Wednesday, February 03, 2021

3 Steps to Ground Readers in Your Story World

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Losing readers in the opening scene is a problem many novels face.

Opening scenes lead really stressful lives (metaphorically speaking). They have to hook readers, offer a compelling problem, introduce characters, show voice, and establish the world and setting by the end of the scene. No pressure, right?

I’ve been doing weekly critiques on this site since 2010, and the most common submission I get is the first page. So I’ve seen a lot of openings in a variety of genres and markets. And there’s one mistake I see writers make over and over.

Not grounding readers in the story world.

Grounded readers have the tools they need to embrace—and enjoy—the story.

Ungrounded readers feel lost and confused, and the longer that confusion lasts, the more likely it is they’ll stop reading the book. They’re too busy trying to make sense of what they’re reading to lose themselves in the story. Quite often, they can’t connect to the characters because they can’t get a bead on who they are and what they want.

Essentially, your world gets in the way of your story.

Now, I say “world,” but that also applies to real world settings as well as created ones. This isn’t a problem only fantasy and science fiction writers face (though they do have far bigger challenges). Every story has a story world you have to bring to life for your readers, whether that’s downtown Manhattan or the Shire in Middle Earth.

World building can be a tough job, no matter where that world is. The more complex the setting, the harder it can be to convey the world to readers without a lot of infodumping and backstory. And all that explanation will kill your novel before it even gets started.

Use these three steps to help your readers understand your story world without losing them:

1. Show readers where the opening scene takes place.

Readers need to understand where they (and the characters) are when they start reading. They don’t need to know everything, but it can’t be a “white room” with no clues about where and when the character is. For example, you don’t have to say it’s the secret military lab under Cheyenne Mountain in the year 2349, but let readers knows it’s a lab with advanced tech. If it’s 1576 in the Scottish Highlands, show some kilts and swords.

Genre also plays a role. Fantasy novels should contain a relevant fantasy element. Science fiction stories should have some tech that suggests the time or society of the story. Crime fiction will have crimes or those who investigate them. Romances have people with romantic problems. Westerns have horses and cowboys. Whatever the genre, there are categories of details and tropes that define that genre.

But don’t fire hose the information at your readers.

There’s a delicate balance between too much and too little, and in your effort to ground readers, you might go overboard with the details. Rein in that urge. Instead, use the details in your story that are crucial to understanding your setting and your world.

The rule of three is a handy helper with this task. Readers notice things mentioned three times, and three details is easy for them to remember. Three also maintains that crucial balance—fewer than three can be forgotten, and greater than three can overwhelm. But you don't want just any three details.

Use the three most critical elements of your world and setting that readers need to know to understand how your world works.

(Here’s more on Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?) 

These are my favorites to use: One element from the setting, character, and conflict. Something physical about the world, something critical about the character, and something that shows the inherent conflict of the world. You can elaborate a little on each of those, just don’t use too many details. Again, three is a nice guideline.

For example, in my novel The Shifter, these are:

Setting: A canal city on a tropical island

Character: She can shift pain

Conflict: Times are tough for locals due to a military occupation

Element one establishes the setting. “Tropical island" conjures its own set of details, so readers can instantly fill in the blanks when I describe palm trees and hot, humid nights. Since the default setting in fantasy is Medieval Europe, this dashes those expectations right away.

Expectations are important. If readers assume the wrong things, you risk sounding “wrong” when you contradict those expectations later. Or worse, readers struggle to make sense of details because they’re thinking about them all wrong.

Element two shows a critical trait of the protagonist. This trait is central to the story and if readers don't understand how pain shifting works, they'll be lost. It's also central to the catalyst that leads to the core conflict of the novel (and the series). It's the magic of the world.

Even if you don't write genre, there's something about your character that makes them unique, and that trait will likely affect the story. Maybe it's a skill, or a secret, or a personality quirk. Show it.

Element three shows a critical part of the history, which is where the conflict of the story comes from. The island is under military occupation and people are barely getting by. This is a detail designed to make readers wonder why times are so hard, so I'll be able to slide right into the history of the occupation and the lost war for independence later.

