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Stir Up Your Setting – Part 1: World Building

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass writes:

In nineteenth century novel writing, it was usual to treat the landscape as a character in the story. In the twenty-first century, we may have less patience for scenery, but we certainly expect a novel to show us the world as a vital force in which the characters move. It may be hostile or seductive, sprawling or confined, gritty or charming, closely observed or wildly improvisational. Whatever the author’s approach, we want to live in the world of the story. Proof of this can be found in the highly popular fields of science fiction and fantasy. Here, scene setting is a high art . . . they construct their settings in logical and exhaustive detail. Their process is called world building. Simply put, it is a disciplined method for creating a convincing alternate time and place. . . . Building breakout time and place starts with the principle that the world of the novel is composed of much more than description of landscape and rooms. It is milieu, period, fashion, ideas, human outlook, historical moment, spiritual mood, and more. It is capturing not only place but people in an environment; not only history but humans changing in their era. Description is the least of it. Bringing people alive in a place and time that are alive is the essence of it. (pp 81-83)

World Building isn’t just for SciFi/Fantasy writers! Even if you’re using a contemporary, real place like New York City or London, the setting is just as important as if you’re writing about a fictional city or another place/time/world. Your job as author is to bring the reader into your world, not just assume they’ll know your setting without being shown.

To see how a world is built, I have gone through the first 3 pages of Chapter One of my recently completed historical romance, Ransome’s Honor:

  • sail
  • ship
  • larboard
  • Midshipman
  • Indomitable
  • companion stairs
  • quarterdeck
  • small spyglass
  • mainmast
  • “…only two days out from England…”
  • shroud
  • scrow’s nest
  • ropes
  • …over the noise and bustle of the crew below…
  • …ninety-eight gun, three deck ship…
  • the distant ship
  • …flag flying aft snapped in the sun…
  • sailor’s whistle
  • lieutenant
  • Boatswain’s mate
  • …brought the lively crew to a frenzy of action…

Now, if you’ll notice, all of my setting descriptors are sight and sound–which is something a couple of critiquers dinged me on. No, you don’t have to use all five senses in the first five pages of the novel, but when World Building, incorporating the textures (are the ropes rough or smooth under his hands?), smells (the odor of unwashed bodies in close quarters), and taste (the salt spray as the ship breaks through high waves) draws the reader further into the story by immersing them in the total sensory experience of the character.

Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to go through the first three pages of your first chapter and list as many descriptions of the actual location of the story as possible. Then identify what type of discriptors they are: sensory (use of the five senses), physical (do you describe something’s structure or the layout of furniture in the room), vocabulary (words or language unique to that time or place), locale (do you explain where your setting is located?), or interactive (is the character interacting with the setting–are they using “props”?).

  1. Thursday, May 3, 2007 11:59 pm

    Yikes! This is so not my strong point! In fact, I need some work on this area (won’t go into how much setting I DON’T have) so please keep the posts coming!


  2. Friday, May 4, 2007 1:59 pm

    Kaye, this is a great exercise! I just began a new wip. I’ve only written the opening scene but looking over it, I see opportunity for improvement based on the info you provided. It’s clear the characters are in a bedroom but is it an apartment, condo, house? What time of day is it? What season?

    My character interacts with things: clothes in closet, hangars, suitcase, bed, desk & chair. There’s lot of sensory, particularly sight and touch but no taste, which probably doesn’t fit with what is happening in this particular scene, and little or no sound or scent.

    Now that I know this, I can rework this scene and try to be mindful of this as I write.



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