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World-building: More Than Just a Setting

Updated: Jun 13

Before we start on the first article of the year, I'd like to wish you all a belated happy New Year. Although 2021 looks set to be as chaotic as 2020 while society navigates through the pain and confusion of the last twelve months and the ongoing crisis and tries to find a way to move forward, at least the initial shock of the situation has passed. I'd like to think we are all psychologically a little more prepared for the challenges that face us this year and that we shall be more resilient as a result. I also truly believe that writing creates a haven for the mind, like a little bubble encapsulating us in a place outside of time and normality. It helps us to keep hold of our sanity.

The old saying that truth is stranger than fiction has had quite a renaissance recently. And the phrase you couldn't make it up! Don't be put off. You can still make up anything you want to tell a story, but the first place to start is to imagine where that story will take place. And visiting where it takes place is as good as taking a holiday or a night out under current conditions, let's face it.

But, have you ever wondered what the difference is between world building and setting? Possibly assumed that, surely, they are the same?

Well, yes. And no.

An aspect I teach as part of my class, How to Build Character from Setting, is that setting is more than just a place. It's not just the landscape, but the period and people, too. Rather like a studio or stage setting, it incorporates props and costumes to bring this backdrop alive.

The setting is about the sounds, smells, and atmosphere, tangible details to help the reader see, hear and touch. So, how does world building differ?

Whereas a setting provides the physical environment for the scene, world building adds the abstract. It encompasses the setting while also reaching way beyond into the more immaterial dimensions of your fictional world. It provides the environment for ideas and beliefs. It comprises of the political and social structures hovering around the periphery of the scene's setting, the magic or science of its day, the wider cultural attitudes and religions. The institutes. The trends and fashions that respond to societal circumstances. It sets out the perimeters of what's possible in this fiction and what is not.

Too little world building can result in the reader wondering too many questions - how was that possible? What do all these strange names mean? How does this magic system work and how did the protagonist come to having this power (ditto on science)? From where did this knowledge originate? What are the laws of the land or rules of the game, and how do they apply in this situation? What does this world look like outside of this character's narrow tunnel of vision? How does it think?

On the flip side, world building can become such a fascination to the writer that it overtakes everything else. The narrative becomes so saturated with details and backstory, clever scientific knick-knacks or theories, technobabble, intricate magical or societal laws, different nations or tribes, war strategies or interplanetary travel, that it drowns out the plot and characters and the writing becomes more about the place than any actual story.

Now, we all know of hit series of books and TV where the worlds become as big, if not bigger, than the characters in the story. Star Trek and Harry Potter are the first that spring to my mind. Game of Thrones opened the gates to Westeros and beyond. Martin has already written a complete history on the Targaryens and the events that led to their arrival there five-hundred years previously, which, I believe forms the basis of the next TV series (let's hope that means a proper ending this time). So, detailed world building can, of course, pay off and those worlds become entities in their own right. People are just as fascinated by them as the plights of the characters.

The common denominator with the two book-series examples, and what makes them ripe for television and film, is that they have equally strong characters and plots. The world does not smother the story.

When it comes to writing short fiction, cramming intricate worlds into a small canvas without overloading the narrative with exposition, while simultaneously creating a well-rounded experience for the reader takes some practice. But it is good practice -- for novel-writing, too.

So, how do we ensure our world building is balanced enough without over or under-doing it?

The key is specific, contextual details.

Attention to setting is the first item on the checklist. Are there enough sensory details? What do the 'walls' of the world look like? Where are your characters standing, or what are they doing, when they interact? For example, telling the reader they are standing outside when another character asks them a question isn't enough if you don't also add where they are standing. Outside the lab? On the grass in a park? At home by the kitchen window? Just one short phrase or a word can make all the difference to what the reader imagines, so pay attention to the small yet significant. You'd be surprised how many stories start out like this, the characters go off and the narrative focuses on what they do and say, but the reader is left flummoxed as to where they are, and what surrounds them.

Be careful when incorporating scientific or magical systems. It can pay off to write in detail some side notes on how the rules work, so you can iron out any inconsistencies. Just one magic rule contradicting a previous rule can end up carrying the writer down a rabbit hole of explanations as to how the two can co-exist until they are so confused, they don’t know their arse from their elbow. Have you heard of writer’s vertigo? Well, if it exists, that’s what it is.