Notice this history isn’t explained at the start. I only left hints to suggest the larger world to pique reader curiosity and give a general sense of the situation.

Your world and setting has a history and likely affects the protagonist in some way. What is the underlying element of your world that’s causing trouble for your characters? The inherent conflict of the setting? That might be military oppression, or it might be an oppressive mother desperate for grandchildren. The “world” is just where the story takes place and how it affects the protagonist.

(Here’s more on The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

2. Show the critical elements of your story world in action.

Once you determine your critical elements, design a situation that shows the setting, allows the protagonist to use or display the trait, and show how it involves or suggests the conflict of the novel. Find a situation that captures the essence of your world and your story’s problem.

Since all scenes need a goal and stakes, odds are it'll be a situation where your protagonist's trait is either causing them trouble or it's what gets them out of trouble. A moment where their life (the world they live in) suddenly hits a bump.

What typical (or maybe atypical, if need be) problem does your protagonist face that shows that critical trait?

For The Shifter, it’s my protagonist, Nya, stealing food to survive, feeling sympathy for someone else in an equally tough situation, being forced to use her pain-shifting ability to escape prison, and being seen doing it.

This allowed me to describe the tropical island setting as she fled through the streets of the canal city. She had reasons to look at and think about the physical surroundings because they mattered to her survival at that point.

I could also show the history of this world and drop a little character backstory (the military occupation), and create reader curiosity about how things got this way.

I could even show the magic of the world in action, which triggered the next step of the plot and hinted at the greater stakes of this magic. Again, I just showed them working and let readers figure out the larger significance to these details.

(Here’s more on One Common Way Writers Weaken Their Descriptions)

3. Resist the urge to explain everything.

Yes, this is a real step, because it’s far too easy to infodump everything you know about the world so readers understand why all these things matter. But if you do, you’ll overwhelm them. They won’t feel grounded, they’ll feel smothered.

You'll have time to give readers the full story tour later. You don’t have to give them everything all at once.

In an opening scene, use the bare minimum of details and information required to understand the story world. Hints and suggestions are key at this early stage. Readers don't want history lessons, they want characters with problems and actions to entertain them.

You aren’t limited to only one or two details, but ration the things you show readers so they have time to absorb it all. Use enough details to establish the setting, character, and conflict you chose to focus on.

Use details that pique their interest, get them curious about the world, make them want to know the history, so in a few chapters, when you hit the brakes on the story to share some of it, readers won't care about the pause because they actually want to know that information now. They're invested and this information matters to them.

A warning: “Hint” and “suggest” doesn't mean be vague for the sake of hiding information. Be clear about what is happening and how things are, but don't feel you have to explain it if it’s not time for secrets to be revealed.

For The Shifter, the bare minimum is a tropical island canal city, bridges over the water, hot and humid, palm trees, orphan boys, a Healers' League, soldiers, people struggling to survive, pain shifting, shocked and scared faces after seeing that pain shifting, trying to persuade witness they didn't actually see any pain shifting, and a protagonist who made a mistake because she was hungry.

Slip in details where they naturally fit what the characters is doing or experiencing.

For example, I added a bit about the religion of my world, because my protagonist naturally thought about the gods when in trouble, so it flowed seamlessly into what was happening. I didn't stop the story to explain it, I just showed Nya doing what she normally does in that world.

(Here’s more on How to Write Description Without Going Overboard)

Grounding readers in your story world helps them enjoy your story.

A grounded world helps readers understand the setting and how the world works, so the problems the characters face make sense.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the opening scene of your novel. Determine if you have the right details in the right places to ground your readers.

Does your opening scene ground your readers, or is it leaving them behind? 

*Originally published February 2013. Last updated February 2021.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.

Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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Exercise Fun: (CONTEST CLOSED) I enjoyed last week's writing exercise so let's do it again. Winner gets a 1000-word critique, and that winner will be announced next Monday (all posts must be in by noon EST on Monday, February 25), where I'll do another fun exercise contest. Let's see if I can keep this up every week. (Though I reserve the right to skip the critique part during the busy weeks)

Write a 250-words or less opening that includes three critical details: An exotic setting, a world in economic decline, and character who has recently suffered heartbreak.

