WRITERS WORKSHOP – Worldbuilding

aka, How to be a really, really good liar.

 photo Worldbuilding - 3 basic elements_zpsgca4balv.jpg


    1. What it is:

      1. Literally, you’re creating the world in which your story takes place. Even if it’s a world similar to ours, or you think of your story taking place in our world, you still have to create a world on paper. You have to establish not just the infrastructure but the boundaries.
      2. The most fundamental foundation for a “world” consists of three aspects of *functioning*:
        1. Social
        2. Economical
        3. Political
    2. Just a few examples of things to consider to build and vivify your fictional world:
      1.  Social:
        1. Family units (or non-units): How large is a home household/neighborhood/community?
        2. How are pairs formed: Is it purely heterosexual, purely homosexual, a mix, or pan-sexual? (This affects language, like pronouns, profanity, what can/can’t be said, attitudes for or against people who say certain things, etc.)
        3. What do people value in each other?
        4. What do people value in themselves?
        5. How do they have fun? What are some activities done outside of work/school?
      2. Economical:
        1. How are natural resources divided? Who divides them? (In the workshop, I used the example of residential land as a highly disputed and coveted natural resources in the Bay Area, where, within just a few decades, rent for a 2-bedroom apartment has risen from $700 to $4000/month.)
        2. How are things bought and sold? What do they use for money? (I used the example of some WIPs using gold in Fantasy stories, without fleshing out the logistics of how heavy and impractical it would be. Also: consider logistics of electronic money, bitcoins, security and vulnerabilities using non-tangible money.)
        3. Is there a huge disparity between the ultra-rich and ultra-poor?
        4. Socio-Economical: Can people marry someone richer/poorer than they are, and is this affected by the sex/gender/other factors? Like, it might be okay for a woman to marry beneath her, but not for a man?
      3. Political:
        1. How does the geography affect boundaries and politics?
        2. Who makes the laws, and who enforces them?
        3. What is considered a crime?
        4. What are some basic laws that are different from what the reader might be familiar with? For example, does having or using a certain magic/technology/ability grant someone automatic political position?
      4. Combinations of the three:
        1. How do people worship? Do they believe in a God or multiple Gods? (This also has a big impact on language and profanity (goddamned/godsdamned.))
        2. How do they deal with superstitions? How do the different faiths get along?
        3. What are some jobs?
        4. How do people get educated?

 photo Worldbuilding - Spontaneously unfolding_zpsogdnradc.jpg

  • How to do it:

      1. Worldbuilding as a verb. The truth is, you, the writer, must have a solid grasp of the world your characters are operating in. You can be lazy about it and do most of the building on the fly, but this could mean twice the work later on, when you have to go back and fill things in or fix things (rules of magic, rules of voting, laws of marriage or social graces of courtship) in order for something to make sense later on.
      2. The important thing is, the reader has to feel like everything is spontaneously unfolding before his or her eyes.

 photo Worldbuilding - Action and Dialogue_zpsuwfdtwdi.jpg

  • Let’s get into the specifics. More specifically, using specific details.
    1. Unless your story is about a character exploring a world, rather than changing it, you’ll want to keep the focus on action and dialogue to keep moving the plot forward and keep ratcheting the tension towards the climax.
    2. Think of the action and dialogue as beams from your authorial flashlight, shining a light on certain aspects of the world the story takes place in.
    3. The details you highlight (with action and dialogue), can build the world in a subtle way, enhancing the believability of the story, or in a heavy-handed way, which can have the opposite effect.

 photo Worldbuilding - Specific and Unique_zpsywpyphsu.jpg

Specific and Unique Details:

