Worldbuilding is a lot of fun when I’m dreaming of my story, or writing down a bunch of complex and interesting lore. I can do both for hours, but when I am writing, I’ve noticed a big problem with relating this information to the reader; I don’t. Either it skips my mind or my style is too straightforward, I just end up moving past opportune moments to add depth to the world space.
Solution; I took some time to research and put methods into practice.
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The Real Problem
I would like to clarify that I am not so lost in my plot that I forget to take my time during the slow moments. These moments where characters speak amongst themselves, give a little of their story or perhaps discuss what comes next and repercussions they may face.
Yet, there is a certain depth that is lacking, which tends to bother me during my editing phase. I read my story, I understand the plot and I find it investing enough, yet, something important is missing. A feeling of immersion which can be emphasized with worldbuilding methods I simply don’t take advantage of.
These are methods I have read through countless times in other novels, but that’s the problem, I read through them and never absorb them. That’s what I find myself lacking in some scenes. I give the essentials, but not the unnecessary descriptions that add to the worldbuilding.
The main reason I don’t write these scenes and descriptions is that I have a strong aversion to them. As I said, I read them, forget them, but they are there under the surface, helping my imagination. I don’t want to add fluff to my story, but fluff is only the excessive use of the unnecessary. Fluff is the oversalting of a meal, if I am to use that same analogy that I often use to describe the many elements that make up a well-written story.
Now, I couldn’t rewire my mind to make these changes so easily. I couldn't devise these moments naturally, so I started to go through possible scenes and descriptions that I could include. If I had enough, I could use one or two per chapter, when something new is being introduced or there is a quiet moment where some worldbuilding can be added.
I then realized that these ideas could be used by any writer and they could fit into almost any novel. Thus, let me discuss a few of the best worldbuilding scenes on the list!
1. Overheard Conversations
A classic moment in many novels is to have the protagonists overhear a conversation between the people of the world or even other important characters. Stories are passed around by word of mouth everywhere, delivering news, giving information about certain people, events or political situations in other places in the world.
It’s easy information to receive, giving your characters and readers insight into what is happening beyond their present location.
As an added benefit, one can create news that has changed hands so many times that it has been altered by the fears and imaginations of those retelling the story. A broken-telephone effect is not only realistic, but it lends a semblance of doubt to what is being told.
It could be that bad news reaches the main character about a certain place or person, but they cannot be sure how bad the news is. Could it be they are heading someplace far too dangerous for them to consider, or has the news been made more exciting with a few adjustments by those wishing to tell a more exciting story?
Whatever the conversation is about, from important news to casual conversation, it lends some immersiveness to one’s story. People talk, emotions and opinions are shared. Information such as this can be found almost anywhere.
Now, personally speaking, I find this method of worldbuilding ultimately the best method for creating a more vibrant world filled with people. Suddenly the chattering noise of people becomes a bit more real, a bit more personal and the world feels more alive. Each person becomes a bit more important in the world, if not the story, as they are there, listening, talking and perhaps even taking part in the many events that might transpire during your story.
It’s a method that can be used as an important plot point or simply setting the scene, it’s easy to construct and even fun when you take a step away from the characters to put yourself in the shoes of someone new, with a different personality to convey.
2. Narrative Ramble - Exposition
Now, I am going to follow my favourite method of worldbuilding with my least favourite; exposition.
I’ve often complained about exposition in the past because I don’t like to read a story that continuously adds to the story through narration that breaks the pacing of the plot. Yet, there is some narrative that I can tolerate, but even then, only in the smallest doses.
Let me explain that better.
Some characters are having a discussion, moving to their next destination at a leisurely pace. It’s not a tense moment, just a slow moment. In between the dialogue, the narration adds to the conversation or the world through small explanations of how things work in the world in the story. It could be that the narration discusses various factions, the way some machines work, or any other subject that adds to the depth of the world space.
These ‘small doses’ are a paragraph or two, taking a moment to read and understand as the writer doesn’t want to detract from what is happening in the present time. Soon after these paragraphs, the writer directs attention back to the characters, either talking about their actions, their thoughts, striking up a conversation or even starting an important event.
As I said, this method isn’t high on my list. If I want to include more worldbuilding elements, I like to use more ‘in-the-moment’ methods, from actions to dialogue. Yet, if I feel that any method just doesn’t quite fit, I will use a little narrative exposition to add to the world space.
It also depends if I am writing in the first-person or the third-person. Typically, third-person narrative will have this form of exposition, as it fits the writing style a lot more than the first-person.
3. Political Conflict
I mentioned factions earlier, which highlights the next word building method; political conflict!
Again, this doesn’t apply to some novels, but for most, you will have several factions. It could be more average factions, such as different gangs and law enforcement. Or it could be more fantastic, with feuding kingdoms and different magical races. It could be race, religion, ideology, magical preference, hair colour, etc; factions are created by their differences and conflict arises. Some conflicts are greater than others, from their words to their actions.
Another great way to build the world is to establish these factions through dialogue or even a little narrative exposition if the occasion calls for it; however, having it discussed through dialogue is more natural, thus preferred. You can even throw prejudice into the discussion, making it interesting.
