How to build a world for your story - Claire Scobie
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How to build a world for your story

How to build a world for your story

How believable is the world of your characters? How can you make it feel more real?

Wild West Film Set in Tucson, Arizona

© paulbriden

This week I’ve been thinking about world building in preparation for my new two-day workshop, The Screenwriter’s Toolbox with a Novelist’s Craft at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’m doing it with the wonderful screenwriter David Roach (Red Obsession, Beneath Hill 60).

Screenwriters often use the exterior world to reflect the internal reality of characters. Close attention is given to the set and direction of each scene.

In writing we can do this, too. The world of your story is much more than the landscape or location or setting. It’s also about the social world of your characters. It addresses questions of race, gender, age and class.

It’s about atmosphere and tone. You often need to layer your setting and build as you write.

It is all the things we take for granted in real life that you need to include to make your world real for your reader.

This is especially true in speculative fiction – fantasy, sci-fi – or historical fiction. Details about whether a person took a hackney carriage or a cart aren’t needed in contemporary novels. We understand it if the writer refers to a ‘Rolls’; no explanation needed.

But in ‘spec fic’ or historical fiction, readers want to immerse themselves in another time and place. This is why these novels are often very long. Too long, sometimes.


  1. Start online. Yes, you can begin with Wikipedia but don’t stop there. Dig deeper. Search in Google Books and under Google Scholar.
  2. Read widely around your subject. Fiction, non-fiction, history books and memoir.
  3. Go to libraries and do archival research. Start broad and then narrow the funnel.
  4. Make sure you set up an index system – however basic – so you can remember where you read that useful quote when you need it later.
  5. Compile a bibliography of books. Use the app Easybib for this.
  6. Visit the setting if you can. Do ‘history with your feet’.
  7. Speak to an expert. Okay, you can’t go to Planet Venus if you’re writing sci fi, but you can interview a scientist who specialises in that field.
  8. Write as you research. This is crucial otherwise research becomes another form of procrastination.

A FINAL WORD. Whatever genre, avoid chunks of description, especially from a narrator’s point of view. Weave description into the story otherwise the reader will skim. Better still, write description from within a character’s point of view.

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