By Warren Hammond

Why do you read fiction?

You might say compelling characters. Or high-stakes drama. Maybe you love the plot twists you didn’t see coming.

Those are all valid responses, but when taken alone, isn’t each of them inadequate? Don’t you read fiction for all those reasons, plus probably dozens of others that I didn’t list?

So I’ll ask again, why do you read fiction? It’s a simple question that seems to defy a simple, one-sentence response. Yet, I’m about to attempt it.

You read fiction because you want to be transported to a different time, place, and emotional state.

Reading is travel.

Visit any location in the world or any point in history from the comfort of your own sofa. Pass the time on that dull bus ride exploring fantastical worlds that push the limits of imagination. Journey into the mind of a serial killer or the queen of a medieval realm. Tour all of the emotions available to us humans. Love and despair. Joy and terror. Satisfaction and guilt.

Fiction can take you anywhere you want to go. Every last remote corner of human (and non-human) experience is accessible through fiction.

That is why you read.

And why you write.

Accept that premise, and you see why world-building is a required skill if you’re going to write good stories. I don’t care what genre you write, world-building is required. You can’t transport your reader unless you have a fully realized location to take them to.

That said, the amount of world-building you do will very much depend on your genre and the kind of story you want to tell. For example, you’d expect to do lots of world-building for an epic fantasy set in an imaginary but vaguely medieval universe. None of your readers have ever lived in such a world, so you’ll have to spend a hefty percentage of your word count orienting them so they don’t feel lost. Lucky for you, in this case, many of your readers have read other books set in vaguely medieval universes, so you’ll have a broad range of well-known tropes to borrow from. But use too many of those tropes and you’ll be accused of being derivative. The trick is to find a pleasing mix of original elements and tried-and-true tropes accepted in your genre.

Write a novel with a contemporary setting, and you’ll dedicate fewer words to building your world. Your readers will already be familiar with cars and computers and cell phones. Set your novel in a city like New York and your job will be even easier since your readers will certainly be familiar with the city even if they’ve ever been there in person.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll be off the hook entirely. Say you want to write a mystery centering around the murder of a yacht racing captain. Now you’ll have a sizable job ahead of you. Most of your readers won’t be familiar with many of the nautical terms, nor will they have much of a clue of how professional yacht racing works. What are the racing rules? Where do yacht teams get their funding? What is the social structure within that world?

Okay, so now that we’ve established the fact that all stories require world-building to various degrees, I’d like to share my guidelines. Guidelines? But you wanted a step-by-step how-to manual. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. Writing is a very organic process, and also very personal. What works for one person will likely fail another. The best anybody can do is offer a framework of generalizations, and I hope you’ll take these guidelines as such.

1.       Build a fully-formed world rich with detail. Your world should include all of the following:

Culture – Traditions, clothing, food, language, architecture, manners

History – War, famine, exploration, scientific advancement

Environment – Flora, fauna, weather, geography

Economy – Trade, currency, class structure, resources

Religion – Beliefs, ethics, values, rituals

Unreal* – Futuristic or alien technology, magic, supernatural elements

Politics – Government, military, foreign relations, legal system

This first guideline even comes with a built-in pep talk. Notice the first letters of each line spell CHEER UP!

*Not all genres include elements of the unreal

2.       Use only the relevant details

Now that you’ve built a complex and compelling world, you have to seriously consider which details to include in your story. Include them all, and you’ll slow your plot to a crawl. Instead, you’ll need to choose only those details that have a significant impact on your story and its characters. Don’t bore your readers with minutia they don’t need to know.

3.       Avoid info dumps

Don’t tell us about your world. Put us in your world.

This is fiction, not an encyclopedia. When you introduce a new gadget, show a character using it, and we’ll learn soon enough what it does. When you want to dig into the nitty-gritty of a subject, let your characters discuss the subject in dialog. Or better yet, amp up the tension by turning that discussion into an argument.

Long passages of background information need not apply.

4.       Imbue your world with mood and atmosphere

Don’t forget my original premise, that readers want to be transported to a different time, location, and emotional state. How do you want your reader to feel when they’re in your world? Scared? Awed? Enchanted?

To achieve this goal, show us how your world affects your characters. If the world makes your characters feel scared, it’s likely your reader will feel scared too.

Also be smart with your word choices. Take a simple sentence like this one.

The wind rustles through the leaves.

