Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Two Rules for Better World Building

By T.L. Bodine

JH: Please help me welcome T.L. Bodine to the blog today, to chat with us about one of my favorite things--world building. You might think this is something that's just for fantasy or science fiction writers, but every book has a world, be it a magical land or the next street over. And they all have to be brought to life for our readers. T.L. shares a few tips on how.

T.L. Bodine spent most of her childhood traveling with her blue collar family and living in the sort of small towns where horror movies are set. She received a bachelor's degree in English from New Mexico State University in 2007 and briefly pursued an MFA in creative writing before realizing that she was better suited to writing than talking about it.

She currently lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico with her boyfriend David and a small zoo of rescued animals including a toothless chihuahua, two cats, and several geriatric rats.

Take it away T.L...

Creating worlds is one of my favorite parts of writing. It's certainly the most exciting. The act of playing God--of building up an entire reality for my characters to play in--is really appealing. It can also be challenging, though, and sometimes I can get bogged down in the details. World-building can be a huge procrastination tool if you're not careful!

First, there are two important rules to remember about world-building:

1. Your readers will only see about 10% of the information that you know about the world, and that's totally fine. Most of the world should exist under the surface. The purpose of world-building is to make you feel more comfortable and confident writing in that world, not to bombard the reader with details that bog down the plot.

2. If you don't specify what something is like, the reader will assume it's like what they already know. Use this to your advantage. You don't have to explain every single detail of the world, only the ones that are sufficiently different from reality or convention to make them interesting.

With that in mind, here's my world-building process:

When I get an idea for a new story, a few details of the world usually come along with it. For example, when I got the idea for Nezumi's Children, I knew the story would be about rats and take place in a pet store during a flood. Knowing those basic parameters helps to guide the rest of the world-building process. You probably already have an idea of the world your story occupies. The trick is to flesh out that world and make it feel real.

Before I start doing any official world-building, I spend a little time figuring out the general aesthetic of the story and the world it occupies. I'll start looking at art and photography that remind me of the type of story I'm telling, or listening to music that reminds me of it. At this point, I don't care about pinning down any details; I just look for things that will inspire me. I like to keep all of these materials collected together in a folder on my computer or, more recently, a private board on Pinterest.

Once I've got a general feel for the story and its unique aesthetic, it's time to zero in on the specific details of my new world.

I like to start by determining the physical space the story occupies. Whether it's happening in a huge kingdom, a neighborhood or the inside of a store, I like to sketch out a rough map of what's inside that space and how objects are related to each other. The reader will likely never see this map, and it doesn't matter: The purpose of the map is so I can clearly visualize it in my head, which keeps the writing consistent. Without the map, I might have a character's bedroom on the bottom floor in one chapter and up the stairs in the next--and that kind of continuity error will pull the reader out of the story.

Once I know what the physical space looks like, I start thinking about the culture of that space. This is equal parts world-building and character development, and it's really important. Are these people wealthy? Do they grow their own food? What kind of religion do they have? A lot of the time, the details of their physical world will affect their social structure.

For example, if your story is set in a pre-industrialized village on the side of a river, you can safely assume that the people who live there will feed their families by fishing. They might control a trade route that leads from a village upstream to one downstream. They're probably concerned about heavy rains, due to the risk of flooding, and it's pretty likely that they teach their children how to swim at a young age.

Once I've gotten the high points worked out, I start asking myself more specific questions. Using the pre-industrialized fishing village as an example, I might ask myself what kind of fish live in the river? What do those fish eat? What kind of lures and fishing techniques are used to catch those fish? Who makes the fishing lures -- are they made by individuals, or does one person in town make and sell them? Does he make lures because he's too infirm to fish for himself, so he crafts the lures to trade them for fish?

Just keep asking yourself increasingly specific questions until you land on details that are really unique or interesting. Those are the things that are worth mentioning in your story, and they're also the details that will give your story richness and depth.

Once the writing gets underway, you might discover that you need to know something about your world that you hadn't decided up-front. That's fine. You might also realize that the plot requires the world to work a little differently than you'd initially expected. That's also fine. Just be sure you keep track of these changes somewhere, whether it's in a composition notebook, word file, spreadsheet or stack of cocktail napkins. That way you'll be able to keep things consistent while writing and revising.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Books by T.L. Bodine

The Beast in the Bedchamber: An anthology of dark fairytale retellings featuring seven stories about love, madness and the beast within.

Nezumi's Children: Abandoned by the humans they once worshiped as gods, the rats of Rocco's Pet Emporium must face natural disaster on their own -- but they're not alone. The wild rats, long kept in hiding for fear of humans, have emerged to take over their rightful territory, and they'll kill anyone who gets in their way.


  1. Thanks for this useful post. It's filled with great ideas.

    Question: Have you ever written a story that takes place in another part of this world? My WIP takes place in Kenya, but I've never been there. I'd like to make Africa really come alive and I have a stack of documentaries to plow through this weekend, but I'm afraid I will get the details wrong and wind up offending people. What do you suggest?

    1. Anchoring your text in a real place that you've never been is definitely a challenge! I'm always leery of doing that myself for the same reasons you are. I think it can be done, though, with some creative research -- and also by remembering the "any details you leave out, they'll fill in for themselves" rule. I think in these situations, it pays to be hyper-specific about a few key sensory details that really bring the setting to life, but not trying too hard to nail every detail.

      Documentaries are a great place to start. If you can swing it, I'd also recommending chatting with someone from the area who might be able to answer questions.

      Good luck and happy writing!

    2. Thanks, T.L. I might put an ad on Craig's list and see if I can find anyone local to talk to.

  2. Ooh! I love the map idea. I've only officially made one for a single series, but now that I think about it, using one for even urban fantasy would be helpful. Awesome advice!

  3. @leslie. My novel is set in Africa as well and I am finding Google Earth to be a great resource. It has a National Geographic layer that provides a wealth of articles including their Mega Flyover project. Also, more recently I found Hope it helps some. Have fun!

  4. Hi TL
    great post, thanks.
    I love that you point out how important the detail is, regardless of the size of the world in which the story takes place. Something Steven King excels at is bringing those little details to life, even when the story takes place all in the same, limited space (I'm thinking about Cujo, or the Shining). It's dropping those details in, in the right amount, in the right place, that keeps the reader in the reality of the story.
    I too like to draw maps, so long as no one ever gets to see them :) I do however, find myself often making tweaks as the story progresses. How often do you find yourself making changes when you're deep into the story?

  5. Nice post well written and very timely. I have had a poor habit of world building to drive my story then leaving in too much world but not now thanks to you. So thanks to you from the hybrid panster plotter.... BTW regarding the picture you are going to cook it before eating right? ~smirk

  6. Excellent advice, T.L. I admit I've been thinking of the term "world building" as something that relates to science ficition and fantasy stories, but you are so right -- it relates to every story because they all take place somewhere.