WriterStrong: World Building Techniques — Keep Your Reader Grounded In Your Story

by Fae Rowen

Because I write science fiction, I have to immerse my reader in the most important facets of my story’s world with the first words. When you add this into the requirements of an opening hook, portraying the “real world” of your characters, and setting up the inciting incident, etc., the beginning of the book can seem quite daunting indeed.

Here are the first two lines of Keeping Athena, a futuristic romance about two warriors from opposite sides of the battlefield of space.

Athena WARme stared out her singleship’s viewport at the fighters racing toward her squadron. Keep Sphere ships obliterated the black of space.

From this, you know she’s a fighter pilot in a squadron, and she’s engaged in a battle against far superior forces. Yep, she’s in trouble. Let me explain my thoughts for choosing these twenty-two words to set up the action and the heroine’s world.

  1.  The heroine is named and placed in a ship by herself, so it must be small.
  2. She’s under attack.
  3. A squadron is between eight and sixteen ships, so she doesn’t have a lot of back-up.
  4. The enemy is named and the attacking force is large enough to fill the emptiness of space.

The air hissing into her helmet tasted off. Her life support was failing. Too fast. She couldn’t separate the pounding in her head from the alarm bell in the cockpit. Sweat coated the inside of her glove. In seconds the atoms of her body would be dispersed to Agra-only-knew what quadrant.

After her ship is severely damaged, we understand what’s happening to her, even though we’ve never been in failing spaceship. First, I engaged the readers senses: smell/taste (the air if “off”), hearing (pounding of the alarm bell), and feeling (pounding in her head and sweaty hands). The feeling is visceral, something she can’t control, so the reader gets a sense of Athena’s fear. The last sentence states that fear, as a fact. This shows her warrior mentality.

Soon afterward, she passes out, certain that she is dying. Here, she is regaining consciousness.

Since when is the cabin bulkhead on that side of my bunk?  She forced her eyes open, then squeezed them shut. The utter blackness couldn’t be classed as unusual, but the suffocating feeling of confinement screamed a warning.

She tried to sit up and banged her head against the same smooth metal her toes had rubbed against. Cautious, she explored the hard surface only centimeters above her face with her fingertips. Her breath came in short gasps, inhaling air that smelled medicinal. Where am I? 

Her heart raced. Panic set in. The Wraith had died in the battle, disintegrating with her inside. I’m dead, and this is my coffin.

Slowly, I’m doling out the technology of her enemy’s world. I wanted to give the reader a sense of the “coffin” around her by showing how it felt as Athena explored it. Again, the visceral hits show her ratcheting terror, from cautious data-gathering, to medicinal-smelling air to panic. Terrified, she jumps to the conclusion she’s dead.

Later, when she’s a prisoner, the reader learns about the ecology and culture of the enemy planet only when Athena discovers them. Why would I want to make my reader wade through an encyclopedia of facts about an alien world, no matter how interesting that world is to me?

When world building, I have to restrain my enthusiasm for my creation so I don’t info-dump unnecessary data.

Here, Athena discovers the enemy world is not like her own.

The metallic-tasting water irritated her eyes but made for great buoyancy. It probably contained a high level of useful elements that could, at some expense, be extracted. But then it could contain harmful substances as well. No wonder the Keep colonists developed a lifestyle using minimal fresh water.

The reader finds out the water tastes bad, but could be a resource, albeit a costly one, of useful elements. We have a reason for the extreme water conservation on the planet.

Soon, her swim takes a nasty turn.

A scaly florescent sea beast rose above the crashing waves. Jaws capable of swallowing her gaped open, revealing needlelike teeth, glistening and dripping a sticky pearly substance. The roar that came from deep in its throat was deafening. Slowly the creature slid back beneath the surface. The disturbed water collapsed on itself, filling the space the razorfish had occupied as if it never existed.

Laura Drake loves how I make up words to convey the idea of my worlds without having to use a lot of description. Razorfish is an example. You can build your own picture of a huge fish with razors for scales, for teeth–and I don’t have to describe it any more than I did.

Here’s an excerpt from my young adult science fiction WIP to illustrate that you can get a flavor of the culture through a short monologue. The main female character is a shuttle pilot.

“Okay, you dirt diggers. Listen up.” she shouted to the men who, duffels in tow, pushed into a crooked line. “I’ve got a couple of guests on this flight. They’re here to check on mine safety and production upgrades. If you’re real nice, they might listen to your suggestions.” She waved her tourists inside to take the seats she’d assigned them by the cockpit door. “Here’s your safety lecture. Same rules as usual. No pissing or puking anywhere but the heads. No fighting and no blood in my shuttle. If I have to hose down the inside between trips, I’m doing it with you inside. It gets rowdy, I make it real rough going in. Questions?”

She’s just shy of sixteen, and fully in control of men twice her age. Yes, it’s a rough world. And she’s a no-nonsense, in-charge young woman.

One of the reasons I love science fiction is that the setting is usually tied directly to plot elements. And that setting dictates the futuristic society as well, if I’ve done my homework.

The same is true for historicals. Regencies have very specific settings–townhouses, country estates, ballrooms, carriages– and societal rules which constrain the characters in ways that drive the plot forward.

Contemporary settings clue the reader to lifestyle. A young woman in Manhattan has a very different view of life than a single living in a sleepy resort town in coastal Maine.

Engage readers fully by setting your story in a world that strengthens your plot, characters, and their goals. When the setting also influences their motivation and conflict, you’ve used world building to its best advantage. Whether you blast your readers light years into the future or into the historical past, the world building rules and skills remain the same.

How do you use elements of world building, even if you’re on Planet Earth, to enrich your plot and characters? Is setting your ally in the writing process?

Note: In case you missed Fae’s World Building Posts, here are links to Physical Setting Part 1 and Social and Cultural Aspects Part 2.

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18 Responses to WriterStrong: World Building Techniques — Keep Your Reader Grounded In Your Story

  1. Great post. I’m tweeting this…🙂

  2. I. Love. Your. Voice.

    Your use of visceral reactions to make word-building part of the action? Totally jealous awed.

    I’m bookmarking this one for future reference. Thanks, Fae!

  3. Stacy Green says:

    This is a great tutorial. Thanks so much!

  4. Jenny Hansen says:

    Fae, you’ve brought WriterStrong to life! This is exactly what we hoped these posts would be — a tutorial for people to really SEE how to do this sort of thing in their own writing. Thank you, and great job!!!

  5. Diana Beebe says:

    Thanks for the great explanation! I completely agree with Gloria!

  6. Fae, I love your writing voice, your unique world building and the great scenes you build to carry the reader. Wonderful imagery !! For me, setting is a major “character” in the story. Since all the work is in NYC or nearby, the description of setting might seem easier. However, I also take the reader to parts of NYC, especially Brooklyn, that they may never see or hear about … an ancient forrest, a snug fishing community, the sprawling acres of parks and hills … all of these contribute to making even a NYC story different, make the nature of the setting an important part of the story🙂

  7. If this is not an inappropriate place to ask this, could I ask you (any of you writing here!) to have a look at my first short story I’ve put on my blog? I’m very nervous about it as my first foray into fiction writing and I’m looking for support and help!
    The link is here: http://kenthinksaloud.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/homage-to-tagores-bengal-the-fire-and-the-spirit/
    If you like it then supportive comments on the blog would be wonderful. If you have crits relating to world building or anything else constructive then you could write them in reply here or email them to me on kenthinksaloud@gmail.com
    Thank you! And thanks for this helpful post too🙂

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