Yet, political conflict should always play a part in a large world space. That is because there will always be conflict. A clash of cultures and ideologies, so having a world that has this ever-present problem will make it more realistic and the plot a bit more believable. After all, if your characters go to many places, they need to encounter some differences, thus they need to encounter some conflicts.
If you don’t want your characters to get involved in these conflicts, you can create scenes where they meet people from these different factions on their journey. It could be that they overhear them discussing a conflict, perhaps they influence the conflict in some way, or even get a chance to sneak a peek into the war room of some massive conflict, to see the scope of the conflict from the eyes of a general on one side of the fight.
From the smallest scene to the biggest, political conflict can add tension to your world, it can sway the decisions characters make, it can help establish locations and laws; in short, it’s a worldbuilding method that has a lot of potential.
4. Mannerisms and Traditions
The beauty behind the differences between cultures is that each one is valid and interesting. It is ridiculous to assume one is the norm, when for many people it is unusual and foreign. Thus, people all over the world celebrate each other's cultures by experimenting and perhaps even taking them up in their personal life, from the way they sit to the way they eat, to a complete change in lifestyle.
Suddenly, cultures that were dying out are revived.
When writing a new and interesting world, it is often recommended that the characters, if not the entire populaces of certain places, display a range of different mannerisms that separate them from the common and accepted customs we see today. It could be how people greet each other, the words they use, the procedures they follow and the traditions they developed over many years.
You could take the time to analyse the cultures we see today, what are their traditional mannerisms and what are their common mannerisms. You can create more realistic scenes and instantly more recognisable actions and moments for people familiar with that culture.
Of course, you can do something similar if you are creating a fictional world space. You can use your research to develop an array of customs that characters make a part of their daily lifestyle. These customs can even pertain to the law, where some actions, that may seem casual and unassuming, are actually insulting and even illegal.
When I develop these mannerisms for my character, I believe that taking direct inspiration from other cultures is key. There is heart to these mannerisms, there is a history behind them, there is a feeling created when there is a certain way things must be done.
Typically, I will use small touches instead of entire rituals. Everyone is trying to survive the best way they can, which is why most jobs are common across all cultures. Yet, the small touches are enough to establish that interesting world space and culture.
5. Believable Resources
Finally, establish the source of the resources that make up your world. In modern fiction, this is easy, as you can look at the products themselves, establish the source of the resources and the financier of the purchase.
For example, a rich character owns a large skyscraper. The finances come down to the money the rich character has, the labour being the construction workers in the area, or even workers from another country taking part in the construction, and the resources ordered from national queries/manufacturers or having them shipped from another country.
All this information is fairly commonplace and mundane, often making for uninteresting writing if it is included with the building example in mind. Yet, it is made more interesting when there are core plot points involved and the product is more unique or extraordinary, such as a weapon of some kind or some space-age technology thought to only exist in fiction. Suddenly, the steps of how it came to be created become far more important, because this is an object considered extraordinary.
Now, let’s say you are writing medieval fiction or some medieval-themed fantasy novel. The example is similar, but now a lot more interesting.
A royal character has a large building constructed, let’s say a castle for simplicity's sake. A large number of locals are hired or even forced to build this castle. Some work in a nearby quarry, as transporting the resources is difficult with their limited technology. The intricate design and decor are handled by professionals, perhaps even masters of their craft.
A castle is built and although it is far from the machine-like quality of a modern skyscraper, the methods used and effort put into its creation is far more admirable and interesting, and in the case of forced labour, far more horrific.
An entire story can surround the creation of interesting objects and buildings, which is why the establishment of these resources is so important in worldbuilding. Factions could fight for these resources, they could have entire wars over them, making them that much more valuable and important.
I found that including details of what is valuable and the way it is attained in the world is not only interesting but essential for establishing a believable society. All civilisations throughout history have had tools, resources and trade routes to maintain progress, thus these details make for a familiar atmosphere when one compares it to real life.
Characters have their own lives, their own roles to play in the development of civilization. The reader will get this feeling when they see main characters, or even background characters, declare certain resources, and events regarding them, to be incredibly important.
For me, I might simply establish such detail when setting the scene and perhaps mention it once more if the plot affects it, but never again. It will still have the desired effect.
These are my favourite scenes and descriptions to use when worldbuilding. I prefer to keep my writing style as straightforward as possible and these methods helped do that while still adding some interesting information about the world space.
Even when I use these methods, I don’t find myself going so far as to create lengthy descriptions that break the pacing of my novel. It’s exactly what I need and nothing more.
Of course, if you want to create a more relaxed atmosphere for your novel, taking your time with such scenes is a must. You can write them with a unique personality that keeps it interesting, so you can build on these descriptions as much as you want while retaining reader interest.
Either way, if you are anything like me and worldbuilding simply isn’t ingrained into your writing style, then I hope that these ideas help you as they did me. It’s another element of storytelling and while it may not be to everyone’s taste, the vast majority of readers will enjoy reading these elements.
Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!