(Material for this blog is adapted from my recently published book: The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt Handbook)
In the first blog in this series I suggested that there are only two fundamental requirements for your world-building to be successful, and these are that it be credible and immersive. In this post we look at what makes a setting immersive, and how we can build a world that will absorb and enthral the reader.
The Immersive Setting
Creating an immersive setting, one in which the readers can lose themselves is a challenge. Even if we’ve overcome the first hurdle and created a credible setting that the reader can trust, we still need to go beyond that and give our readers a setting that has the richness and variety to absorb them. We want them to feel an affinity with the world we present, and so create an emotional connection between the reader and our work.
The author J K Rowling says: “there’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place”. Part of our role is to prepare a place worth visiting.
When I interviewed the Canadian writer Derek Künsken for the podcast, he described himself as a ‘sense of wonder junkie’. All readers are looking for something like this, a sense of wonder that will immerse them in the story. In my interview with the writer Peter F Hamilton, he said:
You’ve got to give the reader the sense of wonder, the sense of escapism
People will always love stories with this kind of power and allure, but how do you create such a story? I want to give you three practical tools that will help you achieve this goal, and these can be summarised as:
- Take the time to plan and create a backstory
- Create a mood and style for your setting
- Present the setting with sparse, specific, and sensory detail
We’ll look at each of these in turn, with some examples.
Creating a Backstory
Taking the time to plan the setting will help to support the credibility and immersive nature of our work, particularly with backstory. Backstory is the history and background that, as a writer, you create for your plot and for your characters; it sits in the background, hence its name, and much of it may not appear in your work.
J R R Tolkien created a vast backstory for his books, including histories, languages, and cultures for the races that featured in his work. J K Rowling also created a huge backstory for her Harry Potter series. She had reams of notes about characters, magical artefacts, histories, buildings, villages, in fact every aspect of her story.
This backstory might be completely a work of imagination, or it might involve real places, events and people, or a mix of the two. For example, if your story involves a character who is living in London in the late 1940’s, your backstory should comprise an accurate depiction of London from that time. This can include landmarks, historical events that impacted on the city, the roads, shops, parks and buildings that were in existence then. The backstory should take account of the prevailing political and economic situation in wartime Britain, and the cultural context of that time and place.
The aspects of your setting that you might need to think about are things like:
- Geographical and natural features of your setting, including weather, temperature
- Political arrangements for your location
- Social and class structure
- Economic conditions
- Religious environment
- Technological and scientific environment
- The history of your world, especially those elements that contribute to the current situation
You can find lists of the factors to consider on the internet. The blogger J S Morin (jsmorin.com) gives a list of twenty ‘worldbuilding questions’ on his site which include things like:
- Why is that city there?
- What do the people eat?
- Who rules the place?
- What do people do for amusement?
- What is the architecture like?
All stories need some planning and backstory development. Even writers who don’t use any traditional planning techniques still need to create a world that is coherent, and consistent, so for some this might be a case of checking the created world after it’s on the page rather than developing it beforehand.
Creating a Mood and Style Through Your Setting
The mood and feel of a setting influences how immersive it is. Readers may like some description, but they will positively warm to an evocative setting, full of sensory detail, flavour and texture.
Many of us have been captured by the beauty and vastness of Middle Earth. The majesty of that setting is built up gradually by Tolkien as he weaves descriptions of the setting into the story.
The most successful settings tend to capture the reader at the start of the story. So, for example, in the novel Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier brilliantly immerses her readers in the setting right at the start of her book. The evocative first sentence captures the mood and places us right with the main character and the house that will form the setting for the story:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
With these few words, the writer gives Manderley an attractive mystique. The line also tells us that the narrator has been to Manderley before, and that this place has a powerful hold on her imagination. This sentence sets the dark tone that will feature throughout the book.
For a powerful cinematic example of this setting of scene and mood, consider the first scene of the film Apocalypse Now, where the hypnotic beat of helicopter rotor blades is mixed with the slow mournful rendition of The End by The Doors, and a peaceful scene of palm trees is obliterated by the smoke and fire of napalm bombs.
These opening scenes from literature and film are effective because they present evocative and potent elements of the setting immediately.
Sparse, specific, and sensory detail
The third feature of the immersive setting is that from the outset, it is presented with vivid, sensory description. In her book The House of Shattered Wings Aliette de Bodard uses this technique to present the One of the best ways to learn about sensory language is to look at the medium where each word absolutely must count, and that’s poetry.
Here for example is the first stanza of Ode to Autumn by John Keats
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
This is rather an ‘old-school’ example but it does show some of the power of sensory language, especially touch and texture, taste and warmth. With just a few lines Keats has created for us a rich and varied environment. The author Al Robertson says that poetry has taught him to think very precisely about words, it is this precision that generates the immersive, sensory language that will absorb the reader.
It is this overall feel of the setting, supported by a vividness of description, and consistency that is so important to a story. It is achieved not simply by throwing a selection of random elements together, rather it requires that our setting be credible – that readers feel able to trust its arrangement and consistency, and that it be immersive – that the specific descriptions, especially the sensory descriptions, immerse the reader in the specific style and environment you’ve created for them.
© Andrew J Chamberlain 2017