Just like the color of a room affects what people think and feel when they walk in, details in a scene affect how a reader experiences your world. The wrong details can create false assumptions and cause a disconnect between your reader and your world. The right details can start both reader and story off on the same page.
Look at this sentence...
Bob spotted the zombie under a tree.This doesn't tell us much about where Bob is, or what environment he's in that might have handy things he can use as weapons. Without details, we'll likely imagine whatever we think of when we think "tree." We take in the information and it just sits there, because we're waiting for the next bit of information to tell us where the story is taking place
But be specific about that tree, and entire possibilities open up...
Bob spotted the zombie under the cactus.Now the world becomes a desert and there's more context to work with. We see the sand, the cacti, feel the heat, squint against the glare. There are still a lot of specific details to add to this basic desert motif, but one word change turned this from an empty room to a actual place.
It also aided the plot and helped create a little tension.
How many pictured Bob shoving the zombie in to the cactus needles? I know I did. You see cactus, you think sharp pointy things. Your mind goes to what someone can do with those sharp pointy things and you're there, part of the story and imagining what Bob does next, which draws you in and makes you want to know if you're right.
When you're fleshing out your world, look for details that convey the specifics elements that will bring that world to life. What makes a tree in your world different from a tree in someone else's world? What's different about that tree in that scene?
(Here's more on grounding readers in your world)
A lot of world building is done in the opening scene, so let's focus on that "room." This thought process can work no matter what scene you're working on, though.
An opening scene has a lot of pressure on it. It has to introduce the protagonist, set the scene, create a mood, and introduce a problem all at once. What details you chose will affect how the reader feels about the book.
Introduce the Protagonist
Think about details that show the vital traits you want readers to know about the protagonist. Is she a good person? Clever? Nervous? Shy? What about this world can show the likable side of this character and make readers want to get to know her better? Now, combine that with details that also show the world and give readers a sense of who this person is in the context of that world.
For example, in The Shifter, my protagonist, Nya, is committing a crime when readers first meet her. She stealing eggs vs the chicken, because taking the entire chicken would hurt the rancher's livelihood, and all she needed was a few eggs because she was hungry. Even though she's stealing, what she takes says a lot about who she is and the world she lives in. Had she stolen something else, readers wouldn't have gotten the same sense of her world or her personality.
- How does your protagonist fit into their world?
- What are the critical details that show both a character trait and an aspect of that world?
- How might you develop a scene around those details?
Set the Scene
To ground readers in the story, give them a sense of the setting. Sometimes a few details is all it takes, and they'll start building a mental picture of where the scene takes place. Look for details (or words) that evoke the essence of your setting, and offer more than just what something looks like.
The right setting details are especially important if you happen to write in a genre with a "default" setting, such as fantasy. People think fantasy and medieval Europe typically pops to mind. Castles, cloaks, cold, straw-thatched roofs and pens of barnyard animals. If your world or setting contradicts common (and often expected) details, try dashing those preconceived ideas right away by offering details that couldn't exist in that default world.
With my fantasy novel, I knew I had to break the medieval mold fast, so I had balmy breezes, humidity, watch hyacinths, canals, and crocodiles. I tried to say "tropical" right away. I also used details that touched on the general state of the world of Geveg, showing that times were tough, life was hard, and people had to do whatever it took to survive (like steal food to eat), even if they were just kids.
- What images are unmistakable to your setting?
- What details best conjure up the world you've created?
- What details are provocative enough to start readers thinking about themes or problems in your story?
Create a Mood or Set a Tone
There's a wonderful scene in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, where Jack Sparrow is on top of the crow's nest looking over the water as he sails into port. As the camera pulls away, we see the crow's nest is about all of his ship that's still above water, and the ship sinks just as he touches his feet to the dock. A bit over the top? Sure, but it immediately sets the tone for the movie and you know exactly what to expect.
Think about what tone or mood you want to convey when you're deciding what world building details to include. If you want humor, what details are funny, or can be used in funny ways? If it's scary, what details make you think of spooky things?
I knew I wanted The Shifter to have a humorous tone, yet still show a dark and dangerous world. Nya was key in that, because it's her humor that provides the light fun that counterbalances the dark situations she finds herself in. The first line, "Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken" immediately shows that times are hard (she has to steal) and that she has a sense of humor about it.
- What details conjure the mood or emotion you want readers to feel in that scene?
- What tone do you want to set?
- What unexpected details might work to surprise readers?
Introduce a Problem
Your protagonist is going to have a problem in the opening scene. It may not be the core conflict, but odds are it'll be connected to it in some way. You have a great opportunity to lay some seeds of foreshadowing here by choosing details that have significance on multiple levels. They represent one thing that's clear in the scene itself, but later on, as the reader learns more about the world and the problems in it, those details have greater meaning.
A lot of important details pop up in Nya's first scene. She spots a night guard with knuckle burn, someone uses a pynvium weapon on her, she sees two wards from the Healers' League who have sneaked out. All three of these worldbuilding details contribute to situations that lead to the core conflict and drive the story forward, but readers don't know that until later. But when those connections are made, it makes the story feel well constructed.
- What details have greater meaning that might work in the scene?
- What might work to foreshadow later events?
- What details are key to the overall core conflict of the novel?
No matter what scene you're writing, choose details that work on multiple levels and build your world throughout the book. An added benefit--constantly revealing new things is a great way to keep readers interested.
How much time do you spend worldbuilding? Do you look at the bigger picture when you choose setting details?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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