Ohmiword guys! Do you remember how I promised you guys an awesome guest post? Well it’s here! It’s my blog’s first guest post! Eeeee! Even more exciting is that it’s by Lena Coakley whose debut novel, Witchlanders, was a shining example of world-building. I think it’ll really add something to the world-building challenge and I’d like to invite you to sit back, relax, and enjoy.
WORLD-BUILDING by Lena Coakley
I took a writing workshop with O.R. Melling—a wonderful worldbuilder—a few years ago. She gave us an exercise that was deceptively simple: “Write a scene where your character enters a forest,” she said. After about five minutes, she stopped us: “Now, put down your pens, close your eyes, and imagine the same scene. Be there. Notice the details.”
When we opened our eyes, she had us write the scene again, based on what we’d learned. I found my second draft to be richer, with details that were more unique and distinct. For me, this was an important lesson in a worldbuilding technique I call “immersion.”
I’ll make a confession here:I don’t think too much about how I build a world. Plot I think about all the time. I’ve read endless books on plotting and plot structure, because it’s a part of writing that didn’t come naturally to me. But I have been doing O.R. Melling’s writing exercise all my life without knowing it. I was one of those kids who told herself stories before going to sleep at night. Often it was the same story, told over and over again. I was immersing myself in my created world.
When you close your eyes and immerse yourself in the world you’re creating, when you walk down its streets and peer in its windows and enter its forests, many of the elements necessary for good worldbuilding will begin to come naturally. For instance:
-You will give the scene you are imagining concrete details.
I believe it’s the small details more than anything else that make a reader believe in a scene—and sometimes, the stranger and more unreal a scene, the more the need for earthy physical details to ground it. For instance, in the prologue to Garth Nix’s fantasy, Sabriel, a man raises a baby from the dead. But the scene begins very simply with an old midwife shrugging her coat against the rain, raindrops spilling down from her nose. Nix is very careful to ground us viscerally in the physical world, so that when the magic begins to happen, we believe it.
-You will begin to imagine what the world is like beyond the scene.
Your world should have an enormous backstory. It just should—doesn’t every world? But don’t worry; I’m not saying it should all end up on the page.
The history of the world I live in impinges on my reality—in small and unremarked ways—every single moment of my life. When you are fully immersed in your world, its backstory will begin impose itself on your characters in the same way—and there will be far less need to grind your plot to a halt in order to give the reader a history lesson.
-You will integrate the fantasy elements of your world deeply into the story.
Making just one small change to the world we live in would have an enormous ripple effect; many science fiction writers have created whole novels following the ripples of just one altered event. I often read fantasies where I don’t think the author has followed a fantasy element to its logical conclusion. If you are creating a world where magic exists, for instance, what effect does that have on the religious beliefs of the culture? Does it cause rifts between races, sexes? Giving myself room to dream beyond the scenes of the book I am writing allows me to follow those ripples—and I think that adds to a story’s believability.
I spent a lot of time “immersed” in the Witchlands, and I hope it shows. Best of luck to all the other worldbuilders out there, living second lives in other worlds. I can’t wait to see what they’re like.
Lena was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She got interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto. Witchlanders is her debut novel.
You can visit her at her website: www.lenacoakley.com