  1. When you’re lying to someone, the easiest and fastest way to establish believability is to support your claims with details that are:
    1. Specific and unique to your world,
    2. Specific and unique to that particular scene, and
    3. Specific and unique to the point of view character – one person might say the murder weapon was a pen, while another person — a writer or graphic designer — might say the murder weapon was a fine point Sharpie or an archival quality 7 mm felt tip pen.
  2. Here’s an example I use on my blog:
      1. If you were to go out with some people and do some things you’d rather not reveal, then you went home and your significant other and the next morning, they ask where you were the night before.
      2. Compare the two answers:
        1. I was out with the guys. We went out for a bite to eat and lost track of time.
        2. I was out with Mike and Steve from work. Remember, you met them at the 4th of July barbecue? I took them to that new Thai restaurant we tried last weekend. I would’ve been home sooner but Steve just went through a bad breakup and got to talking.
      3. Using specific and unique details, I paint a specific and unique picture that’s a lot more believable than a vague one.
        1. I talk about Mike and Steve. Two guys.
        2. From work. That means I’m employed.
        3. 4th of July barbecue. That means I’m familiar with American customs, I celebrate them, as do my peers. Safe to infer from that that we might share many political beliefs.
        4. New Thai restaurant – the world we belong in has some diversity and there might be healthy mixture of cultures.
        5. It’s the second time I’m returning to the Thai restaurant within a week – maybe I like Thai food.
        6. “Would’ve been home sooner” implies a pattern, a habit.Then the “but Steve just went through a bad breakup and got to talking.” The *but* shows a break in pattern. Something interesting. What’s so important about that that I’d bring it up in my excuse?
        7. That final piece shows how close I might be to my work colleagues that we’re open about revealing not just the status of a relationship, but the failure of one. That might be very significant in certain cultures, in certain worlds.
      4. With the specific and unique details I’ve illuminated in my excuse, I’ve built a world that seems pretty real, hopefully reinforcing the truthfulness of what I might’ve been doing, rather than undermining my attempt to be believable.
      5. I took my flashlight and illuminated just enough details, and the right details, for my audience to mentally picture where I was last night.
      6. The second important part of that statement is “just enough.” You have to give just enough of the picture – an outline, a fragment, the corner pieces in the big puzzle, so that the audience can fill in the rest of the picture on their own. What anchors them into your story’s world is them investing *some* effort into fleshing out the world.

     photo Worldbuilding - Too Many Details_zpsnnfj3lef.jpg

  3. Caveat: Too many details slows the pacing and can sap your tension.
      1. Too many details can also prevent your audience from investing a part of themselves in the story, because they don’t have to put any effort into filling in the interesting blanks. Don’t do this. Don’t infodump.
      2. Give them just enough for them to fill in the rest on their own.
      3. [During the workshop, I gave the counterpoint of large chunks of “asides” in AMERICAN PSYCHO, where the author has the main character have long interior monologues about 80s life and music. These details develop the main character’s detachment, distance from, and lack of intimacy with other characters; and they reveal the zeitgeist of the world he must function in and ultimately tries to rebel against. I highly recommended the book – for the adventurous half of the audience.]
  4. Using specific and unique details is a solid way you can establish your world’s social, economical, and political foundations.

  1. Second step in worldbuilding: making the world a character in your story.
      1. Everything you’ve just established, if you’ve done it well, will be able to do multiple things as your story unfolds.
        1. The world’s established social, economical, and political rules will be the platform or the stage for your main characters’ actions and dialogue.
        2. How your characters react to those rules, obey or disobey those rules, will determine their alignment and make them delightfully unpredictable or heartbreakingly predictable.
        3. The world’s rules might help the reader gain a deeper understanding of their own world.
        4. And the world’s boundaries will reinforce character strengths and flaws, depending on how hard they strive to overcome the boundaries or to act as agents to force those boundaries on other characters around them.
        5. [During the workshop, I used the example of the movie “The Sound of Music.” There were social, economical, and political aspects creating boundaries and a stage — at one point, a literal stage! — which the characters had to function within, figure out, or escape from: social bonds like the changing relationships between the adults and new adults, work relationships becoming romantic ones, romantic relationships affecting choices about other aspects; there were political alliances cropping up in response to encroaching war; there were instances of combinations of the the three elements – religion, belief in a higher power, questioning fate. The world exerted incredible force on the family, but the most compelling aspects of the story are what the characters did in response or in spite of that pressure.]
      2. Like a flesh-and-blood character, the world can have moods, which can help your story.
        1. The weather can help establish the mood of a scene (dark and stormy night, calm before the storm, spring showers, dog days of summer, etc.).
        2. The attitudes of some of your world’s communities could reveal historical strife, or sudden upheavals caused by shifts in power.
        3. The world can be oppressive with its physical attributes (desert, jungle, dense city) or it can be a foil for your character’s struggle (beach or island paradise, a deceptively utopian high-tech world).

     photo Worldbuilding - Connotations_zpsgqvsbhrd.jpg

  2. How you achieve this is taking the “specific and unique details” one step further and layering a purpose to what you choose to bring to the reader’s attention at that specific moment.For example, most crimes (especially murders) happen at night. You can highlight the darkness. The darkness might enhance the victim’s feeling of helplessness or terror, or it can enhance the murderer’s feeling of anxiety or anticipation. Compare:
    1. The darkness feels like a giant hand over my face, blinding me, smothering me.
      1. using the word giant: implies how the victim feels smaller, diminished.
      2. blinding – a literal darkness, a literal loss of sight.
      3. smothering – darkness foreshadows the victim’s loss of life before the murderer even gets there.
    2. I glide in an inky emptiness, navigating through the room by memory, guided by one true purpose to that soft, unfaithful heart.
      1. inky emptiness – implies a shifting darkness, which hopefully supports the shifty nature of the character and foreshadows the impending crime
      2. navigating by memory – he/she has been in this room before.
      3. one true purpose – loaded language, almost spiritual, which reveals something of the way religion/superstition/faith works
      4. unfaithful heart – reveals more about the values of that character, which reveals more about the values of the society or societies that the murderer and victim function in.
      1. Using loaded language – words that are ripe with connotations, can help nudge the reader into forming the right inferences about the scene. Compare:
        1. A hospital room.
        2. A hospital room with lemon-yellow walls, buttery tulips, a bed and guest chair with matching upholstery.
        3. A hospital room with bile-yellow walls, jaundiced tulips, a bed and guest chair paired in eternal purgatory.
        4. A hospital room with canary walls, citrine tulips, a bed and guest chair covered in tawny sable.
  3. Go beyond picking just specific and unique details. Without going overboard, try to use words that have a connotation that helps you reinforce a theme or mood or aspect of character development. (Read as much as you can. This is how you build your vocabulary.)

