World-building in the writer’s realm often seems synonymous with works of sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction. Authors can spend hours researching, brainstorming, and drafting vast, complicated worlds for the curiosity and delight of their readers. However, world-building in the real world, our world, is just as important and shouldn’t be overlooked on account of being so familiar.
Building a strong, nuanced setting in the real world helps readers place themselves within it, allowing for a richer reading experience. We may all have an idea of what our own hometown is like, for example, but what would we want to highlight to someone who had never been there before? These questions are important to ask, as they naturally lend themselves to effective world-building and setting development.
Here are some tips on how to effectively build up the real world for your novel!
- Pay attention to your surroundings
This may sound ominous, considering that commonplace phrase – “the devil’s in the details.” It’s usually used in a negative way, but it also highlights how details are incredibly important.
Details are key to making a setting feel more real. For example, “she walked toward the forest” is effective, but consider “she walked toward the tree-line, a towering wall of fir trees and felled logs” as a more detailed alternative. Of course, you don’t want every sentence to be laden with heavy imagery, but establishing details are so, so important. If this is the first time your readers have been introduced to this forest, for example, telling them a little more about it in a simple, direct way will help conjure up a better image in their minds.
- Look and listen: atmosphere and audio
Imagine if I’d chosen “sun-dappled grove” rather than “towering wall of fir trees.” The first is beautiful, welcoming; the second, intimidating, daunting. Be conscious of the atmosphere – or, as some might say, the vibe – of a setting. While it might seem natural to you that a shady, secluded forest that smells of pine trees and rot is something to be wary of, others might find it peaceful or welcoming. Word choice matters when conveying the feeling you’d like the setting too impart.
Likewise, don’t neglect sound! Sight and smell are all well and good, but descriptions of sound are extremely effective. Is it dead silent? Bustling and bright? Are there the sounds of birds, voices, the wind, water, the clattering of tools or utensils? How loud or quiet are the sounds, how close, how far, what effect do they have on the characters?
Again, remember, sometimes less is more. Really highlight what you want your readers to know and walk it back from there. The most important details shouldn’t be mired in a bog of unnecessary description (see our tips regarding purple prose below).
- Take a walk (or a drive, or a trip)
Reading is, at best, a totally immersive experience, one wherein you can ignore the time passing and be so wrapped up in the world on the page that all else seems irrelevant. To accomplish this, writers have to be as aware off the page as they are while scribbling on it.
So, get out there! If possible, visit locations that inspire you. I don’t mean a globe-trekking trip that takes place over weeks – simply visiting a part of your neighbourhood that can be transformed into a realistic setting can be a huge help.
A gorgeous park nearby that reminds of a well-kempt manor’s grounds? Go and make note of its particulars. A neon-lined street of business open late into the night? That might be perfect for your next neo-noir project. Even your local coffeeshop or gas station or parking lot can be grounds for inspiration if you look close enough.
If none of the above is possible, I highly recommend research through immersive audio and video. Check out streams of walks around a particular city; tune into soundscape videos; listen to a travel podcast. There is a dearth of content online that can inspire your real-world settings from the comfort of your home.
- Avoid purple prose
Next, despite all this talk of detail, make sure you don’t overuse it. Purple prose is “prose that is too elaborate or ornate,” according to the dictionary. It can make for a difficult reading experience, as the essence of the story, characters, and dialogue is weighted down by unnecessarily florid description and descriptors.
An editor, of course, can help you solve problems relating to purple prose! And, as always, there is no right way to write – elaborate explanations of setting can add to the story, even if it’s not a fantasy world or distant planet. Over-the-top description can be used to accentuate the dreamlike nature of a scene, or to showcase a character or characters who are hyper focused on their surroundings. It can even be used in an intense depiction of combat, or an escape sequence where every surrounding detail counts as your characters attempt to flee the scene. These moments might benefit from extended world-building immensely.
- Have fun with it
However you choose to build up your world, remember to have fun with it. Our world is full of wonderful details that shouldn’t go ignored. Take your time and familiarize yourself with spaces and places that may have otherwise gone unnoticed by you. And, of course, enjoy writing!