Worldbuilding is a term generally applied to the fantasy and science fiction genres, but all great writers use worldbuilding in their craft. As the author of several historical fiction novels, I can attest to the fact that worldbuilding is an important writing strategy, one I use every time I write a book. The term applies equally to the kind of writing that is done in all kinds of fiction, non-fiction, games, songs, short stories, stories within narrative…and the list goes on and on.
Worldbuilding (according to Wikipedia) is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a fictional universe. Okay, but why bother to take the time to build a world?
No matter what genre or category, one thing riveting books have in common are the worlds the author creates, and the way the imaginary (or real) realms envelop the reader and draw them into a new reality. Bestsellers don’t just have settings. Characters interact with and are challenged by all aspects—external and internal—of their world.
As a writer it’s important to give a strong sense of place in fiction and non-fiction and offer a landscape of the imagination that sweeps the reader into the world. A focus on worldbuilding adds depth and meaning to your writing, is a great way to brainstorm within your writing, and helps you forge deeper connect to the world on the page. And therefore, you reader will too.
Think about it for a moment. Recall your favorite books and the world the author invites you to enter. When reading Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle-earth is as real to me as Wisconsin. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling is another example of marvelous worldbuilding, or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and one of my recent reads, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.
Some books that don’t fall into the fantasy or science fiction genres, but have incredible worlds that invite us in and capture us are Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. For excellent worldbuilding in non-fiction, read Devil in the White City by Erik Larson or Born to Run by Christopher McDougal
So how to go about worldbuilding?
Some people draw maps or write lists with aspects of the world and delve into creative writing exercises that help submerge them into the world. Be sure that you put together the physical pieces of your world that bring meaning and motivation to your story. When worldbuilding I start with a sketch of the town, then create worlds within worlds as I drill-down to the buildings where the scenes will take place. Keeping in mind mood and what will happen in these contexts, next I decide furniture, objects, and make sure everything has meaning and reflects aspects of the characters who inhabit these rooms.
This is important: I know every detail, but don’t include them all. In fact, most details don’t make it onto the page. Too much can bog and slow a story, and everyone has read books where this happens. Be sure every detail has a meaning and earns its place.
Share only details that help you tell the story, like the greasy-food tent smell in Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen or the hot, cruel Santa Anna winds in White Oleander by Janet Fitch. Build a world that intensifies meaning and conflict. Be sure every element in your world has consequence and meaning. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong. Build your world to reflect the theme of your writing. Or, when you finally figure out the theme (it’s usually near the end before I know) enhance the world to reflect it in a stronger way.
Develop your world constantly as you write. Allow it to motivate, surprise and delight you, and the reader will feel all these things too. One final piece of advice: it’s easy to slip into hours of research and drawing of maps and making files, but DO NOT use worldbuilding as a procrastination tool! It’s an easy thing to do.
Be sure to check out the new Jump-Start Your Imagination series next month when there will be plenty of writing exercises and prompts focused on helping you build your world.