Replace the word rustles with any of these verbs (whistles, weaves, whips, roars, whispers, barges, snakes), and I think you’ll agree that each one invokes a unique mood.

Create a proper mood, and your world will come alive!

Happy writing!

Warren grew up in the Hudson River Valley of New York State. Upon obtaining his teaching degree from the University at Albany, he moved to Colorado, and settled in Denver where he can often be found typing away at one of the local coffee shops.

Warren is known for his gritty, futuristic KOP series. By taking the best of classic detective noir, and reinventing it on a destitute colony world, Warren has created these uniquely dark tales of murder, corruption and redemption.

Always eager to see new places, Warren has traveled extensively. Whether it’s wildlife viewing in exotic locales like Botswana and the Galapagos Islands, or trekking in the Himalayas, he's always up for a new adventure.

It’s All Relative

By Ross Willard

Ross WillardI’m cold.

I know, I know, it’s winter and we’re all cold, but, if you can hang on for a moment and trust me, my being cold is actually kind of relevant. You see, I’m visiting my parents in a small town in Texas where we have a farm.

Right now, it’s about thirty five, forty degrees outside, and I’m cold. Which is weird, because I’ve had days in Colorado where I’ve joyfully worn short sleeves outside when the temperature got up this high. As a matter of fact, if it had gotten this warm on the day that I’d left Colorado, I probably wouldn’t have brought the jacket I’m wearing today.

But here I am. Cold.

Why? Because it’s all relative. I lived the first few years of my life in Michigan, and the first winter after I moved to Texas, I was stunned. People were throwing on jackets and huddling up right about the time I was starting to get comfortable. Of course, the first summer after I moved to Texas, I spent about a month wearing as little as I could and laying under the fan all day, but that winter I was amused.

So many times, when I’ve heard editors talking about what they look for and authors talk about how they start a book, they’ll put so much emphasis on the importance of getting right to the action as soon as possible. To an extent, I agree with them. Hooking a reader in, giving them a reason to keep turning the page is paramount: it doesn’t matter how good your story is, if readers have to slog through two hundred pages of description to get to the meat, they won’t do it. That being said, I think that many times authors forget the importance of world building when it comes to writing, and it’s an art every bit as important as the art of crafting action.

Willard_SYSTEM PurgeWhy? Because a book about propriety in the nineteenth century can be every bit as captivating and riveting as a book about the end of the world. More so, even. I cannot even begin to imagine how many books over the last decade or so have been written wherein the stakes are the fate of all of mankind, where the world hangs in the balance and everything and everyone you’ve ever known or met will come to naught if one person fails in his/her quest to… well, whatever it is they have to do. And yet these books, at least, most of these books, will fade away with time. They will be forgotten, taken off of shelves, disappear from human memory, while books written a century or more ago, books about young orphans simply trying to survive on the streets and young women resisting society’s pressures to marry this man or that, will live on for a hundred more years.

Now, I’m not saying that I prefer the works of Dickens and Austin over more modern creations, in point of fact, I haven’t read either of them since graduation, and I don’t feel that I’ve lost much by doing so. That being said, if we were to write the basic plot of each down, show them to someone who didn’t know about literature, and ask which one was likely to be read and reread, generation after generation and which one would be quickly forgotten, I strongly suspect they’d be inclined to choose poorly.

But the thing in literature is that the stakes are always magnificent. Whether failure means death to a species, or less exuberant life for a single soul, we can experience the full range of human emotions in examining each. We can gnash our teeth in rage at the smallest bit of rudeness and feel our toes curl in delight at a half smile, if the author gives us the opportunity.

World building is often discussed amongst science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts (such as myself), because, well, we build worlds, but every author is required to be a world builder. Every writer is responsible for explaining to his or her reader why it is that their story is important. While authors like Dickens and Austin can be difficult to read because of their laborious passages and never-ending descriptions, the fact is that they have lasted for as long as they have because they do what so few other authors can: they paint the world in such a way as to force their reader to care about the outcome of their book, to reflect upon on it.

For you authors who feel your work is missing something, but cannot put your finger on what, forget, for a moment, your plot, and reflect upon your world.


Ross Willard, a Colorado resident, has been writing speculative fiction in one form or another for as long as he can remember. A longtime member of the Penpointers critique group, Ross can often be found reading or writing at his local independent coffee shop, or working on his website.