Creating Your World Without Sacrificing Plot

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For some writers, setting and descriptive detail are a piece of cake. My best writer-friend, for example, thrives in the sci-fi and steampunk genre due to her intricately designed universes and strangely warped alternative timelines. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely positive she has written one piece of “realistic” fiction during the course of our six years of friendship. While her dialog is often a bit choppy and awkward, her use of imagery and compelling language tends to rope you into her universe before the end of the first page.

      For others of us, creating an entire universe is no easy feat. Tweaking the world I occupy currently? Sure, I could do that all day. I could provide intricate, in-depth descriptions of the coffee shop the couple is quietly arguing at, or describe an abandoned insane asylum in such expressive detail a reader can imagine the cobwebs in the corner. Creating entire towns within cities within worlds though? Please, someone tell me, what the hell was I thinking?

      It all started when I decided to work on my latest novel idea for last month’s Camp NANOWRIMO. Though I tend to lean more towards horror and dark fiction writing, I found myself drawn to a compelling plot landing closer to the dystopian fantasy end of the spectrum. Though I tried ignoring the idea at first, after day three it became pretty clear this story wanted to be written. So, I sat down to do what any semi-professional tries to do: research and pre-writing, working on crafting my world and characters before beginning the novel.

      Within the first hour, I wanted to slam my face into my keyboard.

      Luckily, I made it through, and it only took me until 4 A.M. (sorry, honey!). While it requires a lot of originality and creative thought, creating your world can be almost as fun as creating and getting to know your characters! Here are some fun little tips to help anyone like me, who might be better with character development and dialog than the setting.

      1. Draw a map of your story’s world. If you’re anything like me, this will feel kind of silly to you at first. After all, we are writers, not artists. However, when creating a new world composed up of smaller towns and cities or villages, it can be easy to get it all confused or lose track of where you were or what belongs where. Readers will be confused if your character initially lives on the north side of an urban city, only to suddenly begin describing his life in the east part of town. By drawing yourself a map with a small index key, you simplify your own writing process as you navigate throughout different parts of your world.

      2. Don’t freak yourself out by over-researching before you start writing. I am guilty as all hell of this one, which is why I know it’s a valuable tip (if you can help yourself)! When we first begin developing an idea, many of us rush to start researching so we can hopefully pack in as much detail and accuracy as possible. While working on my dystopian universe, for example, I found myself spending hours on Google and Pintrest looking up themes and inspiration, which was tons of fun! However, when I started the research, I had a very different idea of where this novel was going then after putting the computer away for the night. While research is an important part of the writing process, too much research too early into your draft can lead to distorting the story in an attempt to incorporate the research. I personally find it much easier to do research for my short stories and novels as I write them, or even after jotting down the initial first draft. This way, the research is used to support what I have already written instead of suggesting what I should write.

      3. Consider all of the different aspects of your world. While the sensory details and setting are important, there’s a lot more that goes into creating an alternate world. What is the history of your world? Who is in charge of creating and enforcing the laws? What are the laws, and what type of punishments do lawbreakers face? Is religion present? Technology? Mythology? Magical or supernatural elements? Does your fantasy world ever intersect with the world we live in? What happens if it does?

      4. Familiarize yourself with the worlds other writers have created. What elements of craft does J.K. Rowling use to make Hogwarts and the wizarding world come to life and feel real for the reader? How does Tolkien transport readers into the Shire? What techniques do you need to practice to create your very own Wonderland or Westeros?

      5. Don’t be afraid to borrow from things you know and understand. While you might not know anything about mysterious elves or zombie apocalypses or practicing magic, you can fake it to an extent. After all, this is your world and your story. Having trouble coming up with a futuristic device for your badass alien assassin? Don’t be afraid to pull inspiration from the world around you. Maybe the aliens don’t use .45s these days, but that doesn’t mean the plasma laser can’t possess the same shape and basic mechanics. Hell, if you’re feeling especially clever or creative that day, find ways to repurpose common household items. I can’t tell you how many neat futuristic devices I’ve written about after an almost deadly encounter with a child’s toy in the middle of the night. It’s common knowledge in this world that Legos were sent to kill parents. Why not look at that creepy Furby you’ve hidden in the back of your closet and use it to inspire your next creature of terror? As long as you do your job right, your readers will never know how you created such a fearsome monster, and you can throw the little ball of evil away when you’re finished exploiting its ideas.

      6. Do your best to avoid the cliches and stereotypes. It’s incredibly easy to get caught writing what has already been done a million times: damsels in distress and white knights coming to their rescue, sad orphans who go on to be the “Chosen One,” one-dimensional characters who all look and act suspiciously alike…honestly, it gets really freaking boring to read the same plot over and over with different details. While the stereotypes and archetypes have been popular for centuries, and provide a great template for how to structure your world a bit, you want to make sure your world is unique to your plot and characters. If you happen to write a novel about a group of three magical teenagers with special powers who all go to school together to learn to use their powers, but one boy is somehow the Chosen One born to save the magical community…you’re already dangerously close to essentially writing Harry Potter fanfic. If fanfic is your genre of choice, awesome! If you’re attempting to create your own story with unique characters and plot, though, you might want to rethink that idea. While reading is a great place to find inspiration and ideas, be careful not to duplicate another writer’s world or fill it full of stereotypes and cliches. Much like no two countries are the same, no two fantasy worlds should be either.

      7. Give your world character! No, not characters (although we’ll add those later), but character of its own. To create great fiction, your world and setting need to come alive from the beginning. Think of your setting almost like an invisible character of its own. What is the biography or history of your setting? How has it changed over time? What changes are anticipated to come? How does your setting affect the way your characters feel or behave? The two biggest pieces of advice from my undergraduate studies I try to incorporate often are that settings should have imperfect histories much like characters, and sensory details should be linked to emotions. Instead of just telling us it is raining outside, tell us how the rain feels and smells to your main character. Does your character have any special memories about rain in this particular spot? Does your character feel a knot in his stomach every time he passes the burnt down library, or a spark of happiness every time she enters the dining hall? Share those details with your reader, helping them connect to your world as much as you have.

      8. Above all else, remember your setting and world are not your entire story! Even though you might have created a fantasy universe you really love, the world is there to support the plot and characters, not overtake them. Build your world around your story and characters in a way that serves their needs. Don’t be afraid to cut out parts that aren’t necessary or don’t add to the plot, regardless of how cool they might seem or how fun they were to write. Remember, you’re writing a fiction novel, not a LOTR world guide. Use action and dialog to explore your world and draw your reader in. Keep in mind, the reader is there for the plot and characters. The kick-ass world you spent weeks making is just a supporting detail at the end of the day, as much as that breaks my heart to acknowledge.

              Planning and world creation are supposed to be the “fun parts” of writing (or so I keep getting told). If you find yourself pulling your hair out trying to figure out how to squish it all together, set it down for a while. Come back to it later, when you feel relaxed and ready to spend time exploring the inner workings of your imagination. It takes practice, but if authors like Rowling and Tolkien have shown us anything, it’s that well-crafted worlds can live on with readers for years to come. I’m off to go work on the pieces to my fantasy puzzle now. Happy writing, everyone!

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