How World Building Impacts Plot

A lot of times, when people discuss world building, it is as a part of setting. While this is important to ground the reader, to give visual ideas of what is involved in the book, I would argue that the greater role of world building is the impact it has on plot.

Building a world full of magic and wonder is lots of fun (I’ve been told) and it can allow a reader to escape, but the magic has to serve a purpose. Harry Potter didn’t just go to Hogwart’s because it sounded like a nice change in scenery from the closet under the stairs; he needed to enter the world to meet his potential, and, eventually, save that world. The complications facing many groups of people existed because of the magical world (see also Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so forth).

This is the same with all our books. We discussed a few ideas about how to write historical fiction not too long ago, and that is a good launching point for anyone building a world. But with every setting, we need to ask ourselves a few questions:

1. Why does my story need to take place here?

If you are like me, you might have the inclination to set a story in a place where you lived. But in the book I’m querying, that didn’t make sense for certain elements of the story. I had a list of things that needed to happen, elements of the story that mandated proximity to other locations, as well as certain weather elements. One of the stories a CP of mine recently worked on featured a character who went rock hunting – which wouldn’t provide a great deal of success on the beaches of California. Part of what we need to consider, as writers, is the possibility that certain locations are worn out. It only takes a quick glance through #mswl to see that agents (and editors) are looking for stories of diversity, which includes diverse settings. England, Paris and New York are fun, but they have also been home to many stories. Considering less popular locations adds a depth to your story that will allow it to stand out. 

2. What would happen to the story if I put it in a different time or place?

1620. 1720. 1820. 1920. 2020. Take a moment and think about the differences between those times. Think about how different the world would be. I really wanted to have a story set against a mountain range, but even within the United States, the options range from the Cascades to the Sierra-Nevadas to the Rockies to the Appalachians. All of them have mountains, but the diversity between culture, height, climate and experience in those four ranges are significant. Same with beaches – Washington, California, Florida and Cape Cod would weave so many ranges of experiences, accents, points of reference, food, expectations. 

3. How does the setting impact the characters?

I live in Southern Utah. My lips and skin are in a semi-constant battle with dehydration, people in my community pray for rain, we know how to negotiate snow-covered roads, sun-filled summers, hiking is often an integral part of the culture, and people marry young. When people from pretty much anywhere come to visit, they feeling the drying effects of the climate immediately, slathering chapstick, lotion and drinking lots of water. I recently read a story set in California, with references to sea glass, beach hair, the behavior of the ocean and salt water beaten houses. In that culture, marrying at 20 would be met with raised eyebrows.

The point is where we live impact our own lives. If you have moved at all, you know this to be true. Points of reference, the way people speak, what a get together looks like are all impacted by the nuances of setting.

4. What do I need to deliberately write and what can be assumed?

I once heard someone say reading a novel is like filling out a crossword puzzle: it’s not very much fun if someone has put all the answers in the squares already. Give your readers hints and nudges toward the setting, but then leave a little for their imagination. After all, you are telling a story, not providing an (archaic) encyclopedia entry.

Once someone says a story takes place in Georgia, I’m going to read the dialogue with a slight drawl. It doesn’t have to be written in – no need to drop letters from words. My brain is going to do it automatically. Of course, there are figures of speech that belong in certain areas that lend to the characterization, but setting often takes care of that (yes, I heard a southern accent while writing that). If someone lives in Russia, I’m going to expect them to own a quality coat. And I’m anticipating they will have to negotiate snow. If they life in Tonga, I’m already anticipating a slower pace of life.

5. What can I do in my description to make the setting rich, alive and tangible? 

If the story that you have been working doesn’t change with the change of setting, chances are you have plot holes and characterizations that need some work, because the place changes both these things. 

You might be thinking that this contradicts what I just said. Just because I don’t need to see the southern drawl doesn’t mean I don’t want to see southern hospitality in all its traditional glory. I write women’s fiction, so there is more allowance for clothing, decor and food descriptions, but if someone just sat down to a slice of Georgia peach pie with homemade ice cream, let your reader see the crumbly perfectly browned crust, smell the sweetness of peaches and sugar drifting through the parlor, experience the combination of hot and cold that shows up with that first bite. Besides, the bits of the world that you let the POV character share with us will let us see what matters to them, will let us see them belong (or not) in this place, and adds depth to both location and character.

Do you have any other suggestions about ways world building impacts plot? What books have you read that blend these well?

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

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