Three First Steps to Creating a Compelling Story World

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I’ve been invited to write a regular column for a Facebook-based writing group, The Dragon Writers. Of course, I accepted, and I will be sharing the column here on my blog as well, so that you can enjoy it too.

What do I want to do with this column? I want to help you understand the importance of good world building in any genre (that’s right, it’s not just for epic fantasy. Thrillers need great world building too). I want to give you some tools you can use to create interesting, coherent worlds for your stories to unfold in. I want to help you avoid problems like World Builder’s Disease, and I want to give you strategies for weaving your beautiful world into your stories in ways that are neither intrusive, nor boring for your readers.

We’ll have some fun along the way too. I’ll share some of my favorite map making tips (I do love making maps), and I really hope that you stick with me all along the way.

In today’s column, I’m going to break down world building into the three most important elements for me. Buckle up, here we go.

The world at large.

This is your map, basically. The whole world. All the places where your story takes place, and some that don’t feature directly in your tale. I like to have an outline of the furthest reaches, and add more detail as I get closer and closer to where the story actually takes place.

If you’re writing an epic fantasy novel, you may need to plan out a continent, or more than one. If you’re writing a thriller in your home town, you’ll need a simpler map, something that outlines the major areas of interest. In my novel, Strong Medicine, I used Johannesburg, Edenvale, and Midrand. Three places I’m intimately familiar with.

Specific Areas of Interest

You can’t have a scene in every single area in your world – well, you could try but I bet it will get messy – so you need to decide on the areas you most want to explore in your novel. Again, in Strong Medicine, I knew I’d need my protagonists home (a small flat which she shares with her extended family), the place her daughter is being held captive, and a few interesting sets for important scenes throughout the novel (like a muthi market in downtown Johannesburg).

Plan these out in more detail, get out a pencil and paper and actually plot them out if you have to. This will eliminate conflicting descriptions if you visit the place more than once, and will help you visualise the area more clearly – making it easier to plan your character’s movements through the space.

Specific Sensory Details

This is my favorite element by far. I love finding the one sensory detail that cements a place in my reader’s mind.

When Erin, the protagonist in Strong Medicine, goes to the the field that her daughter was abducted from, I describe the grasses in such a way as to set the scene, without giving away too much of her personal feelings:

Golden grasses, reaching almost up to my hips, nodded in the warm winter sun. Dust tickled my nose and the sounds of crickets and cars buzzed in my ears.”

Later, I show her fear and hesitation by altering the description and filtering it through her experience more:

The spiky seed heads of the tall grass caught at my pants, a thousand plaintive fingers trying to hold me back. Brittle stalks crunched beneath my shoes as I took tentative steps forward.”

If you have a clear image of your story’s world in your head, you can find moments like these to draw your reader deeply into the character’s mindset, simply with a sensory detail or two.

Well, I think we’re off to a good start here, and I hope you’ll stick with me through this exciting, creative journey.

What’s your favorite part of worldbuilding for your stories? Are there any aspects you don’t enjoy? Please leave a comment and we will get the conversation flowing.

Happy worldbuilding!

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