Monday, November 21, 2022

3 Ways to Connect Your World to Your Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your story’s world can create unique problems for your protagonist.

Every story starts a different way—not in the “Once upon a time” aspect, but in how the idea first comes to you. Maybe it’s a line of dialogue, or a character, or a puzzle that needs to be solved. Something flashes through your brain and ignites a spark of imagination that you just have to explore further.

For my novel, The Shifter, the idea of a boy who could shift pain came first, and a world where that would be a problem. It quickly led to the creation of pain merchants who bought and sold pain, and how this boy thought going to them for help was a bad thing to do.

I had nothing beyond that. I had no plot, and no conflict. I didn’t even know this boy’s name.

But I did have a very cool world to play with, so I started brainstorming how a world that could buy and sell pain would operate. How did the mechanics of that work? Why did people even need to do it?

Eventually, I figured out the how and why, and then I found my story.
The boy became a girl (Nya), the girl obtained a sister (Tali), and the world of the pain merchants was central to a conflict that had left the sisters orphaned in a terrible war for independence, struggling to survive. Nya would do anything to protect her little sister, so I knew right away that I had to take Tali away from her in some awful way.

And that way, was central to how my world worked.

A novel’s setting is a huge opportunity to create problems unique to your story and characters.

My world caused the problems in my novel, and those problems forced my protagonist to act to save her sister. Had her world been different, the novel wouldn’t have existed. The world and the plot were intricately connected to the characters and their troubles, which made for a much richer story.

It also made it a lot easier to write, which was a nice little bonus.

Here are three ways to use your world to deepen your story:

1. Make the world cause problems in the protagonist’s everyday life.

Brainstorm how simply living in your novel’s world might cause problems in your protagonist’s everyday life. They’re not necessarily things connected to your core conflicts (though that’s helpful), but ways that living there make everything harder. It can also be ways that show aspects of your world, theme, or characters.

In The Shifter, the island city of Geveg had been under enemy occupation for five years. Nya and Tail had been living on the street since they were little, doing their best to stay under the radar of the occupying soldiers. Life is hard for them. They need to avoid the soldiers, and getting noticed always ends badly.

With this extra layer of conflict, even going out for breakfast was dangerous for a Gevegian citizen. Mundane tasks could result in arrest, injury, or even death. Nya’s choices had to reflect this as well as whatever normal considerations she’d have when facing a problem.

Ask yourself:
  • What are the challenges specific to your world?
  • How might you use those challenges to create obstacles or conflicts to your protagonist's goals?
  • What would make anything your protagonist did a little harder because they'd have to overcome this issue before they could even take on the bigger problem?
Nya's constant "on the verge of starvation" was something I used throughout the book. Finding work and food was difficult for her, so when she was given an opportunity to make a lot of easy money, it was impossible for her to say no—even if she knew it was wrong to say yes.

It also put her in a vulnerable position and forced her to make decisions she wouldn't have made if she had a steady job, room and board, and regular meals. The world’s problems made her daily life a whole lot harder.

(Here’s more with That's So Annoying: Adding Small Problems to Your Plot)

2. Make the world contribute to the novel’s core conflict.

Look at how the world or setting itself affects the core conflict of the novel. And don’t be afraid to widen the definition of “world” here. If your story is set in corporate America, maybe the protagonist’s company is about to go under. If the story revolves around a dysfunctional family, maybe the core reason for that dysfunction is the “world,” and that contributes to the main problem the protagonist deals with all book.

I put Nya outside the accepted social class, but gave her a sister inside the social class. Tali had advantages Nya didn't have, which caused not only external issues, but internal conflicts as well. And due to the unique aspect of Nya’s healing ability (her pain shifting), she’d never get that same opportunity, even though she desperately wanted it. Which was particularly hard for her, since Nya is the kind of person who helps when she sees someone in trouble. So when she follows her heart, she risks exposing her secret and dragging her sister into trouble as well.

Ask yourself:
  • Are there any world building factors that could affect your core conflict?
  • What would change if you moved your protagonist to another group or social class?
  • Could what’s normal in your world be directly opposed to the beliefs of your protagonist?
  • Does the world offer a deeper thematic layer to the story?
Nya’s world was at the center of the novel’s conflict. She had to keep her shifting ability a secret or end up being used as a weapon against her own people. But to save her sister, she had to use her pain shifting—knowing she’d be exposed and hunted.

(Here’s more with Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts)

3. Make the world influence how the protagonist solves their goals.

Now flip it around and look at your plot points and character goals. This pulls the two above points into every scene and helps you decide how the plot is going to unfold. The world creates a major problem for the protagonist to solve, and living in that world is rife with challenges. Both will add a variety of conflicts and issues to how your protagonist solves the novel’s problems.

Nya’s constant struggle for money naturally made me think about the shadier side of the pain business, and how the pain merchants might take advantage of someone in her position. And if they'd take advantage of her, who else might they do it to? 

This led directly to one of the more heart-breaking scenes in the novel, because not only the poor are taken advantage of by these guys. Once I started looking at the bigger ramifications, the problem became so much more widespread. Nya ran into it all throughout the novel, forcing her to make choices that affected not only those she cared about, but people she didn’t even know.

Ask yourself:
  • How might the world affect how the protagonist solves their goal in a scene?
  • How does the world influence the protagonist’s choices?
  • Can something in the world or setting provide an extra obstacle to a problem?
  • Can something in the world or setting be the answer to a problem?
The more a character can interact with the world around them to solve their issues, the more real and immersive that world will be for readers. Nya’s world affected her on multiple levels, infusing every choice, every conflict, and every action she took with a unique spin that made the story feel fresh, even though I used timeless themes.

(Here’s more with Get Out of the Kitchen: Using Setting to Help Build Your World)

Your story world can have a huge impact on your characters—which can have an equally huge impact on your readers.

It’s more than just “where the story takes place.” Your world is another tool that helps you create conflict, characterize, and even plot. Don't be afraid to tweak details as your world develops. If something interesting occurs to you, run with it and see how it might affect your story. You never know where one "wouldn't it be cool if...?" might lead.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and brainstorm the above points and see how your world or setting can have a greater impact on your story.

How much does your world affect your story and characters? Could it be set anywhere, or could it only have happened there?

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 ShifterBlue 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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  1. I was in Geveg, the setting was that good.

    1. Thanks so much! I had a lot of fun creating that world.

  2. Hello Janice, I've seen a lot of advice on the net- you really seem to nail it. I'm having trouble subscribing to your email list though. I don't think the subscribe button is working.

    1. Thanks! Sometimes it lags and you need to click the button more than once. If it still gives you trouble, email me and I'll get you added manually :)