Your call on genre and scope (world can be a small town or a school).


  1. This is a great post. Love all the tips and tricks regarding world building.

  2. I liked the tips too, Janice. Thanks so much.

  3. Excellent advice, as usual, Janice!

  4. Hi Janice
    great post, thanks.
    Avoiding the infodump is a big thing for me. My beta readers have just said they want more stuff up-front, so I'm having to work on balancing it all at the moment without having the story drag. It's a tough mix to get right.
    As you said, being cryptic for the sake of it can lose the reader just as much as the reams of explanation.
    I'm going to try the rule of three you suggest and see how it goes.

  5. Thanks for breaking this down. Sometimes I forget to look at the little elements that make up the whole. Stuff like this helps me to back up and double check what I'm doing. Helps me to make sure I'm not info dumping and so on.

  6. Thanks, Using it for my class on writing for children tomorrow.

  7. For the contest should we submit our entries through the comments section or email them directly to you?

  8. I've had a writing idea stalled for quite a while now, and I think this world-building post just unlocked it!!

    Does fantasy count as exotic?

  9. My first MG adventure is set in Egypt. I could have gone mad and put in loads of info, thus boring my young readers to death. Then I decided: only put in what the young heroes need to know in order to survive their adventure (lots of dangerous situations too!).

  10. Thanks guys! Everyone is so quiet, so I'm hoping that means folks are working on their snippets :)

    Michael, that's a fine line to walk sometimes. I judge it on what they ask for. If they don't understand the world, then I add more to fix that. If they just don't want to wait for story revelations, I'll leave it as is :) But often "more" is just a few words or a line here and there. It's not often you need to add a lot.

    Jennifer, glad it helped :) That's one reason I enjoy reading writing blogs. I like the reminders, too.

    Carol, cool, thanks!

    Evan, in the comments, please :) It'll be fun for everyone to see them.

    Rachel, awesome! Fantasy works, just make it "exotic" in some way. So think about what might be considered exotic in your world, or what your POV might *consider* exotic.

    Fiona, that's the way to do it. :) Egypt is such a great setting it *would* be hard not to add it all.

  11. Rachel, til Monday. I'll post the winners at the end of the day. (I'd better update that on the post I guess)

  12. The last line is all I have to meet the third criteria (a world in economic decline), but here goes:

    The wind brought my flying watchdog. A griffin the size of a rabbit, with a cat’s long twitchy tail and the wings of a hawk, landed on a quarried stone and hissed at me.

    I drew back my elbow and shot an imaginary arrow at him. It was a friendly little game we played. He hissed, I shot.

    Then an arrow – a real arrow this time – shot past the griffin with a whine, barely missing him. We both shrieked. He dove for cover behind a boulder and I turned to face the sound of approaching hoofbeats.

    Could my luck get any worse? Of all the random wanderers through a quarry high in the hills, far from any road, why did it have to be Ortsull, the king’s tribunis? It might as well have been Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hades, out for a morning stroll.

    I didn’t used to have a problem with Ortsull. Until he requisitioned my father’s warhorse, the one I helped raise and train from a colt. How dare he sit there in front of me, with a smirk on his face, riding the horse that was rightfully mine.

    I whispered a curse to unseat him, though I knew it wouldn’t work. In fact it would probably come back on me like the last one did, causing more heartbreak.

    “Sidain.” Ortsull spat out my name. “What are you doing up here?”

    “Plotting the fall of the Romans and the rise of a new Hellenic Empire,” I replied.

