Atlas’ Tool Box – World Building: Where to Begin?

Mechanics Writing
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Atlas’ Tool Box – World Building
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“That’s so cool!” your friend says after you spew forth your latest story idea. Now what? Suspension of disbelief is the endgame a good writer is trying to achieve when we create a fictional world. Our primary goal is to get the reader to step into this world and then forget it is fictional while the tale we’re telling unfolds. Anything that makes the reader stop and pause could cause them to miss a key detail or shatter the illusion you’re trying to create. To avoid these little, or big, bumps in the proverbial literary road here are three points where you can start your world building that will help to make sure the world you see in your head makes it into the story you’re telling.

To Pants or not to pants

“Oh, please not another plot/pants post!” came the cry. No this is not another post ranting about the virtues and failures of plotting your story or writing it “by the seat of your pants” with no outline at all. What this is, is explaining that you may be doing one or the other and not even know it.

In my case, I plot my stories out with a thorough outline before I begin to write. I need this and use it to help with foreshadowing, character tracking, and continuity. It works for me. Many people feel overly constrained by a pre-written plot, and I understand their concerns. However, many like me feel the usefulness of plotting the story far outweighs the problems of having that “straitjacket of words” constraining the story. Did you know that I’m mostly a Pantser when it comes to world building? More shocking; did you realize that many Pantsers are heavy, heavy plotters when it comes to world building? Here’s why.

With a heavy plot outline like I use, I need the flexibility in the world to allow me to make the adjustments in the environment that help the story move forward. If you plot your story out, you world build as you go, so everything meshes seamlessly. This is fine. There’s nothing wrong with this as you already have enough structure in your plot outline to make it work. You create the items needed to support the plot you’ve already written.

However, the opposite side of this is the heavily plotted world which provides structure, so that the un-plotted story can wander through the world and seem just as smooth, just as well-written, and it works in both cases. Whichever method you chose, the question becomes where to begin?

Begin where your story begins

The seed of your story gave you something. You now have a character, a setting, a What If speculative idea you’d like to flesh out. Start building your world where your story starts.

Every story has an opening scene of some kind. Remember, the goal here is to allow the readers to immerse themselves seamlessly into the world we’re creating and accept it as plausible for the story we’re telling. Starting with the intended opening scene of the story is a great place to root both the story and the world solidly in the reader’s mind. So, what does the opening scene tell the reader about my world?

Well, where is the opening scene? Is it indoors or outdoors? Is it in a field of grass, forest, or city street? Is it in a building, room (like an office), or auditorium? Is there a river, what is the weather, are there cars, draft animals, people, no people, smog, or haze? All of these questions lead to more questions that flesh out the immediate vicinity of the world precisely where you need to ground your reader in your story. Paint a vibrant picture in your opening scene with a fully thought-out world around that scene and your reader will fill in details for you later on that you didn’t even know were there.

To help continue building out your world once you have that initial scene either fleshed out or at least started, consider where the next scene is or should be set. Then consider how your protagonist gets from this scene to the next? This transportation can add further detail to the initial scene, and spark writing in a direction you weren’t even thinking about as you figure out how the hero or heroine physically gets from point A to point B.  Traveling from point A to point B leads us to another key element to consider that will help emblazon your world with vibrant life, and that is the senses of your characters.

Understand the natural (and unnatural) senses of our cast of characters

All our characters perceive the world through senses. We as humans have our five senses; taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight. Your readers will use their own experiences with these senses to embellish the world around them as they immerse in your story, but you have to prompt them. As the reader steps into the skin of your protagonist we readily take care of sight. Heck, most writers have “Show don’t tell” beaten into them early on by almost everyone. The sense of sight is usually covered, but what about the other four?

As your reader walks through your world inside your characters, what does that city street smell like? What does the rain in the field feel like on their skin? Can the reader smell that hot dog cart that rolled by the gumshoe detective? What did the cloth of the woman’s dress feel like as he gripped her shoulders? All these things begin to add a very personal level of detail as your reader falls back on their own experiences, adding a flare to your world unique to them alone. They know what they perceive a city street to smell like, what that earthy just-after-a-rain smell is in the country, what a Chicago dirty-water dog smells like as it rolls by, and what cotton feels like under their fingers.

If you outline, that story structure can be a font of inspiration to guide your world building. If you fly by the seat of your pants a structured world building outline can ground your story so well it will seem like it writes itself. Using that initial scene, that seed of an idea that got your creative juices flowing in the first place is a great place to begin to answer those vital questions that bring the world to life. Knowing how your cast of characters experience their world will guide you in making sure all the questions are answered before your reader experiences word one of your tale.

These are by far not all the questions you can answer about world building. This is also not the only way to approach the sometimes-monumental task of fleshing out a world in which your character-creations wander about. What this is, is one tool to be used to create a vital, breathing, and vibrant world for your reader to immerse themselves in as they experience the story you have to tell.

Check back next month with Atlas’ Tool Box and we’ll talk about when to stop world building and start writing so you can get about the business of actually telling that really cool tale you have bouncing around inside your head.

Series NavigationAtlas’ Tool Box – World Building: Where to Stop >>

4 thoughts on “Atlas’ Tool Box – World Building: Where to Begin?

  1. Great introduction to world-building! Love the practical examples. I especially like the way you’ve described the dynamic between world-building and plotters vs pantsers. I had never thought of that converse relationship before!

    Looking forward to next month’s feature!

  2. Great article, Mark. I hadn’t thought about the difference in planning the world. Thinking about it, I do tend to think the world out before starting, though it almost always shocks me at some point.

    What I’d like to point out is we need to do some world building even if we are writing in this world. We need to focus the reader on our particular version of the world our characters inhabit. Create the feel of New York City for those who’ve never been there as an example.

    1. I totally agree. In that case we aren’t so much “building” as we are describing but it really IS building isn’t it. We have to build up the world around the character and the story so it feels real to the reader. That very much can be “world building”, yes.

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