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August 29, 2018

World Building Handout

This is what I hand out to my students when teaching "setting." I draw my lessons on "setting" from speculative fiction "world-building," because when you're building a world from scratch, you pay attention to all the aspects and details, but when you're using a mimetic world, there's a tendency to assume too much and leave too much out. So all fiction writers should go through this, whether your world is our Earth or a completely made up one.


“World-building” is more than just setting. When you build a fictional world, you are trying to create a place that feels real to the reader. You can break it down, or reduce it, to:

Time + Place + Mood + ‘Tude = Fictional World

Time:is a number of things

  • Actual time: time of day or the season of the year
  • Era: Great Depression or Space Age or during the reign of Queen Anne
  • Timing: right after she had a miscarriage, right when he started to suspect that his son was sick, while he was stuck at home with a broken leg

Place:is also a number of different things

  • Physical, Geographical place:Austin, Texas, my mom’s house, the canopy over the Amazon rainforest, inside the Dodge minivan, the Planet Naboo, Hell, etc.
  • Society, Culture:sets of social circumstances and cultural requirements such as interwar Berlin (which is a different place from postwar Berlin), a Chinese village, a commune in Oregon, the science station at the South Pole
  • Physics and Metaphysics: or the set of possibilities and limitations on this world. If it’s Star Warsit’s possible in that world to move objects with your mind, if it’s My Own Private Idaho, street hustlers regularly break out into Shakespearean monologue. If it’s White Oleander, all women are blonde.


Mood:is the emotional context of the story, the way it feels. “It was a dark and stormy night” sets a melodramatic, over the top, dark mood. “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” sets a strange, dreamy mood of exile and distance. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife” is clipped and clear-sighted, examining and amused.

‘Tude: or attitude is the writer’s basic orientation toward this world – her worldview – and

what happens in it. This is more complex and composed of more facets than mood. Mood is emotional; ‘tude is cultural political, socio-economic, religious, moral, phil- or misanthropic. ‘Tude relates both to the author’s conscious and unconscious attitudes. ‘Tude is expressed in a variety of ways and limits the possibilities of the world. Consider Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad unconsciously assumes the “natives” will always be dependent upon outsiders. He unconsciously assumes that anything traditional is atavistic and dark. He consciously believes that contact with natives and with untamed wilderness opens the European heart to darkness and atavism.

(NOTE: One thing that affects all of these is culture. Culture is not just a place, not just the era you're in, culture, like language, is a living thing, always changing, always growing, affected by how people respond to it, enhance it, and rebel against it. Often the hardest thing to see in your writing is the cultural context of it – yourculture, as the author, and how it affects the type of story you write. You must also see the culture of your story as separate from you, and you must see how this story-culture affects the characters in deep and layered ways. But no pressure;).)



Law of Internal Consistency: a.k.a SELF-COHERENCE. Each world must have its rules and must follow them.  You can choose, but these must remain consistent. (e.g. Stoker’s vampires can’t stand garlic or crosses.  Rice’s vampires have no problems with garlic or crosses.  But within each world, the rules remain consistent) Plus, no one rule can contradict another.  The system must be coherent in itself.

Law of Consequences:Every detail will have larger or smaller consequences. Think things through. Chekov said that if you put loaded pistols over the mantel in Act One, they must be fired by Act Three. Conversely, though, if you want to fire pistols in Act Three, you must have a pistol rack over the mantel, you must have the sort of family that keeps pistols, you must have a society in which the display of pistols is acceptable, etc. Otherwise, you might want to have a swordfight or a fistfight, or a car backfiring in Act Three.

Law of Fictional Plausibility: If someone says “I didn’t believe that something like this could happen” your excuse cannot be “but it really didhappen!” What is factual truth in real life and what is plausible in fiction are two completelydifferent things.  Don’t confuse them. You mustdeal with reader prejudice before creating unusual situations. 


  • Visual: what does this world look like?
    • What do the people look like? How do they dress? Gestures?
    • What is the architecture like? The streets?  Nature, the sky? 
    • What is the light like? What color, how strong is the light?
    • What kinds of colors, shapes, and lines, images and motifs predominate?
  • Sounds: what does this world sound like?
    • What kinds of music? What kinds of noise?Traffic? People talking? Marketplaces, stock exchanges? Silence? What is the language like?
    • Are there natural sound phenomena like oceans, winds, rain or hail?
  • Smells: what does this world smell like?
    • How’s the hygiene? Sewage? Can you smell people/animals, industrial waste?
    • Perfumes? Incense? Cooking smells?
    • What kinds of smells are produced by weather? Dust storms? the sea?
  • Tastes: what does this world taste like?
    • Food? Food? Food?
    • Drink? How’s the water?
    • Anything related to sex, crying, dust getting into your mouth, etc.?
  • Touch: what does this world feel like?
    • Surface – are the roads rough or smooth? The clothing? The skin?
    • Is the food mushy or crunchy? Dried or boiled?  Hard or soft?
    • Is the climate warm or cold? Humid or dry?
    • Are there oceans and deserts? Water? Sand? Fog?
    • Social relations: Do people kiss, shake hands, touch noses?


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