Writing Corner: World Building

World Building

Story World: the setting of a story

The nice thing about fiction is that you, the writer, make the rules. When you write non-fiction, you are (hopefully) limited by facts. But with fiction, you can change whatever you want to fit the story. This is especially true with the setting, or story world. (You read more about story setting here.)

There are three options when it comes to choosing a setting for your story:

1. Our world, present time

This is the default one and the one that readers will assume if you don’t tell them differently. This is also the easiest. Just look around and write what you see and know.

2. Our world, in the past

This is also not too hard, but can take some research. If you want to write a story that takes place in 18th century Peru, you need to know what it was like then to make it realistic

3. A world of your own creation

Every other story has some elements that you have to create yourself. This includes all futuristic stories. We don’t know what the future will be like so you get to make it up.

On alien planets, story worlds build themselves

What is the Starting World?

Just because you create a world does not mean you start from scratch. When you are making a story world, you will knowingly or unknowingly start with a real setting as a base. How far you go from that base is up to you.

There are a couple ways to do this. I’m going to look at three here:

1. Our world with a twist

This is when you take our world, either present or past, and inject a few new details. These are usually fantasy elements but don’t have to be.

Examples from movies:

Our world except that toys are alive: Toy Story

Our world except that magic exists: many, many stories

Ancient Egypt but aliens have visited: Stargate

2. Extrapolating from our world

This is how most futuristic and science fiction stories are written. You start with our world and imagine what might happen in the future.


In the future, robots take over the world: Terminator, the Matrix, etc.

In the future, people go into space and meet aliens: Star Trek, many others

In the future, but a pandemic has wiped out most people: The Stand, World War Z, 28 Days Later, etc.

3. Combining parts of two settings together

This is an easy technique for creating a new story world. You take elements of two different story worlds and put them together to make a new one.


Space travel + elements of westerns: Firefly (TV show)

Space travel + elements of samurai films: Star Wars

Renaissance Europe + North American wilderness: Princess Shade (a book I will be publishing later this year)

Creating Your Story World

J.R.R. Tolkien created a fantasy world and then wrote stories that took place there, but for most of us, the story comes first and we develop the world around it. However, the world should affect the story. If you write a love story that takes place on Mars but the fact that it is on Mars does not affect the story, then there’s no point in having it set there. Setting and story are connected and each will affect the other.

Let’s look at an example of creating a story world and some of the steps you have to go through.

Story Premise: In a world where humans have wings, a school principal only has one wing.

Story World: our world, modern day, except humans have wings

How does this story premise affect the world?

We might say “our world” but if human had wings, it would change a lot of things about our society. When you are creating a story world like this (our world plus a twist), run through the world in your mind, especially the areas where it affects the story, and ask the question how. Then answer your own questions. Here’s an example:

Q: How do people get around?

A: With wings, people would not need transportation as much. Roads would be smaller and sometimes non-existent.

Q: How would clothes look?

A:You can’t put on a sleeved shirt with wings, so maybe they would all be pulled over the head and buttoned under the wings.

Q: How would schools look?

A: Even folded, wings would take up a lot of space. Rooms would be bigger to give people more room. They might be more 3-dimensional too since people could fly up to higher areas. Stairs would not be as common. There would be entrances on all floors, not just the ground. Maybe the main entrance would be on the roof.

All I’m asking is, do the giants have restaurants?

How does the world affect the story?

If the main character could fly, everyone flying would be interesting but wouldn’t affect the story as much as in this case, where the main character cannot fly. Some ways it would affect the story.

  • He has to take the invalid bus instead of flying everywhere. Cars are non-existent so it is a major handicap.
  • He cannot enter the school through the main entrance on the roof and has to come in through the bottom, which is like the back door.
  • Having only one wing, his balance is off, making it hard to walk as well.

There should be a tight connection between your story and your world so as you flesh out the story plot, constantly ask yourself questions about the world, and answer them. If that leads to more questions, answer those too. The point of this is to flesh out the world and catch any unintended consequences. Here’s how the process might work while detailing the plot points of this story:

1. The main character (Garvey) is a principal at a school. Because of a birth defect, he only has one wing. He cannot fly and so is limited in what he can do. He hears about someone who can make a prosthetic wing for him.

Q: Are prosthetic wings common?

A: No, they are rare, extremely expensive, and looked down on in society, like toupees in our society. Because they look like wing enhancements, they are also targeted by police for scrutiny.

Q: What are wing enhancements?

