Building Your Fictional World


Recently, I was the judge in fiction-writing contest.  My job was to review the finalists in the novel first chapter portion of the contest, and select the top four winners.  It was fascinating because every entry had a good concept for a story.


Every entry but one had viewpoint issues (a topic I'll address in a separate post soon), and the other big problem I saw in nearly every chapter was a failure to adequately develop the fictional world.  

While the set-up was interesting and the characters good (though also undeveloped) what I saw over and over again was not enough care taken to fully create the world of the story.  And I don't care if you are writing a contemporary novel, an historical story, or a science-fiction novel set on another planet, every novel has a world of its own that the reader will inhabit for the length of the book.  And it's your job to write that world so that we, the reader, truly feel as if we've stepped into it.

Some thoughts (in no particular order):

1.  Don't rush.  In many of the contest chapters, I felt like I was being escorted through the scene in a whirlwind.  Don't be afraid to slow down, to share description and details (see #4), to evoke the senses (see #7).  I guarantee that your problem is not writing too much, but too little.  Lay it on thick and write more than you think you should and you'll come out about right.

2.  Root the reader in the scene.  A simple technique is to continually hark back to the physical world in a scene to keep the reader reminded of where she is.  Otherwise, your reader will feel like she's floating in the air.   Use simple references to accomplish this–She leaned against the counter, or He set his coffee mug down on the table.  Doesn't have to be anything fancy.

3.  Fast is slow and slow is fast.  I learned this from a friend who learned it from the late Gary Provost. When you're writing a scene that would pass slowly in real life (such as an afternoon lolling on the couch) do it quickly.  We don't need the details.  And when you're writing something that would happen really fast in real life (like a car accident), slow it way down and note every detail.

4.  Telling details are your friend. Details are what bring a scene alive, such as the red rose petal on the wood kitchen table, or the solitary raindrop sliding down a window pane as a storm begins. But, don't include every single detail, the trick is to choose the ones that will illuminate the scene.  And that's something for you to decide.

5.  Setting is more than just location.  Setting is, of course, your friend when you're creating your fictional world, because it is what your characters walk through.  But it is much more than just the lovely ocean they live beside, it is all the furniture and accessories that fill the house they live in.  And guess what else it is?  Time.  Big difference between San Francisco 1906 and San Francisco 2014.

6.  Characters interact with their worlds in unique ways.  A man who grew up in Manhattan is very different than a farmer from Iowa.  The unique worlds of characters influence them in specific ways, and in return, causes them to exist in their worlds in certain ways.  Take advantage of this.

7.  Use your senses.  Obvious, yes, but also easy to forget.  One of the least under-used senses is smell.  Noting the aromas or odors of your world can be very evocative.  And how about touch?  When was the last time your character described the feel of a fabric beneath his fingers?  Or taste?  (Which reminds me, food can be very specific to different worlds also.) We get accustomed to our primary senses of sight and sound.  Adding in the others will bolster your world.

Okay, that's it, that's all I've got for you at the moment.  But do tell in the comments how you like to build your fictional worlds.

Photo by monique72.


0 thoughts on “Building Your Fictional World”

  1. What great advice, Charlotte. Maybe I can instruct my printer to use a mirror font. I’ll tape this to my forehead. Number 7 is a favorite. When I dream up a scene or simply dream, as I am inclined to do, when I can involve all the senses I can lose myself in the scene or the dream.

  2. Thanks, J.D.! And yeah, using your senses is kind of obvious–but I forget to do it (especially smells) and a lot of authors of the manuscripts I read do, too.

  3. Great advice as always, Charlotte. And from your unique perspective as a contest judge…very interesting! The first chapter is critical to drawing the reader in, and I think writers get a lot of conflicting (and not all of it good) advice from the publishing world, and it’s confusing. I’ve heard a lot of “don’t start your chapter too slowly, and get into the action right away.” I understand that agents/editors want a compelling opening, but not at the expense of developing characters we care about and settings that feel authentic. I’ve been agonizing over my first chapter, and your article helped me put things back in perspective. Setting + character + story…don’t overcomplicate things 🙂

  4. Thanks, Leigh. The first chapter is so difficult, isn’t it? You want to pique the reader’s interest but you also have to set things up. I, for one, would much rather read a first chapter that introduces me to a compelling character than one that has a lot of action just for the sake of having action. And, the more I read, the more I see the underlying simplicity in so many chapters. I think often we’re so busy trying to include things that we forget this.

  5. I talk about 7 above, but I am soooooooo guilty of number one. If I get that mirror going on my printer, my immediate step will be putting DON’T RUSH on my forehead. Shaving will be a learning experience. Maybe it won’t look too weird. Or will everyone around me slow down?

  6. This is one of those posts where I wish I could take a week off from work and hole up and do nothing but write. To put the ideas together and implement the process.

    Maybe then- MAYBE I could get somewhere with my story.

  7. I’m glad it resonated with you, D. And I know–I wish I had that kind of time, too! Of course on the days I actually have all day to write, I don’t seem to get much more done than on the days I have an hour. Go figure!

  8. The hair that was once on my head has to go somewhere. You will notice that I rushed my post and left out the word “font” after mirror. This blog post is great. Too bad I blew the first exam.

  9. My dream would be to have the luxuries that Anne Morrow Lindbergh had…take off and flee to the sea side to write. Even if it was only an hour. I’d take it!

  10. Wow! These are terrific points — all of them! Brings back memories of when I was studying to write and that of my former teacher, Bonny Becker. I really like the one on using your senses. I just rewrote something including ‘smell’ that transformed the section in a big way even though it was just a small bit.

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