When I think of books I’ve loved—not just enjoyed, but absolutely adored—they all have immersive worlds. Fantasy worlds like those in THE BONE SEASON, the GRISHA trilogy and Stephen King’s DARK TOWER series come to mind, but so do historical settings like eighteenth-century Scotland in OUTLANDER, Nazi-occupied France in CODE NAME VERITY, and 1920s New York in THE DIVINERS. And when you really think about it, unforgettable contemporary novels have carefully-built worlds too: the boarding school in LOOKING FOR ALASKA, the Bronx in MORE HAPPY THAN NOT…
The point is, any great book needs world-building! That’s what today’s blog post is all about: how to build a world that’s fun, immersive, and memorable, while still being relatable to the reader.
Yes, when building a world you want to have the big picture in mind. The word “world” conjures up grand-scale elements like planets, continents, governments and wars. As the writer, you should absolutely know that big backstory (at least by the time you’re finished revising). You might even have it completely written out in your notes.
When you’re conveying that amazing world to your reader, serve it up in small increments. An immersive world develops slowly, layer by layer—both breathing life into the plot and moving the story forward.
Ever read a book that has a giant backstory in the very first chapter, and you feel like the writer is hitting you over the head? Hey, here’s this cool world that I built, here’s how it all works so pay attention! Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule; we can all name a good book or two that starts with a backstory (FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING anyone?). But most of the time, an early info-dump is just not that interesting. Why? Because we're missing the tension.
In the early pages of your manuscript, focus on establishing your main character and her internal and external conflicts. Seed your world-building details as you go, but keep your character and her story center stage. Once the reader is invested in your character(s) and the plot has started unfolding (cue inciting incident!), you can work in some longer backstory sections to fill in the contours of your world. Often you’ll see this in the second chapter. But it can happen much later, too. Sometimes it’s more exciting to keep the reader guessing, especially paired with a really fast-paced plot.
So a world is built by layering details—but which details? It can be anything that impacts your character’s life in that scene. Sensory details, clothing, slang, technology, and social customs; all of these details will give us a vivid picture of this time and place. They're also a lot of fun, both for a writer to dream up or discover, and for the reader to interpret.
But the details you choose should do more than just entertain. Make those small details pull their weight! Use small clues to reveal the larger backstory of your world, i.e. the political situation, religion, prevailing ideology, and history. You can (and should) also use those world-building details to increase the tension in your scenes and the stakes for your characters. Always ask yourself: does this world-building element impact the plot? Does it create obstacles for my characters? Does it serve my themes?
Imagine your character in the scene; what does he see? Hear? Smell? Use those sensory elements to your advantage by making them have relevance to the world you’re building. For example, if you’re writing about a dystopian world where violent gangs rule the streets, your character might see ruined buildings, hear shouts and running footsteps. His reaction (hiding quickly until they're gone, then resuming his day like this happens all the time) will tell the reader a lot about the world he lives in—without spelling it all out up front.
Does every single detail of your world need to be unique? No. Your genre will determine some of the basic framework. It’s ok to rely on some conventions—otherwise your reader might get completely lost. For example, if you're writing a science fiction scene about a battle in space, you can use some common terms to describe parts of the ships (wing, hull, cockpit, shields) and the players (generals, soldiers, medics, officers). But be sure to work in some key, unique details to make your world stand out from others in the genre. In the sci-fi example, it could be some special weapon, the colorful logos on the sides of the ships, or the piloting interface inside the ship. It’s your overall take that needs to be original, not each and every piece.
Some of you may be objecting to that advice. Readers want worlds they’ve never seen before! They want a science-fiction or fantasy world that takes real work to create—and to figure out! For some readers, that’s absolutely true. They want so much world-building that it's a mysterious puzzle to solve. But for another reader, it's just confusing. How many, or how few, world-building details to include depends a lot on the expectations of that genre’s readers. Know your genre. Read, read, and read some more!
Work Those Words
One of my favorite world-building techniques is using slang. It could be slang from a real historical period (like the flapper-speak in that abso-tive-ly nifty read THE DIVINERS), or wholly invented slang that evokes a futuristic world (words like “bubblehead,” “icy" and “littlies” in the UGLIES series). Also incredibly useful are foreign language, technical terms, jargon, brand names, or significant historical events (i.e. capitalized nouns like the Depression or the Great War). All these types of specialized language can surprise the reader and make her feel like she’s entered a different world. Plus, it really develops the voice of your character.
But I have to take a step back, and speak as a reader here. Too much jargon and slang can get a little bit . . . annoying.
The first few times a slang term comes up, it’s fun. Especially if I don’t know quite what it means. But the twentieth time it comes up in the same chapter? I start rolling my eyes. Too much slang can be especially distracting when the action heats up. I understand the attraction, writers. I do. I was having so much fun making up Libra Earth slang for THE CORRIDOR that I added waaay too much. Thankfully my wise editors pulled me back!
Don't Forget What Matters Most
At a certain point, all world-building needs to step aside and make way for the plot and the characters. Even the very best world-building won’t make up for a lackluster story arc. But if you do it right, it will add tension to your story and keep those pages turning!