Simultaneously, don't scrimp on explaining how certain aspects of magic work or where it originates from so that it sounds feasible and an integral part of the story. In particular, if your story is set in the contemporary world and then a sudden magical aspect is introduced. Give it some set-up of some sort. Does the MC uniquely hold this power or are there others like them? Who knows they have this power? When has it demonstrated itself in their past? More importantly: Why them? What makes them special? Questions like this crop up all the time in slush.

Religious practices and rituals also need a good think-through. What are the beliefs, why are they important and how do they affect the characters? How do they influence plot events, if it's central to the story or characters' motivations?

We get stories in slush that are well-written with a confident voice and a clean draft -- the types of submissions that would make it up to the next round for consideration. The types that are framed within a tight lens, using Showing as the predominant technique. This usually works best for flash pieces, so there is a lot of merit going for these types of stories. But that doesn't mean they don't have their issues, and often that issue could be a lack of world building. Maybe having the lens a little too tight.

One in particular that I recall was set in a smog-filled city and the people worked in a mill, but other than those two details, there were no indicators of when or where the story took place -- was it Victorian London, a dystopian future Earth or maybe an entirely different planet/world altogether? This is particularly relevant if the story contains speculative elements. Were it Victorian times, the rich tapestry of the British Empire - at its height during that period - didn't feature at all. Doesn't have to be heavy-handed, but some indication of the fashion of the era or a mention of a relevant event or opinion that characterised the time would have quickly resolved that question. Same of a future Earth or a far-flung otherworld. Just a glimpse into the sphere beyond the central premise and characters is sometimes all that's required and is easily remedied with an author in edits.

Now, if it's just a few line edits in line with what's already been mentioned, then an editor will usually work with the author to address these. If there are too many questions, however, arising from a lack of attention to world building that affects the reader's ability to navigate the story logic, then that's a much bigger problem.

In this instance, we come to more complex issues, such as consequence and opportunity. Let's say we have a dystopian future world where the people have lost all hope. Be sure to let us know what they lost hope over and who's responsible for that if it is an important feature of the thematics in the story. Also, a hint of a possibility of what needs to happen in order to rekindle it. What might be the consequences in the larger picture, the ramifications to society? Without hope, there is no possibility of change, no motivation. And here we come to the opportunity part, because opportunities are often present but not recognised by all. Your central character is going to be the one who recognises it above all others, but to what end? How will it benefit them and the rest of the world? How will it make the world, or their corner of the world, a better place?

Same goes for the many, many ancient sacrificial ritual submissions I have read over the years. This is quite a good one to flag because, to my memory, at least, this most often depicts the victim, shows the process of the ritual in detail (so, the setting aspect is sound) but doesn't always convey effectively why all this needs to take place, to what end? Who benefits and how? How far does this belief stretch? Just this small town/village or across the whole country, the world, the universe? What would happen, or what is perceived will happen, if this sacrifice doesn't occur? To name but a few often unanswered elements.

These specific areas won't necessarily be relative to the story you are writing right now, but I encourage you to think a little outside the sphere of your main character's mindset and contemplate what happens outside their personal bubble before deciding if it provides relevance and context to your overall story.

As odd as it may sound, it is a factor in your world building. And world building helps contextualise why and how the things that occur in your story are happening. With short fiction, you have to pick the strongest and most specific details to create the same dimensions as a full-blown novel. In longer stories, the threads of ramification span much further because the horizons of your story world are so much wider.

I've read so many submission over the years where the narrative is so tightly focused on the central character that there's not even a peak of daylight between the cracks to even guess what world exists beyond that micro-environment. I've critiqued enough novels-in-progress to know that this creates too much of an insular reading experience. Readers need glimpses of what lies beyond, at the very least.

The abstract ideas that soak into the human psyche are a part of world building. Where magical powers come from and how they work is all a part of world building. Politics, culture, language, law, educational and scientific institutions, social mores and morales are all part of world building. Criminal activity, too. What society hopes to achieve or break away from as a people is part of world building.

Which ones are pertinent to contextualise your story and have you applied them?

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