  13. Is it okay if we're a teensy bit over 250? I'm at 250 but I want to add a few minor details, but I ran out of things to cut. XD

  14. Evan, a teensy bit is fine :)

  15.    Ailera and Hanlon were supposed to meet by the oasis for a stroll. It was a perfect night for it, too: both moons full and bright, reflecting in the waters. But "perfect" would not be how Ailera remembered it.
       Did he forget? As Ailera traipsed the sandy market streets she heard Hanlon's laugh drifting out a tavern window. She crept to the doorway and peeked through the beaded curtains.
       There he was in his finest velvet coat, lounging on plush cushions, surrounded by foreign girls in their frilly frocks. Their disgusting pale hands and red-painted lips were all over him. Ailera clenched her fists. No, she thought, This calls for something special. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and pressed her palms together. As she pulled her palms apart a long icicle materialized.
       She stormed in brandishing the icy spike. "Hanlon!"
       "Ailera!" Hanlon jumped up from his horde of admirers. "It's not what you—"
       "The rumors were true! You filthy spewk!"
       "H-hey, think about this. You need me. Your family needs me. So before you do anything rash—"
       That's exactly when she did something rash. Ailera plunged the sharp icicle into his shoulder and left it there. A chorus of shrieks rang out. "I don't need you or your damn dirty money!" She shoved him into the flock of floozies. "You trader tramps can have him!"
       "Rach!" Hanlon cursed, writhing around. "Ahlma-wielding freak!"
       Tears stained her cheeks as she fled. She needed to get away. From Hanlon, this ramshackle town, and this whole dying country.

    Hopefully I didn't botch anything. *fingers crossed*

  16. here is my attempt...first time posting, but a long time reader. I went a little over. (-: just a teeny bit

    Elan adjusted the veil that covered her from nose to knees. It hurt. The coarse fabric scratched her delicate, lavender colored skin. How did the servant women stand the heat or the itch? A week ago, before the uprising, she had worn only rainbow silks spun by Valerian butterflies.
    “Out of the way.” A porter’s rough hand pushed Elan and she tripped, knocking into a fruit merchant’s stall. Round orangeria fruit rolled across the cobblestones. Her hand clutched the silver dagger tucked inside her brown servant’s robe. How dare he lay a hand upon her. Children scuttled out of the alleyways and from underneath tents, grabbing at the rich fruit and disappearing as quickly as they came.
    The fat orangeria merchant stood in the center of the marketplace, staring at her. Elan’s heart thudded. She remembered him. Last week, he had sliced open 6 different orangerias until she found one that had the right balance of tart and sweet. Now, his face was as pink-orange as the fruit. Did he recognize her? She had used the juice of the Kaloong nut to stain her face and hands the orange color of the common people, but was it enough?
    The fat merchant pointed. “It’s her. The High Councilor’s daughter.”
    The people in the market place halted. A hush fell over the square. The cooks, the goodwives, the children, the pocket thieves, the guardsmen, merchants and porters all stared at her, voices murmuring, “Murderess.”
    Elan took a step back. She couldn’t believe her ears. The people believed she had killed her father, mother, brothers and sisters.

  17. Here's my entry :) Good luck to everyone!!

    Shain took another step forward and sank into the cool, clear pool. He took a deep gulp of water, sucking all he could into his parched and raw throat. Then he coughed, suddenly filled with a thousand tiny hooked blades like farmers’ scythes.

    There was no water. There was only more sand.


    “Pretty silks for a pretty lady, yes?”

    A figure wearing linen robes stood talking to a merchant hocking a small stack of silks. The tiny market was nearly empty, with most of the residents keeping indoors by the blinding heat of day. Another man tended to the raptors, working the squealing-dry pump to bring up weak gurgles of hot water.

    The robed woman laughed. “A proper Bargainer never goes without her robes, Cael. And no one would call these” she reached out to touch the frayed edge of the nearest silk, “pretty.”

    Cael smiled, revealing two black holes instead of canines. “Someday you will have a new husband, no? Buy pretty silks now, show him later on.”

    The woman shook her head and drew her hand back into the folds of her robes as her eyes filled with precious tears.

    “A new husband is a Contract even I couldn’t negotiate.”

    “Vayda!” A shout broke the heavy afternoon stillness. The woman turned, her robes sweeping the sandy cobblestones. A young boy ran towards her, dirty and panting.

    “Tem! What’s wrong?” Vayda knelt down to meet the boy’s eyes.

    “Hurry!” The child was frantic, “There’s a man – he’s dying – bring water!”

