The Mysteries of World Building

I have been working on some projects and getting them sent out to editors and agents in hopes of selling my next book. While my debut was a picture book, many of the works that I am sending out are Middle Grade novels.

Unfortunately, I have been getting the ever fearful silent rejection.

Last year, I got some feedback on a couple of my projects that told me I had too much world building in my stories and that it slowed things down. So I have worked diligently to remedy this problem by stripping down as much of the story as I thought I could to eliminate all this “unnecessary” world building.

So when I received an email with an actual personalized rejection, I was quite surprised that one of the big reasons my story was rejected was world building! Loved my voice. Loved the concept. My craft….not so much.

I have read books and blogs on world building and writing and found many of them helpful. So, what was I missing?

With a picture book, world building seems easier because you have an illustrator who is going to help build that world. (Please note that this is a false concept that I will explain later).

I decided to do a mentor study of how other people built their world in the first 3-5 chapters of their books. I chose a lot of books that I had already read so that I could focus on the craft and not so much the story. I also chose books from authors who had at least written 3 books and started on book 4 or later because they will have logically gotten better with their craft as they practiced it.

It was when I was reading one of Brian McClellan’s stories that things began to click. If you are not familiar with Brian McClellan, he writes epic fantasy and in my humble opinion, is one of the best of the modern writers in regards to craft.

What amazed me in his writing and world building is that he really didn’t do it, or at least forcibly. He introduces three characters in three chapters without really telling you anything about the setting.

The first character is in a bar early in the morning. He does not own the bar, but works for a shady government agency and he uses the bar as a meeting place to train recruits. And most of this is done through self dialogue and his interaction with the bar.

The second character is entering a fort that her regiment has just captured. Again, you get description through her interactions with the world, her senses and dialogue with the people she encounters.

The final character is in a labor camp. You see the world through his eyes as he observes the people around him in anticipation for parole.

In each case, we are not given details about the setting itself. We don’t get to learn about what decorates the walls of the bar or what the floor is made of. We don’t learn how big the fort walls were or even clearly how they are laid out. We don’t learn about what kind of labor is done at the camp or what they eat.

So the question is, how does Brian McClellan build his world?

He uses rich language and dialogue.

Remember how I mentioned illustrators, well, novels have illustrators too! The reader creates the world in the head. They imagine it, and if done well, fill in the gaps.

And that was my epiphany: World building is not setting and description, it is how the character views the world and interacts with it.

To clarify this thought, let’s do a little exercise.

What do you think of when you read the word school?

If everyone were to respond, each description would be different, but they would all have similarities. This is setting.

Now let’s build the world by adding a character: band nerd who is also debate team captain.

Again, everyone immediately defines this character through their own experiences or interactions with such people or through popular conventions as depicted on television or movies. Every person’s idea would be different, but you would also find similarities.

Now let’s add a conflict: our character goes to a prestigious private school that prides itself on academics and our character is the star of the school and the pressure is too much.

For some of you, your initial setting in your mind changed. For some, your character or the way you view your character may have changed. But for everyone, you have began constructing a world from the information that you have.

Right now, we know nothing of the character. We do not know their sex, age, likes/dislikes, their family, their goals, their struggles, where they live, when this takes place, ethnicity, nothing…..but each person has an image in their mind created from their own experiences.

There is no need at this time to tell how big the school is, who teaches third period, the number of doors to the next class, or what color the walls are painted…unless it is necessary to the story.

World building is not about the setting, but how the character views themselves in it and interact with it.

Tracy wiped the water from her chin with her sleeve as she glared at the group of boys huddled together down the hall. She didn’t care what they thought, she would drink from whatever fountain she wanted to and they couldn’t stop her.

Spinning on her heel, she strode down the hall, daring anyone to say anything. Everyone turned away from her gaze, except Sharon, who looked up with a smile as she passed.

Did your view of the school change? Did your view of the character change?

I would hazard a guess that if I were to ask many of you to give a description of the school and the character, there would still be differences, but overall, you likely have the same idea of the world this girl lives in and her struggles, even if you never experienced them.

With two paragraphs, I built a world for you. Now, for the rest of the book, I can shape that world as our character sees it. Now description should come through her eyes when it matters to her.

Now comes the hard part, putting it into practice.

My suggestion, word choice. Don’t berate the intelligence of your reader. Let them connect with the story by using rich language that they can get. And by rich language, I don’t mean fancy words, but rather, words the reader can visualize and make a connection too.

In the passage I wrote above, water fountain, is the rich word. When Tracy defies the idea of being able to drink from a fountain, the reader will likely immediately associate it with racial segregation which helps paint the picture of when this story might take place, Tracy’s ethnicity, and her struggles.

Empower the reader to feel empathy for your character and see the world through his or her eye’s. This will make your reader visualize the world by shaping it to their own experiences.

After all, why do people complain about how the book is always better than the movie?

I hope that my little epiphany has helped you understand world building a little more.

Author: matthewlasley

I am a school teacher and an author. I like to write picture books, middle grade, science fiction and short stories. I live in Alaska and I love history, so those two things often influence my creative writing.

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