Building Your Fictional World

The late, great fiction master Gary Provost defined story as A World filled with Active characters whose Goals reflect High Stakes ( WAGS for short).  Having published everything from contemporary novels to fantasy-adventure to historical romance I’ve learned a few things about building a fictional world. I hope these tips and questions will be useful to you.

Anchor your story geographically. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you must set your story in an actual town–it’s often better if you don’t because it’s hard to get all the details right and readers will surely call you on it) but you should give readers a point of reference. My current series is set in the fictional town of Hickory Ridge but it’s based on a real town nearby. Your story might take place in a small town near Kansas City or on an island in the Outer banks, or on a spaceship in a different planetary system.

Add lots of details.Readers should be able to picture the main streets of your fictional world.  What businesses are located there? Is the town new, and lacking in landscaping, or old , with lots of trees, and buildings that have seen better days? Who is responsible for law enforcement? A county sheriff? A city police force? A lone lawman with a badge and a gun? What about the economy? How do most residents make a living? What about the school? Is it down the street or do the kids ride a bus, or a mule,  to a neighboring town? What is the climate and how does the climate affect your story? What is the political, religious, and social culture of the town? How do these factors affect your characters and their goals?

Create a history for your town. When was it settled and why? Was it a stagecoach stop, a railroad depot, a refueling stop for spacecraft on the way to Mars? Knowing your town’s history will help you develop plot points and create characters who might be descendants of the original settlers. How does their personal connection to the town affect their attitudes and goals? This might be a source of conflict for some of your characters.

Draw a map. Once you have built a fictional world, draw yourself a map to remind yourself of the location of key buildings, streets, and landmarks as you write. This saves having to backtrack through your story looking for the location of the beauty salon or sheriff’s office.

Good luck and happy world building!

4 thoughts on “Building Your Fictional World

    1. dorothy Post author

      Sandra, glad to be of help! Let me know how your town comes together. 🙂 And come back to Writer’s’ Caffeine any time. The virtual coffee pot is always on for you.

  1. Mary Toll

    Dorothy, I wanted to commend you on allowing your viewer’s to make comments and then you taking the time to answer. Talk about a personal touch! Most of the time when I visit a blog it makes me feel like I’m out househunting with the “For Sale” sign outside on the lawn and the seller has no idea I stopped by their doorstep. So thank you for the invitation and warm welcome.

    I am a beginner writer and I write short stories on FaithWriter’s. Do you have some advice on “writing on topic.” And in “building your fictional world”, do all of the criteria you mentioned above apply to the short story form and where would I find some helpful hints?

    Thank you,

    1. dorothy Post author

      Hi Mary, You are welcome. I’m here to help. I’m not sure what you mean by “writing on topic” but I’m guessing it refers to making sure that all the elements of storytelling mesh into a whole. As to building a fictional world, in short story writing, an author has much less time to establish a fictional world, and so every word must count. In a short story, the setting should be established in the opening paragraphs, to anchor the reader in time and place. In addition to locale, you might want to describe social setting. But this must be done with economy. A few general guidelines about short stories that I hope will help you: Use few characters and one point of view. Limit your time frame. A short story is a snapshot, not the whole photo album. Many successful short stories take place in the span of a single day. Edit out every line that does not develop your characters or advance the plot. Your first and last lines should be the strongest in the story. Read the work of master storytellers to see how this is done. I’m a Southern girl so my favorite authors are Southerners and two masters of the short story are Reynolds Price and Eudora Welty. As an example of what your first and last sentences should accomplish, here are the first and last from Reynolds Price’s story Endless Mountains. First line: The shot went through the white inside of my thigh on Wednesday near noon. (The story is about a soldier healing from war.) Last sentence: Endless mountains, utter freedom, lasting peace—a healed strong man now, done with war.
      Hope this helps.

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