ABC’s of Fiction Writing: B is for Building a World

Posted by on Mar 3, 2015 in Uncategorized | 7 comments

SMALLrach7World-building: it’s a phrase most commonly used when discussing fantasy and science fiction novels, stories so far removed from reality that readers must be guided through these narratives every step of the way. In some cases, the phrase is macrocosmically literal; in science fiction, for example, entire planets are created from the core outward. But the craft of building a world isn’t just for authors dealing in aliens and alternate universes. Even if you’re writing realistic fiction, the world through which your characters move needs to be fully developed, or else you run the risk of miring your readers in poorly-described settings, incomprehensible character motivations, and nonsensical plot resolutions.

Lots of writers build worlds in their heads and then forget to put essential elements of those worlds into their manuscripts, but I’ve found that I fall into this trap more often when I write realistic fiction. Why? In some cases, it’s because in my real life, I’m surrounded by people who live in social subsets that are similar to the social subsets I’m writing about. I’m not accustomed to explaining those worlds to “outsiders”—we all understand what’s left unspoken. For example, when I was writing a novel set in a South Central Los Angeles high school while simultaneously teaching at a South Central Los Angeles high school, I didn’t feel the need to narratively explain that world’s struggles, dynamics, and social hierarchies because I was surrounded by people—other teachers, students—who lived that world every day and knew how it worked. When I gave my manuscript to “outside” readers, however, they were completely lost. By building that world poorly and leaving essential functions of that world unexplained, I’d failed to provide my readers with a strong grasp of my characters’ motivations and actions.

More generally, though, there’s an assumption that readers have a basic familiarity with “the real world,” and so there are certain things that we, as writers, shouldn’t have to explain. And that’s true, up to a certain point: if you’re writing realistic fiction, readers should already know that the sky is blue and the grass is green (or brown, if you’re in California). But if you’re writing for a wider audience—people who don’t necessarily live in the world of your narrative—you’re going to have to establish certain facts for your readers. Perhaps it’s vital that your readers understand your characters’ family dynamics, or their upbringings, or their educational backgrounds, or their relationship histories, or the spoken and unspoken rules of their culture or society. In realistic fiction, all those elements are important aspects of an established world. It’s equally likely that all those elements, as true-to-life as they may be, might be as confusing to your readers as landline telephones were to E.T.

But there are so many facts! you may be fretting. How do I cram them all into my narrative? Relax—you don’t have to reveal your world all at once; when writing a scene, you should only reveal those details that are essential to your reader understanding the full impact of that particular scene. I tend to intricately plot my novels before I sit down to write the first draft, and I’ve found it helpful, as I’m outlining my individual scenes, to make a list of what world-building information should be included. That way, I know I won’t be dumping a truckload of exposition on my readers upfront. B, in this case, is also for balance.

Rachael's Plot Notebook

Rachael’s Plot Notebook

Rachael Warecki is an alumna of Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University, and the Teach For America corps. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Masters Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. You can find her on Facebook, on Twitter, or on her website. She lives in L.A.


  1. This goes to the heart of a breakthrough I had with my novel writing late last year–well done, Rachel.

  2. In a parallel reflection to the patience I have witnessed in your Photography… I appreciate the way in which you chart a course for your story. Easier to “say”, than to perform. But the lesson you share helps us navigate the silent places. Even as Beckett observed, “Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know… you must go on, I can’t go on… I’ll go on.”

  3. That notebook is a work of art itself! Thanks, Rachael, for a great look at the process!

  4. Great stuff, Rachael! I’m going to share it with my students–and remember this myself.

  5. Thank you, Brian! High praise, and beautifully expressed!

  6. Thanks, Chris! I almost swooned at the art comment, coming as it did from one half of the ever-erudite Magnus Flyte. 🙂

  7. I appreciate it, Sara!

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