A: Some people cover their wings with metal or add weapons to them for combat. Most of these are illegal.

2. Garvey talks to an engineer who will do it for him, but for payment, he wants to use Garvey’s school as an exchange point for sales he’s making. Garvey guesses it is for black market goods. Later, he finds out that the dealer is selling rocket boosters.

Q: Are rocket booster common?

A: Someone traveling long distance could put on a booster engine to make flying easier and quicker. People have a travel shroud they wear when going long distances. This is a combination of clothing and a vehicle and includes an engine to help with the flying, as well as covering to protect from cold and rain. Rocket boosters are for short, very fast travel, often used by criminals to get away from police. They are like hand guns in our society: not always illegal but suspicious.

3. Garvey reluctantly agrees and finds himself getting drawn into an underground world of cybernetic enhancements and shady dealings.

I’ve just been making this up as I write, but you can already see a framework of the world coming together. It is based on our world but is much different in a lot of ways. The main entrances of buildings are on the roofs, roads are uncommon and used mostly for hauling heavy things or freight. The world is also much more three-dimensional.


After you get a framework of your world, continue thinking of how life would actually work. Small details are what can really bring a world to life.

For example:

  • People dye their wing feathers. There is a whole industry built around this.
  • Humans molt at puberty so patchy feathers is one sign of puberty with the young feathers falling out and bigger ones growing in. Teenagers leave a trail of feathers behind them
  • Plucking your feathers is considered rude in public
  • Because everyone flies, everyone is very good at navigation and is very aware of which direction they are facing at all times. Thus, all directions are given in north/south/east/west (for example: my cup is west of my computer.”)
  • Because of congested flying in a city, people wear Bluetooth proximity detectors to help them avoid other flyers and buildings. These can also be used with a headset for flying at night (similar to how bats fly).
  • Sports are completely different with there being many airborne sports (like quidditch in Harry Potter, but with more sensible rules).

We could go on, of course, and as you are writing you can continue to think of things like this. Of course, you don’t have to mention every detail of the world, but just the fact that you have thought of that will show through in the writing, and the world will be a lot more vivid and realistic.

Devil’s Advocate Editing

Once your story is written, have someone read through it and try to pick holes in your world. You can do this yourself too, but it helps to have someone else look at it with a new perspective. Have them ask questions about the world as they read and you answer them. You might find some holes in your writing or in the world building that you need to fix. For example:

Garvey tossed and turned in bed. On one hand, he had always vowed he would do anything to fly. However, what was the point if he sacrificed his career and maybe even his freedom to get it? If he went to prison, they would take any bio-enhancements he had anyway.

Devil’s Advocate Editor: How do you sleep with wings? Birds don’t sleep on their sides, so they can’t toss and turn.

Answer: Hmm, maybe people sleep on their stomachs on kind of a reclining couch. Let me think about it.

DAE: Also, how big would people’s wings have to be anyway?

A: Well, according to this website, an adult human’s wingspan would be at least 12 meters, which is about 40 feet when extended.

DAE: Forty feet! That’s huge. Houses must be a lot bigger.

A: Yes, definitely. Plus, classrooms. And offices.

DAE: What kind of office chair would you have if you had wings?

A: It would be a lot higher with no back on it. More like a stool.

DAE: Also, you mentioned going to prison. What kind of prison do you have where everyone could fly away? Do they clip their wings or put a top of the prison yard?

A: It would be like a huge birdcage. They would only clip the wings of people with life sentences since that would be a much more severe punishment.

And so on. Of course, you might not have a world that has as many implications as one where people have wings, but the point is, if you think about, you can flesh out the world and make it vivid and memorable. And an engaging, memorable story is the goal of any writer.

Unrealistic! Needs bigger wings.

Now it’s your turn

  1. The next time you read a story or watch a movie that does not take place in our world, think about some of these questions. Is this our world with a twist or a futuristic world or did they combine several settings together?
  2. Can you think of any unintended consequences of the world that the writer did not address?
  3. Write a story of your own and make up a world for it. How much do you need to show to make that world vivid in the reader’s mind?

If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at greenwalledtreehouse@gmail.com.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. I so wish I had a knack for fiction. Your writing lessons are so wonderful. I’m very impressed every time I read one, and frankly a little intimidated. You’re so smart David. I’m not sure you fully realize just how smart you truly are and generous when you share what you know so clearly and succinctly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much. This made my day! Thanks for reading, as always. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s true. Seems to be your metier. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

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