World-Building Techniques: 8 Tips Every Writer Should Know

A book is an invitation to a new world. Whether that world is a supernatural universe or a sleepy cul-de-sac doesn’t matter. What matters is that it feels real to the story.

World-building is an essential writing skill, no matter what genre you pen for. Sure, a romance set in modern-day New York City may require less planning than a fantasy epic set on Mars 5,000 years into the future. But taking the time to establish the fictional universe your characters are living in will only make your story stronger.

Think of it like research for a non-fiction book. Readers could definitely tell you didn’t do your homework if you claimed that George Washington had a pet unicorn. While it may not be as obvious, fiction books that lack world-building also tend to lack believability.

So, if you want to write the kinds of stories people can get lost in, here are eight world-building tips to keep in mind.

Fantasize, but Don’t Procrastinate

The biggest risk with world-building is getting stuck there. The line between necessary research and glorified procrastination is thin. Spending months building maps, timelines, and backstories might give you a rich, detailed world, but you’ll still have to write the story.

To avoid this trap, set a world-building deadline. Give yourself a month or so to create the basic foundation of your fictional universe. Then start writing and allow the rest of your world to unfold as you go.

Try Relating Out-of-This-World Concepts to Real-World Things

The idea of world-building makes it sound like you have to come up with something brand new and original for every aspect of your story. But readers don’t really want to spend a ton of time figuring out how your world works.

By relating fantastical elements to things readers are already familiar with, you can make your story more accessible and easier to follow. If your world includes a new beast, for example, think of what real-life animal it might resemble in terms of behavior, diet, and habitat. This gives your readers a point of reference to help them better understand and connect with your world.

Look at Your World Through a Circus Mirror

If you are going the fantastical route but have no clue where to start, try exaggerating elements of the real world. Take an aspect of our reality that relates to your plot and flip it on its head.

Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power does this with gender roles. The story takes place in a world where women have developed the ability to electrocute people and are suddenly feared by men. It’s a dystopian universe, but one with familiar qualities most readers can connect with

Let Real Life Inspire You

Most fictional worlds are built on real ones. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you do have to understand how it works. When inspiration for your fictional world does strike — be it a place, a religion, or a society — learn as much as you can about it. The more you know about the inner workings of your inspiration, the better equipped you’ll be to create a believable world that draws readers in.

Hook Readers With Something Weird

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s what gets readers to turn the page. Whatever strange ritual or idea inspired you is likely to grab your readers in a similar way. We’re all drawn to the weird and taboo. So, if you’ve got it, use it to your advantage.

And weird doesn’t have to be that weird. Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House opens with an adult brother and sister who like to watch the house they grew up in from the street. It’s not a mind-boggling oddity by any means, but it’s just unusual enough to make you wonder.

Weave World-Building Details into Conversation

Do you have pages upon pages of world-building information but aren’t sure how to utilize it? Try integrating it into some dialogue. Having a couple of characters recall their memories from the war that destroyed half the kingdom is a lot more interesting than getting a history lesson about it.

Use Only 10 Percent

This tip might sting. While taking the time to map out your entire world and all its customs, history, and topography may be helpful to you as the writer, only a small portion of that should actually make it into your book.

It’s tempting to want to share every detail with your readers, but remember that including too much information can quickly become overwhelming and distract from the main story. Stick to the most important and interesting details and keep the rest in your notes for reference.

Remember: The World Isn’t the Story

Don’t get so caught up in the details that you lose sight of the most important part—the narrative.

Your fictional world should enhance and support the plot, not overshadow it. So, keep an eye on your draft and question each world-building element. Is it serving the story or just taking up space? No reader wants to get hit with a wall of exposition about your world right off the bat. Instead, sprinkle details throughout the story when relevant or necessary.

If you’re worried that your manuscript is more of an info dump than a compelling tale, check out my editorial services. I help writers of all genres and skill levels fine-tune their first drafts so they can tell the best version of their story possible.

Click here to learn more.

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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