  1. Things to avoid:
    1. Being heavy handed with your “building.”
      1. Don’t use unnaturally long chunks of description. At the beginning of the story, you have more leeway to build the world foundations. Take full advantage of it.
      2. Don’t shoehorn descriptions in with “As you know, Bob” dialogue. In other words, don’t use dialogue as a way to talk about things you couldn’t sprinkle in. It’s fake. Readers will be jarred out of the narrative by thinking why two characters, who should already *know* something, talk about it in a weird way.
    2. Don’t appropriate a culture: Don’t use an existing world culture, slap a new name on it, and use it as something new in your world.
    3. Going along with that, don’t use stereotypes (Noble Savage. The white male hero is or feels superior to every culture he encounters. Hooker with the heart of gold.)
    4. Don’t mention everything *you* think is cool about your world but actually has nothing to do with the story/plot, or the scene you’re in: That makes the difference between the show “Almost Human” – which lasted one season, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
    5. For Fantasy/SciFi: Don’t call a rabbit a smeerp. If you’re doing a ConLang, or Constructed Language, in your world, be careful with what words you change. Going along with the heavy handedness, and mentioning every thing you think is cool, using too many new words can distance your reader from your work. If their focus shifts from investing in the character to having to remember what a smeerp is, you might not get that focus back.
      1. [An attendee pointed out a good counterpoint example to the “using too many new words can distance your reader from your work” point – the made-up tech words/language in CLOCKWORK ORANGE enhances the environment rather than detracts from it. During the workshop, we discussed how this story was an exception because the author’s choice to infuse the story with ConLang was a choice to serve the story, rather than a choice to highlight the strangeness of the words themselves.]

More examples of books and movies with good worldbuilding

The Givens:
Dragonlance Series: Female Author, High Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, Quest, Magic
Game of Thrones: High Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery
Lord of the Rings: High Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, Magic, Quest
Harry Potter: Female Author, YA, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Magic

YA Books:
Sabriel Series: Female Protagonist, Fantasy, Quest, Magic, low drama/angst/romance.
All Quiet on the Western Front: New Adult Protagonist, War Story, Literary

No Country for Old Men: Literary, Crime, Thriller
Beloved: Female Author, Person of Color Author, Literary, Symbolism
The Other Boleyn Girl: Female Protagonist, Female Author, Historical Fiction, Sibling Relationships

Sci Fi:
Ender Series: YA Protagonist, Sibling Relationships, Bullies
Wild Seed: Female Author, Person of Color Author, Female Protagonist, Fantasy, Magic, Alternate History
Dune Series: Science Fantasy, Religion, Mysticism

Buy these books individually or check out Amazon’s KindleUnlimited Program (it allows you to “read as much as you want” for a monthly fee.

Pan’s Labyrinth: Female Protagonist, YA/Child Protagonist, Foreign Film, Horror-Fantasy, Fantasy, War
Like Water for Chocolates: Female Protagonist, Based on a book by Female, Person of Color Author, Sibling Relationships, Family Saga, Historical Romance, Magical Realism
Labyrinth: Female Protagonist, YA Protagonist, Portal Fantasy, Magic
Strictly Ballroom: Movie about a Profession, Foreign Film, Romantic Comedy, Socio-Economical Relationships

Connect with me by leaving a comment below, on Twitter (@JoanWIP), or Facebook.

Hang out in my mental playground! For cheaper than a venti latte, my highly-rated short stories are available on Amazon, Fresh Cuts: Breaking Volume and Fresh Cuts 2: Skinning Volume. #Fantasy #SciFi #Horror #Fables #Fairytales #SelfRescuingHeroines #DiverseBooks.

 Fresh Cuts 2: Skinning has been reviewed as “Smart” “Fresh” “Disturbing” and “the part of Wonderland people don’t talk about”!

Fresh Cuts: Breaking has been reviewed as “Twisted” “Hilarious” and a “Delightfully perverse collection”!


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