One of the most crucial parts of any story aside from characters and plot is world-building. Now, this differs greatly depending on what you’re writing. Naturally, you’re going to handle world-building in a very different fashion if you’re writing historical fiction versus fantasy. I’m going to address both methods since the biggest different only depends on whether your work is general versus speculative fiction.
The best tip I can give that is true regardless of genre is that, in order to write convincing world-building, you need to know every detail about the world you’re writing about. The reader doesn’t need to know all this stuff; most of the intricacies of the world aren’t in the books anyway because they’re not necessary to the story half of the time. But it’s important that YOU the author know it because it allows you to create more convincingly.
World-building isn’t usually a big part of most general fiction stories. Why? Because instead of trying to wow your audience with expansive landscapes, races of creatures, unusual nature, and more, you’re trying to tell a story about (most of the time) ordinary people in ordinary places doing ordinary things. Now, the extraordinary can come into play in general fiction, but it’s not to the same extent as speculative fiction. (More on that later).
Most romance/mystery/literary fiction doesn’t do much with world-building, most of the time because the author expects the audience to already be familiar with the time setting and culture in the story. While references to world-building aspects such as location, weather, botany, and cultural practices are made throughout the story, it’s only there to deepen the colors already being woven in the story’s tapestry. It’s not as in-depth as other genres.
Historical fiction and other fiction genres involving heavy amounts of world-building for the audience’s sake need more care. While you should be researching for any story when it concerns things you aren’t a natural expert on, you’ll be needing to do intense research for historical fiction. Why? Because historical fiction involves stories in the near to far distant past. In order to do justice to the time period you’re writing about, you need to research it. Get books, history books, etc. to do it; don’t rely on the internet alone because a good deal of it isn’t even truth but someone’s opinions.
For instance, my debut, Between Two Worlds, takes place in ancient Rome. When I was doing research for it, I learned a lot of details that never made it into the actual story. But, should I have had to explain about it, I could have done it. Plus, a lot of customs and history underlies each other in layer upon layer of tradition. I didn’t have to explain to my reader about all the historical detail behind the customs that became part of the story. But I had to know it because I had to figure out how to communicate the relevance of different customs to the reader without boring them or talking about something that would be above their heads. Know the material, yes, but also know how much is needed to be said and how much the reader can piece together on their own.
Now, how to actually execute the knowledge you’ve gained.
This goes to what I mentioned with introducing characters. It needs to fit the pacing and plot of your story (as I mentioned a few posts ago). Don’t just dump descriptions on us all the time. I know J.R.R. Tolkien did it frequently, and as much as I love his style, it got tiresome and sometimes I found myself skimming down the page just to get on with the story. There are times when it would help the narrative to pause and reveal the beauty (or controversially, ugly) of the world you’re talking about.
Again using the example of my debut. When I first described the Roman Forum in the story, it was seeing it through the main character’s eyes for the first time. She naturally paused, and this allowed for me to describe it in detail because the plot slowed to allow this space to take it all in. But that was only the big things. The actual details I waited to show until she saw them when the story moved on again. To describe everything in detail at that moment wouldn’t have been realistic because unless you have the chance to stand there that long, you’re not going to notice everything. So I showed the big things, the things that would make us as well as the character go “wow!” and then when the story moved on again and the character continued to look at her surroundings, I showed the finer details as part of pacing. Instead of a description paragraph, it was little things here and there.
Another powerful way to world-build on a smaller scale is to focus on the little things versus the big things. This is highly popular in modern historical fiction, but especially in literary fiction. This tactic focus on the small details and in drawing the reader’s attention to these little things, the bigger picture feels so much more vivid.
For example, say some character is walking the city streets at night in the rain. Most of us would talk about the traffic, the sky scrapers, the neon lights, the sounds and smells, the rain. But a more effective method to really bring the scene to life would to be focus on the micro instead of the macro. Talk about the rain trickling into the storm drains. Talk about how water droplets roll down the glass of the bus-waiting stations. Talk about the whooshing spray of water shooting up behind car tires. Talk about the way the stars are hidden behind rain clouds, how they wouldn’t be seen even if it wasn’t raining because the beauty of the night is blinded by the pollution of neon light.
Focusing on the small has such an impact on world-building and scene setting that it often cuts far closer than bombarding the reader with too much at once. Don’t rely on it solely in your world-building purposes, but it’s a good tool to have in your arsenal.
Everything I’ve already talked about still is just as important when writing speculative fiction, so don’t disregard what I just said simply because we’re focusing to a new section of fiction writing.
The different that separates world-building in speculative fiction is that instead of having to research everything, much of it you have to invent. This is honestly what makes it more of a challenge for me personally to write, because I’d prefer to rely on concrete past and facts instead of having to imagine everything else.
Again, you need to know all the details, especially since, if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, you have to invent everything from scratch. No one is going to know a thing about the world you’re writing, so you need to show them.
This is again where show vs. tell is crucial. (It’s the same in general fiction, but bringing it up here to further illustrate the point.) It can be a temptation to info-dump the reader, to be like, “Hey! Look at all this cool stuff I made up!” Because unless the reader is some nerd, they’re not going to care. They’re here for the whole story of which world-building is only a part. Show them this world, don’t just tell them. Don’t dump information about every race of creatures that exist in your story in the first chapter. Show them by having the main character(s) meet them throughout the story or learn about them. It will have far more meaning then.
In general fiction, you need to research. In speculative fiction, you need to invent. Having notebooks of ideas and important notes isn’t a bad idea, even if you’re not a plotter. It could help you prevent plot-holes and save time when editing.
I hope all of this is helpful and informative to you! As always, let me know if you have any questions below!!