept the political system and traditions of their society? Does your hero challenge the society in which he lives? How does that affect the plot?
The plot comes first.
Your setting supports your story. Give your audience only the world building elements they need to move your story forward. Be sure to make your story about what’s happening in your world. Not about describing what’s in this made-up world.
Don’t smother your reader with chunks of details about your setting
Tip # 7 Conflict and Mystery
Let your world have conflict. Every writer knows their story needs conflict. Can you think of ways your setting can contribute to that conflict?
Just think, has there ever been a world without conflict? Every country, every culture, has some sort of disharmony. If you want to build a realistic, believable world, it needs conflict.
- Domineering Governments
- Economic upheavals
- Religious Disagreements
- Political Intrigue
- Natural Disasters
Conflict is good for your story, your characters and your setting. Everything is connected.
Tip #8 Define Your Characters While World Building
You choose when and where your characters, live, work, and play. Your setting must be built through what your characters do and say.
The small details matter.
- What do they drink at dinner?
- How do they greet each other?
- What are marital customs?
- How do they treat animals?
- How do they treat children?
The small interactions connect your characters to their world. You don’t want to bludgeon your readers with weighty narrative. Ask yourself is there a detail I can add that will enhance my story or tell the reader something about my character?
We have created a workbook to help you create your world. Just fill in the blanks to make your world come to life.
Tip #9 Build your World One Scene at a Time
Great world building should quickly establish the tone of each scene, using rich details that evoke the readers senses.
Establishing an atmosphere for each scene is important. It signals the reader how they should read the unfolding action.
Changing the mood of different scenes creates contrast which will help keep your reader’s interest.
Change heightens the sense of drama
Here are some ideas:
A cheerful mood might be accomplished with:
- The sun shining
- A clear sky
- The sound of children laughing
- The smell of coffee in the morning
Here are ways you can set a somber mood
- A thunderstorm
- Dark skies,
- The rumble of thunder,
- The smell of smoke,
- The sound of an alarm,
- The taste of vomit.
Choose relevant details for each scene. The winds can be a pleasant breeze or a raging hurricane. The sun can be pleasantly warm or sweltering with no breeze for relief. The clouds can be lovely or dark with a pending storm.
Night can be calm with a lovely yellow full moon. Night can also be a frightening darkness bringing despair.
It will be your choice of words that make a difference.
Tip # 10 Filter Your Setting Through Your Character’s Eyes
Creating the setting for a scene requires a different skill then world building for the entire novel. Now you must make individual elements of your world come alive.
You want to paint a colorful picture for your audience, using specific details. You want to carry your reader into the moment. You accomplish this by using your point of view character’s perspective. You want your readers to experience the things your character experiences.
Close your eyes. Imagine what your character sees. Ask yourself; what would my character notice in this scene? Is there a detail I can add that will enhance my story or tell the reader something about my character?
Everything about the scene must be consistent with the time and place you have created, and the novel as a whole.
Now is the time to add those little details which will pull your audience into the action of your story
Tip #11 Show Your Setting Using Your Character’s Senses
Your character’s perceptions (and your readers’) will be influenced by all your character’s senses.
This tip is especially useful when editing your stories. In each scene consider what sensory descriptions can be added.
See our Checklist for creating an interactive setting. This checklist will help you remember things you should have in your setting.
Put yourself in your character’s place. What do they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch? How can you add those details?
Adding sensory details is part of the fun of editing. It is also an intriguing challenge.
Smells especially evoke memories. Different aromas trigger specific feeling
The pungent smell of fresh mowed grass
The stench of a rotting corpse is nauseating
The aroma of fresh baked bread
Touch and textures arouse an emotional response
- This silkiness of a bunny’s fur
- The roughness of rocks on bare feet
- A soft breeze on her face
- Rain pelting his cheeks
Sounds can affect your characters in many ways
- The whistle of a falling bomb is frightening
- The patient clicking of a clock may be annoying
- The chirping of a bird is delightful
- The throbbing beat of a drum makes Jane want to dance
John and I think Taste is the most Difficult element to incorporate into our writing.
Because of that we made a list of words and phrases to incorporate taste into our scenes. Find out more at: 493 Ways to Describe Taste or downloads our list here.
- The juices dripped from the corners of Julie’s mouth as she bit into the bright red apple.
- His mouth burned from the fiery habanero peppers.
- “Umm” she said as she popped the chocolate into her mouth.
Tip # 12 Show Your Setting Through Your Character’s Feelings
Every scene presents you with the opportunity to demonstrate your character’s emotional responses to the setting.
Allow your audience to feel your setting from your character’s point of view. Let those feelings flow through you and into your words.
- How does your setting affect your character’s mood?
- Do they hear the song of a lark or the caw of crows?
- Do they touch the delicate pedals of a pink rose or are they pricked by the thorns?
- Are they comforted by gospel music or jolted by rap or heavy metal?
- Does your character love or hate the place they are in?
How your character feels about the place you create, can have a profound effect on your audience.
Tip #13 To Make Your Fictional World Feel Real, Be Specific
Specific details lend credibility to your setting. Explicit details help your readers see a more vivid picture.
Writing a color filled setting takes practice. If you don’t have this skill yet. Dig in and develop it. Rich details make your setting more captivating.
One trick to being more specific is to include colors.
Instead of a tree
- Yellow and green flowers of the sycamore.
- Hills silver with olive trees
Instead of just a horse
- A big black stallion flew over the hedge.
- The chestnut mare romped in the meadow.
Instead of bird
- The cardinal looked like a red flame in the pear tree.
- Silver notes of the Wood thrush.
Tip # 14 Use Dialog to Explain Your Setting
Include interesting details about your setting in dialog. To develop a believable setting, you must either research the details, or make them up.
Use dialog to give important information about your setting
- The history
- The geography
- Points of interest
- What your characters think about the location
The words people use have changed throughout history. A 17th century character would not say “that’s cool.” Research the way people spoke and the words they used in the time and place of your story.
A fun Site to learn more about American dialects and historical use of language.
Tip # 15 Love the World You Create
One last point. Build a world you love. A culture which fascinates you. If your setting does not appeal to you, it will not appeal to your reader.
Your ultimate goal is to craft a vivid and believable world for your characters to move around in.
World building can be magical. You can use a mix of ideas to create something uniquely yours.
Let’s wrap it up
You want to create a setting so well integrated into the story and so detailed your reader feels as though they are there. You don’t want your reader to forget where they are.
You must know your setting intimately. The better you know your setting the richer your stories and your writing will be. Many facets of your world building may not even make it into your story. But you need to know what they are.
Whether you’re creating an original world or using a real-world setting, you want to immerse your readers so well into that world that they feel like an insider.
Use your imagination to transport your readers to the unique time and place, of your setting. Discover fascinating ways to integrate your world building into your story.
A wonderful setting can have a great influence on the people who inhabit your story, it can even become a character itself.
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