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.


The Power of Place

Place is important.


I tend to fall in love with places the same way I fall in love with people–instantly and hard–and that figures prominently in my writing.  I find ways to incorporate places that I love, like Portland, or places that fascinate me, like LA, in my writing.  And then there are places like Santa Fe and Sun Valley, western mountain towns that become locations in my work.  Writing about a place is a way of exploring that place and learning more about it.  Place is so important to me that I wrote my MFA critical thesis about it.  The paper had a grandiose title I can't recall but the point of it was to explore the role of landscape in the work of Flannery O'Connor and Willa Cather and to make the argument that to these two women, landscape was so important that it became a character.



Place has power.  It has power because no matter where we go, we are someplace, and locating ourselves in a place can be a powerful starting point for writing.  A favorite journal technique is sometimes called a weather journal, and it is simple to do–you simply start where you are, by describing your location and all of the sensory details you are experiencing and expanding from there.  Where we are is important.

Which is why it is important to pay attention to the kinds of places you like to write.  Do you need privacy and silence?  Or activity and people and music surrounding you?  Do you want to write in your office, at a desk, or perhaps with your computer pulled onto your lap (bad ergonomics, but I wrote that way for years)?  Do you want to work outside or in, at home or at a coffee shop?


I ask because it makes a difference.  If you are the type for whom a swirl of activity is inspiring, trying to write in silence will be an exercise in frustration.  And vice-versa.  I like to think of myself as the type who writes well in coffee shops, but the truth is, I often get distracted.  Instead of getting work done, I am very good at appearing to get work done, while I furtively people watch.  This is actually good for gathering material, but that is a very different beast than actually writing.  I know plenty of people who need the stimulation of a coffee shop to get work done, however.  At my favorite neighborhood hang-out, there's a least one writer who calls the place his "office."  And while I long to be one of those writers who thanks the staff of the coffee shop where I hung out in the acknowledgements page of my novel, I must come to terms with the fact that it is not to be.  Because most of the time I sit in my office, upstairs, removed from the temptations of the kitchen and windows to the street, and work.

I've written in some interesting places, however.  I've written on people's couches, sitting on a single bed in a small room, at resorts, universities, random houses, airports, airplanes, cars, football stadiums, you name it.  I work on a laptop precisely for the reason I can take it with me wherever I go.  And yet, most of the time, I'm right here in the same old spot.  But who cares?  What matters is that you find a place where the words will flow.  And this spot, right here, is that place for me.

What about you?  Where do you go to write?

*Top photo by EmZed, via Everystockphoto.  Second image by weirdvis, same source.  Third picture by tdenham, ditto