Enriching your story-world

Ever read a book where it teems with life, where you can really feel that things are happening beyond the page, as if you're viewing a window on a world that lives and breathes whether you read about it or not?

More importantly, is your writing like that?

Because it should be, as this is one of the three techniques that trump every other in writing.

So how do we go about achieving that? It's simpler than you might imagine

Don't show the details, know them

Convincing worlds aren't about dumping everything you've researched or made up onto the page. Showing the full extent of your world doesn't make it impressive, it makes it small and knowable. What you reveal about your world in your story should really only be the tip of the iceberg.

This doesn't mean you don't have to do the work – the more you research your supporting material the more you'll achieve that 'world beyond the pages' feel. If you can fit all the material you've created in the book then it's likely you haven't done enough work at best, that you're boring your reader senseless at worst.

Don't just write with words

Take pictures, draw maps, invent languages. It makes a change, develops your world, and you're less likely to use that kind of work directly in the text. If you have a picture of your protagonist's garden, you know the exact layout of his house, the clothes he wears, how he reacts when he burns his toast, then that knowledge will show without you having to detail it.

Best thing of all, if you have that kind of material then you can focus on the story when you write it. More than likely if you've done that level of research, the story will write itself.

Produce a guidebook to your world

Ever played role-playing games? Ever run them? Do you even know what they are?

Writing material for a role-playing game is an interesting challenge - you don't know the main characters or the main narrative - these are created by the players themselves. All you can do is invent and detail the world, populate it with deep and interesting characters, present challenging scenarios and give the players a reason to be there. This forces a distinction between the story-world and the narrative - it encourages the writer to imagine the world dislocated from the story that will happen within it – particularly useful if you're planning a series.

Take a holiday

Sometimes you'll feel drained by developing your characters, exhausted with working out the intricacies of your plot – that's the perfect time to start travelling, discovering, and detailing your story-world.

And the cool thing is, your narrative and characters will be the better for it.


  1. Terrific post, James. I'm deep into final edits and am finding I know a lot more about my world than I think I do. There comes a stage where I inhabit the book and its characters so well I could take them off for complete day-trips away from the story and I'd still have a lot to tell.
    The parallel with RPGs is spot-on. I don't roleplay, but my husband Dave is a lifelong devotee and to run a game he needs a depth of knowledge that far exceeds the narrow path of the scenario.

  2. Very true -- I often write chapters just so I can get a feel for who my characters are ... then cut them and dribble in the critical points, preferably by showing their reactions to different situations.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. Produce a guidebook? Great idea! Perhaps along the lines of 'Rough Guides', and I'll call mine 'The Much Rougher Guides...'

  4. @roz - great news about your final edits - was that the interesting-sounding book you'd just started some months ago?

    @Terry - hey Terry, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I like your technique of writing research chapters - I suspect that must be quite liberating if it's just a learning exercise rather than worrying about what a reader is going to think. Mmm - food for thought...

    @eeleenlee - hey girl - been following you on Twitter for some time. Thanks for reading and commenting - just checked out your blog and love it! Shall be visiting that regularly.

  5. I'm in the development stages of my second middle grade fantasy so your advise is very relevant. I've never played any role playing games but it sure sounds like a fun research tool! Thanks!

  6. I've got sort of the opposite problem.

    I know only as much world as I write to shape the action (e.g., distances are determined by how fast/soon certain people need to be able to arrive with the plot point. I'm writing a fantasy and have no instinct or particular interest in world-building-- I'm watching my characters act on an almost empty stage (until I need to set something for "mood").

    I'm not real good at the homework side of writing: I'm just watching the action, and splicing story threads. I'm the sort of tourist who doesn't go exploring, and place little to me other than as a hub.

    Do you have any hope or advice for someone like me?

  7. I definitely can tell the difference when a book has the right balance of story world building for what that books needs. Some need more than others. but I love it when it's done well.

  8. Hi James - yes, it is that selfsame novel! Takes me ages to finish one, but then I always seem to bite off a lot in one go. I'm loving it, though - which is a good sign.

  9. This post, and the March post, are amazing! Thanks for the great tips.

  10. @Rahma - great to see you back again on my blog - glad my post was relevent and that your work is going well

  11. @Amy - hello Amy - welcome to the blog, and thanks for commenting. I have every hope for a writer like yourself. To sustain the kind of commitment that writing stories needs you have to enjoy your writing. Trying to adopt a style or inject elements into your work that bore you will show in the work and hinder you actually finishing. You also need to focus on what you're good at. There's no doubt that someone like Tolkien enjoyed his world-building - perhaps more than the development of his narrative. He focused on what he was good at and what he liked doing.

    I don't know your work, but I would have thought that fantasy requires a significant amount of world-building does it not? Are you sure that's the best genre for your story? I'm also intrigued by the way you describe your story-development as 'watching actors on a stage' - have you thought about actually writing for the stage? When a play is produced there are a whole heap of other people worrying about the 'world' of the play. You may find my earlier post about 'playing to your writing strengths' useful.

    If you've got a great plot, which seems to be your focus, then that really trumps everything else - anything you can give on top of that will just add value to your story.

    The bottom-line is, if your story doesn't need a deep story-world, then there's no need to develop one. Only you can really know the answer to that question.

  12. @Roz - that's great stuff - let us know when we can buy it. I'm keen to read.

    @Julie - thanks for your compliments - particularly glad you liked my March post - I wrote than back when nobody read my blog!


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