One of the most satisfying parts of writing a novel is immersing yourself in another, complete world. Even if it’s this world, the book version of it is chosen and particular, and the best scenes invite us into that world by tapping into all five senses: the clunk of the heat coming on, the warm taste of butter and cinnamon in a bite of French toast, and the smell of wet snow on a woolen mitten can all make the written world super vivid. Unfamiliar worlds need even more careful renderings.
Yet setting details are not enough to build a world. True world building also involves the laws and social rules of the characters. The writer has to create consistency, whether the local expectations relate to speeding, witchcraft, or the behavior of a stepfather when he’s had too much to drink.
Here are five key things to consider:
1. The physical setting has to be fully realized with vivid sensory details, whether it’s a familiar world or a fantastic one. Light sources, food prep, use of tools, and transportation can all be worth exploring.
2. The setting’s environment should be meaningful, and it’s easier to write a novel where that environment is hostile to some degree. Rain storms, an in-law’s home, Mars, and a police station have very different vibes.
3. The rules of society need to be clear, both on a large scale, (as with religion, medical systems, or dystopias), and on a small scale when they constrain relationships between key characters. For instance, in my novel Prized, it is illegal for unmarried people to kiss, which naturally leads to problems.
4. Let characters mess with the rules. World building needs to be tied to the plot. In other words, the tension between characters and the setting needs to increase because of something the characters do or because the setting is inherently unjust or dangerous. Once someone messes with the rules, he or she will face consequences, and that’s good.
5. Plan to revise. World building isn’t static. Writers can start with a system that seems promising, but just as we revise to develop characters more deeply and work out kinks in the plot, the world system will need tweaking, too.