Turning words into worlds

A question I often see from new authors is “How can I make sure the reader has enough information about the world my characters live in?” It’s a good question. World-building can be really hard. Even if your world is, or is based on, this real one, you have to firmly establish that in the minds of your readers, and you have to make sure they know exactly which bit of our world it is.

The mistake authors often make is to try to tell the reader everything they need to know at the very beginning of their story. This makes sense in a way – you want to establish your setting so your reader can settle into the story. But, especially when the world is not the real one, this can sometimes lead to long, clunky bouts of exposition, where the narrator intrudes on the action to explain the situation, or where characters tell other characters things that all involved already know.

It’s a tricky balancing act – you need to induct your reader into the world you’ve created for them, but you also need to get them and keep them invested in the action of your story. Luckily, world-building can be done extremely subtly, using very few words, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Readers are good at waiting for answers, as long as they understand that something has purposely raised a question. If they come across something unfamiliar very early on, they’re going to understand that no, they haven’t missed something – this is something that exists in this world that presumably will be made clear in the course of time. Obviously you can’t leave them hanging for too long, but it does mean you give yourself some space to stretch your exposition out a bit.

For example, this is the first paragraph of The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

We learn some important things in those 52 words. The main character has a sister named Prim. There’s a hint, in the rough canvas cover, of poverty and discomfort. And there is the “reaping”. The reaping is not explained for another 12 pages, but from just these few sentences, we know that there’s something different going on here, something ominous, and it gives us a clue that we might not be in the world we know. So we’ll read on until we find out where we are.

Here’s another example, the first paragraph of The Other Boleyn Girl:

I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold. I had been at this court for more than a year and attended hundreds of festivities; but never before one like this.

The lacing on the bodice, the scaffold – those little details take us straight back in time. This chapter actually has a date marker, but we don’t need that to know immediately that we’re in a historical novel.

I’m not claiming these openings are revolutionary; many stories start by going directly into a scene without explanation. But paying attention to how much information can be conveyed about a world through seemingly minor details can be really eye-opening. Worlds build themselves, almost without the reader realising, freeing you, the author, to focus on the story rather than on throwing information at them. There will be times you need to explain things, of course there will, but by keeping longer chunks of exposition to the necessary minimum, you can tighten up your writing and keep the action moving.

I recently tried a little exercise with my writers’ group to show how simple this kind of subtle world-building can be.

She opened the BLANK. They’d run out of BLANK. She’d have to go and ask BLANK for more.

We used these sentences as a prompt – people filled in the blanks and used those sentences to start a story. The results were wonderfully diverse:

Jeff looked in the canal. They had run out of pellets. He would have to go and ask Mike for more, but it was five miles to the lockhouse and he had no way of knowing if Mike would even be there.

She looked in the larder. They’d run out of eggs. She’d have to go and ask Ivy for more. She felt a chill as she remembered how well-stocked the shelves once were.

Helen looked in the empty box on the shelf of the stationery cupboard. They had run out of pens. She’d have to go and ask bloody Moira for some more. That battle-axe of an office manager would undoubtedly treat her to an extended lecture about wastefulness and dwindling budgets.

Carter looked in the robot’s sensor pods. They had run out of diffusion filters. Now he would have to grovel to Morgan for more. She was not going to be happy.

Other stories included some post-nuclear dystopia, and a comedy scene involving counterfeit money and a horse. With just a few nouns, we managed to start creating very different settings and situations. Why not try a similar exercise and see where you end up?

(Oh and Morgan, if you were wondering, was actually perfectly happy, because her evil plan was working. She killed Carter and released the black mist…)

With love and endless thanks to my writing buddies at South Shields Fiction Writers x

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