One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing a story is building the setting. Even if you’re not writing a fantasy tale, there’s no escaping the task of world building. Every story takes place within a particular setting, in a particular time, and with particular attributes that stand out above all else for a particular character. It doesn’t matter how closely you attempt to replicate the real world – you’re not just building a world, you’re building a worldview.
Tolkien calls this “sub-creation“, because you’re not exactly creating something new, but rather collecting the bits and pieces of what you know and selecting and rearranging the details and images and ideas until you get something that feels unique and palpable and exceedingly particular.
The fun part of writing is that I get to build my own little worlds. A while back, I came across an article about world building that suggested there were essentially three different ways to approach the task:
- As an architect, wherein you plan out all of the details and construct everything out ahead of time.
- As a gardener, wherein you suss out the rules as you need them, learning about the laws of your world little by little, but still paying them close mind.
- As a tourist, wherein you get into the mindset of your characters and discover things as you find them.
While I’m a little fuzzy on the difference between the gardener and the tourist, I generally like these classifications. I find myself bouncing back and forth between planning out the big picture and letting the characters and the moments speak. There’s danger in getting too caught up in either mode. Look too long at the big picture, and while you might have a ton of fun ironing out all of the details, you lose the story. Look too closely at the details, and you write yourself into corners and inconsistencies.
This article from the Writers Digest blog that speaks to trick of finding this very balance. It’s a good read. I also recommend Flannery O’Connor’s essays on writing in the collection Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.
I approach story-worlds as series of images and moments that are rich and memorable. Some of my favorite moments in literature have nothing to do with the overall story and everything to do with these little details. Because of CS Lewis, I’ll never stop looking for secret passageways between connecting houses and through closet doors. Because of Madeleine L’Engel, I’ll always long for a midnight hot cocoa with my mom. Because of Roald Dahl, I’ll always be afraid of the chokey. I’d give anything to have breakfast at Longbourne, face Ender in the battle room, join Phaedrus for a walk among the trees, or feast with the Elves at Rivendell.
These aren’t just story elements, they’re little moments that make up the world in which the stories take place, and the good ones can almost stand on their own. My memory is full of these little moments – fireplaces, outfits, evenings, cups of tea, teachers, storms, ideas, toys, views, time periods, towns, trains, and more. Each little memory opens up a world in my imagination where I can dwell for a while.
I’m still working out how to create these moments in my own writing, but I like to think in details and images that give the world texture while also providing structure. I give myself landmarks and then work my way towards them. It’s a good system in that it gives me a goal driven narrative, but allows me the flexibility to discover things I didn’t see coming.
In the end, I’d have to say that I’m the gardener. I lay out a structure, plant a few seeds, and then tend the world emerges from the soil.