Critique Group

In the Beginning…

In L.L. McKinney, Leatrice McKinney on May 15, 2013 at 11:45 am

God created the heavens and the earth. World building, done.

If only it was that easy for writers. While we may be the ‘almighty’ of our personal little universes, often times we overlook one of the simplest elements, that is simultaneously one of the most crucial, of storytelling: setting.

Last week, the gals of Novel Clique shared possible settings that intimidated or terrified us. For whatever reasons, we are reluctant–at the very least–to build a world there. And why wouldn’t we be? We have to sprinkle just the right balance of details throughout our stories to make the setting come alive, but not be overbearing. It’s one of those ‘just right’ combinations that drives writers crazy. Nevertheless, to tell any story, and tell it well, we have to put on our hard hats and get to it.

One of the stigmas of world building is that is only applies to Fantasy, i.e. Middle Earth or Narnia. I have no idea where that came from, but I’ve heard it on more than one occasion. As someone who writes high fantasy and urban fantasy, as well as a sprinkle of contemporary, I will be glad to shout from the hills that this is not true. While I have a book set in a fictional world I created, I also have a story set in Kansas City, and another in Chicago. Oddly, the ones set in the ‘real’ world are harder in my opinion, even though the world itself has already physically been built. It should be simple, right? Nn, I wish.

My fake world is mine. There, the trees can be purple, the grass is pink and my clouds are made of cotton candy. Paints a pretty vivid picture, right? Now, if I described a concrete jungle (cliche, I know) composed of towers of glass and steel, with vehicular beasts roaring as they tear along the paved streets, I’ve described ever major city in the WORLD. Not so vivid. They key is to sprinkle in unique qualities. Take everything I said, concrete jungle, towers of steal, loud cars, blah blah, now throw in how the Gateway Arch pressed against the backdrop of the city, tall as any of the surrounding buildings, looming over the Mississippi River. The world has now narrowed to the United States, and even further to St. Louis. Sprinkle more details about the markets, the arena and a few quaint touches on suburbs and such and voila! One world, fresh out of the oven.

Now, before proceeding, I will say this. I am, by no means, a world building expert. Full disclosure, I think I personally suck at it, but I’m working on that. The strange thing is I can recognize the elements of if, or the lack thereof, in other people’s work. It’s kinda like how I can write kick-ass blurbs, queries and synopses for every manuscript under the sun but my own. I know, it blows, but I’ve accepted this. Here are some of the basics I look for in books I read as well as manuscripts I critique. (And I will continuously strive to place them in what I write)

These must be present in every scene:

  • The five senses. If for some reason you cannot manage all five (short of having your characters blindfolded or struck deaf), a minimum of three can be accepted. And in dealing with sight and smell, people don’t count. Talking about how someone looks or smells does nothing to build the world. It’s great for bringing a reader into the moment, but doesn’t help root them in the setting.
  • Something the character physically interacts with that isn’t another characters (this takes care of your touch). And I’m not talking something on their person like a necklace or a watch, I mean doors, furniture, decorations. Have them pick up a photo to look at it, poke at a plant to see if it’s real, grip the arms of the chair/couch they’re sitting on. Action is a good way to avoid Talking Head Syndrome.
  • If this scene is going to come up again, something unique about the setting. Setting can be its own character, and just like you fasten to one unique attribute of a character that is going to show up repeatedly, you can do the same with the setting. A weird painting, a funky colored carpet, a hole in the wall, something that makes the reader go “I remember this!” when they see it again.

These should be present once every three scenes:

  • Something unique about the overall setting that sets it apart from the rest of the world. I’m not talking about the room the character is in, or even the building, I mean the city, the town, the village, the country, the TIMEscape. The Eiffel Tower if you’re in Paris, the mountains if you’re in Colorado, the beach on the coast, chariots and legionaries in ancient Rome, etc. That particular thing doesn’t have to continuously come up, but something similar. For instance, with me story set in Chicago, I mention the Miracle Mile in one area, and Planetarium in the other. My character might not go to or see either of those things, but having them come up is another reminder that we’re in Chi-town and not New York.
  • A reference to the weather, and not just it’s raining or it’s sunny. I’m talking temperature, overcast, droughts, monsoons, hurricanes! It helps root the reader in the time of year. If your story takes place during the summer versus the winter, the weather will be drastically different depending on your setting. Winters in Florida are NOT winters in Montana, you probably won’t get hurricanes in Kansas, and a blizzard in Texas would be weird.

If you build your own world, these must be referenced a minimum of five times throughout the novel: (And this is something that will help make the fantastically fake world real by drawing parallels to our own world)

  • Government. If it’s a dictatorship, a monarchy, a democracy or anarchy, some form of government–or lack thereof–is going to affect the world the characters live in. Are they rebelling against a tyrant, are they loyal to the king, are they struggling day-by-day in a cruel dog-eat-dog society? This will also influence what the physical world looks like, are their posters and pictures of the dictator everywhere, are the buildings crumbling from ongoing war between factions, is there a seething hate between rival clans, etc.
  • Currency. Characters are going to need to procure things, via money, traded favors or bartering. Food needs to be provided, and if the world isn’t ours we can’t just assume that when the character had lunch they went into this little Italian place, ordered, paid and left.
  • Language. Are their aliens or elves in your made up world? Do they speak English or Klingon? Back in the 1600s, the antagonist is not going to say “Dude, that sucks”. In the future, are their new words with old meanings? There are more ways to use language than I have time, or space, to get into.

Well, that’s it, my take on world building, and what I look for when I’m reading. Again, I reiterate, these are my opinions and I am by no means the end all beat all on this particular subject. Still, who doesn’t want to be a god in their own personal realm? In the end, there is one ‘rule’ I’ve heard, and if you take nothing else from all this take this: Your world can be crafted as such that the story cannot be told anywhere else, and if you changed the setting, you’d get a completely different book.

Anything else absolutely necessary to make a fake world real, or make the real world fantastic? Chime in! 


  1. Thanks for this insightful post! World-building is definitely one of the best parts about writing; it is a daunting task, though. All of my current works take place in the “real” world without any elements of fantasy. In the future I hope to build a world of my own, controlling all the elements within. I think that’s how you really communicate your personal touch as a writer.

    I have a new writing blog that I created after self-publishing my first novel for the Kindle. Please check it out and share your writing experiences with me!

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