When we talk about “world building” in young adult novels, people often think it only applies to fantasy/paranormal/urban fantasy genres, but world building is just as important in realistic fiction novels. Many times contemporary fiction writers forget that or need a few writing prompts to get their world building going.
What exactly is world building? It’s more than simply “setting”–it’s the process of creating the entire “world” in which your characters inhabit. But whether or not that “world” is Planet 452 in the 30th century Vega star system or a “real world” suburban high school, the details must all come together in a way to make it both realistic and plausible.
World Building Writing Prompts
- Is weather a factor? Whether or not your novel is set on this world or another (present-day or past/future), you need to know if it’s hot, rainy, freezing, etc. Does weather change with the seasons, or remain consistent year-round?
- Is the air your characters breathe clean, or polluted?
- What is the topography like?
Technology and Industry
- What technology is available/common? Keep in mind that, when writing realistic fiction, mentioning specifics like “Facebook” can date a book. I read a YA recently where MySpace played an integral role. Already, I was thinking, “MySpace?!” Consider using a generic like “social media” if you want to avoid “dating” a book. On the flip side, using current trends adds authenticity. Your decision!
- How do characters travel?
- How do they buy/acquire goods? What is the unit of currency? Realistic fic consideration: If you’ve got a contemporary high school protagonist with no job who can easily acquire things like plane tickets and other expensive goods, readers need to know how. Summer job savings? Workaholic parents, who feel guilty and overcompensate by being super-generous with their credit cards?
- What other sentient creatures inhabit the world? Flora and fauna?
- What is the social hierarchy? Remember, make it plausible–if, for instance, if you describe a hierarchy in a far-away planet where those with blue eyes are deemed ‘rulers,’ you need to make us understand why. How did that come to be? And remember, social hierarchies are important in realistic fiction, too. If you’ve created a contemporary public high school where math club members are at the “top” of the social food chain and jocks are at the bottom, you need to make it believable (no offense to math club members!). A high-performing, math-centric magnet school, perhaps?
- Are there common religious or superstitious beliefs? Does your protagonist follow the “norm” with these, or is she different?
- What are the current fashions?
- Does “magic” exist in your world? How about paranormal “creatures”? What are the rules for the magic? For the creatures? If you break tradition–say, your vampires can walk about freely in sunlight–you need to make it plausible.
- It’s always good to map out your “world”–again, even if your “world” is East Side High in modern-day, suburban Texas. Where do the vampires live in relation to the werewolves? Does your character have to walk by the cafeteria or the media center to get to her locker? It helps to have a visual diagram in order to keep it all consistent and to make the world “come alive” in your mind.
A last word of warning
Once you’ve put all this work into developing your world, it’s natural that you’d want to convey as much information about it as possible to your readers. But keep in mind that the knowledge of this fictional world has to be natural to your characters. Weave the details into the story subtly and organically. Do NOT info dump! No lengthy descriptions for description’s sake in the opening pages. I think this is probably the toughest challenge for inexperienced and experienced writers alike.
Careful world building done well can truly make a young adult manuscript stand out–make it come alive in the readers’ imagination. But done poorly, world building can sink a manuscript from the get-go.
Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com.