  18. Here's mine. I'm really impressed with some of these.

    When the delivery truck arrived, Tally leaned against the boarded up building and scanned the workers. Drake wasn’t among them. Maybe he’d been re-assigned. She limped toward the end of the line and checked her pocket for the food voucher. Only one now.
    The line inched forward, each occupant getting only their allotted stipend for the week. Tally hiked up her cut-offs. If it weren’t for the abundant fruit trees on the island people would be starving.
    She crushed a seashell under the heel of her boot, castoffs from someone better off than she. When she reached the front Tally handed the worker her voucher and took the small box, checking to make sure it held the loaf of bread and four cans she was promised. They’d tried to cheat her mother once. Drake had been there and intervened when the worker argued with Tally’s mom. The guy had raised his arm like he was going to hit her, but Drake was faster.
    The guy hadn’t come back, but now Drake was gone too.
    Tally made her way along the crushed shell path and on to the sand. She paused to pull off her shoes, tying the laces together so she could hang them around her neck. The sand made walking harder. Her foot dragged along, leaving a track like a sea turtle.
    In the shack she now called home Tally placed the food box in the corner. She lay back on a faded mat on the sand floor and crossed her arm over her eyes.

  19. This is awesome! I love reading all these entries! I went over by one word, Janice....

    Iriel swatted a fly away. Overhead, seagulls screamed, as they used to at home. She shifted her feet on the hot boards and wished the king’s ambassadors would get off the ship. But that wasn’t respectful, she chided herself. She shouldn’t be impatient with a master. Not even when her bare feet burned. Not even when the memory of the boldness Cavan had allowed her still warmed her soul.
    She glanced at the other slaves. Most looked as miserable as she. Elder Jahon was one of the exceptions. The healer stood straight, watching the sailors with detachment, only bending his head when a human passed by. Iriel envied his composure.
    A stir on the galleon caught her attention, and she looked up eagerly. At the top of the gangplank stood a leprechaun. His wine-colored tunic shimmered in the brutal sun; his trousers were clearly tailored; his leather boots looked expensive. Iriel caught her breath. This was a mainland faery? Not even the masters wore such finery. She looked past him for his master, wondering how a human could surpass this slave’s garments.
    Lord Faylan stepped forward as the leprechaun descended. “You there! Where is your master?”
    The leprechaun’s head tilted back and he stared insolently at the lord. A murmur ran through the watching faeries; surely he would earn himself a beating. “I am not a slave, milord. Allow me to introduce myself: Lord Ardath of the Realm and the King’s Own.”
    Iriel’s jaw dropped. The king’s ambassador was a faery?

  20. Thanks for this great post. I was just feeling frustrated with my world building, so this is on the spot as usual.

    I had fun creating this snippet.

    Her graying chicken nest hair stuck out at odd angles. Deep wrinkles lined her dark skin, but the way her milky, unseeing eyes stared straight into me, bothered me the most. I wiped the grime and sweat off my peeling, sunburned cheeks.

    “He be cursed, child. Nottin’ gonna save him.” She cackled and tapped her crooked walking stick into the white sand.

    “Please. Bring him back.” I grabbed for her bony arm, but she slapped me before I touched her. “I agree,” I swallowed hard, “to your terms.”

    The turquoise waves of what used to be paradise lapped the beach behind this voodoo queen’s skirt, swaying with the balmy breeze or the devil’s fingers, I didn’t know which.

    She stirred a pot strung above a fire, waiting…maybe considering. “There be no goin’ back.”

    I rubbed at the chafed skin beneath my tattered sundress and nodded. “I understand.” I eyed the black pot. My stomach growled like a lion.

    “You be starving, but you still be youself. He not be worth dis.” She scooped up a bowl and placed it in my shaking hands. I sank down and positioned the remnants of my dress beneath me.

    The stringy meat sank in the thin broth. It could be rat. I guzzled it down and scooped the last of the gristly meat up with my grubby fingers.

    Her shadow fell over me. A smile twisted her cracked bleeding lips. She cupped her skeleton hands and blew white powder into my eyes. Her face morphed and blurred.