World Building in a Novel

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons & karindalziel.

Time and place are part of setting, which, according to Donald Maass “many novelists seem to think of [setting] as something outside of their story.” He says many of us just want to deal with it as quick as we can and then be done. It’s true. While I’ve gotten better at setting within my own writing, I don’t necessarily like to  have to think it through and implement it. I’m guessing a number of us would prefer to think setting didn’t exist sometimes.

But, setting (time and place included) does exist. As Maass says, “Every story has a context. It’s there whether you put into words or not.” Right. So, why not just, excuse the expression, suck it up and write it?

When we write a novel (or any type of story), we’re creating an entirely new world. Many times we use snippets from the real world, but most of what we write is completely new to us. That’s the power of imagination, after all. The things we create in our writing live and breath and influence each other.

World Building

When I think of world building, I think of a 3D model of my novel world. I see it in puzzle pieces and as I work through the novel, that puzzle is slowly put together. What is world building, though? Maass defines it this way: “It is a disciplined method for creating a convincing alternate time and place.”

Science fiction and fantasy writers are considered the best when it comes to world building and for obvious reasons. They’re constantly creating an entire world and even character races out of absolutely nothing. Donald Maass described it better when he said, “…building breakout time and place starts with the principle that the word of the novel is composed of much more than description of landscape and rooms. it is milieu, period, fashion. ideas, human outlook, historical moment, spiritual mood and more. It is capturing not only place but people in an environment; not only history but humans changing in their era. Description is the least of it. Bringing people alive in a place and time that are alive is the essence of it.”

Creating a setting/building a world that readers will remember after they’ve finish reading your work takes work. It’s more than characters, description, and dialogue. Scenes factor in. Which leads me to this…

[Do you have a formula for your own world building? How does your process work? Discuss it in the comments.]

  • Warren Fitzpatrick

    I wish I'd spent more time on world building. Being a fantasy story, it should've been a major consideration, unfortunately I neglected this important aspect of writing. One of the complaints has been that the story lacks a progression of time and feels rushed. The space and time it should take to cross said space isn't considered and therefore isn't realistic, taking the reader out of the world. This lack of planning on my part is a major consideration in the rewrite. Do I have a plan now? Yes. I am looking at scenes as a part of the greater whole, considering time in each scene and making certain that it is consistently addressed. I have a timeline of how long the story takes (in the world) and will work with changing seasons and other simple "cheats". Will it work? We'll find out when I'm finished!

    • Kerri

      While I'm not writing sci-fi or fantasy, world building is still very much a part of what I am writing--a "normal" world bombarded with chaos. In revisions, I always find things to improve on. It's an interesting process, all things considered. Good luck with your story!

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