I know what you’re thinking: “world building? But I write contemp, that doesn’t apply to me! That’s for fantasy.” Hey, guess what! It 100% does apply to you! Today we’re going to talk about how and why world building matters for contemporary authors, and how to work on it as much as you would characters and plot.
It’s true that it’s easier to make a world in contemporary fiction than in fantasy. Placing things in our reality means so much is taken care of before you even start writing: education, careers, infrastructure, transportation, etc etc. We don’t have to establish magic systems or explain how power is passed through ruling families. If I say a character goes to school, I don’t have to explain how it works or even what the building looks like for you to understand what it means.
BUT the biggest mistake contemporary writers make when worldbuilding is assuming that this familiarity means you don’t need to go further. That’s how you end up with bland, faceless settings. Our reality is not enough to fill your created world—it’s only the scaffolding. You still need to flesh things out, and give your place a character of its own. Otherwise, there’s nothing special about your setting—it could be anywhere, or nowhere, and not in the good way.
I may not have to explain what school means in this world for you to understand, but if I leave it at just that, what are we going to see? What personality is there, what details? Without the author giving you these things, we fill things in on our own, and this is where a book can start to lose its individuality.
For me, crafting a great contemporary world really comes down to establishing the right tone and atmosphere. And establishing is a good word, because once we start reading, we should know how things in this place are going to go and how everything fits together. In SADIE by Courtney Summers, when she goes into a diner we know not to expect some kitschy, super-saturated fun place, but something dirty and lonely. We know what to expect because we’ve been grounded in the setting enough that we can look ahead or outside of the events of the book and know what that would look like, too.
And just like you can’t leave things simply at “high school”, you can’t just say “small town” or “New York” or “beach” and expect that to do all the work for you. These are TV shows, not books, but the same applies: Friday Night Lights, Gilmore Girls, and Riverdale are all Small Town Stories, but they are also super different in their settings. Stars Hollow is kitsch and cuteness, where Riverdale is darkness and mystery, and FNL is grit and drama. They all have their own style, their own feel, that sets them apart and ties them to their stories.
“Okay,” you say, “but my book is set in a real town, so I definitely don’t have to do any of this!’ Guess what? Yeah, you do! GOSSIP GIRL, ECHO AFTER ECHO by Amy Rose Capetta and ALLEGEDLY by Tiffany Jackson are all set in New York, but it’s not the same New York—GG has a glossy veneer that the other two don’t; ALLEGEDLY is a twisty, dark thriller, so the world reflects that, while ECHO AFTER ECHO is another mystery but smaller and more intimate, reflected in the relatively small, closed world.
So here’s an exercise you can use to help strengthen your world building. We’re going to start with a house. A blank house—how many floors? What kind of windows? We don’t know yet. There are a few things we need to consider that will help us build this house.
- TONE AND ATMOSPHERE
Is your book funny, or sad, or magical? Is the voice younger or older, snarky or sweet? If you want people to come away having felt like they just read something magical, then maybe the house is older, with history, and doors that lead to hidden rooms. Maybe it’s a story about a girl dealing with a lack of family love, and that’s reflected in a clean, characterless, more modern home.
Think about your character living in this house. Do they find it suffocating, or do they love nothing more than being in it? Is part of their story about how desperately they want to get away from this place? If so, then that will affect how they view this house—as a trap, or as comfort. How your character feels and what drives them needs to impact how they see the world around them—this will make your story richer and turn your setting from just another place to a place that can only be in your particular story.
- WIDER WORLD
Now step back, and see this house within a row of houses, within the town or city it’s in. Is the whole place like this one house, or is it unusual? Go back to the first step, and remember the tone and atmosphere you’re trying for—is the place where your characters go for coffee a cute and punnily-named coffee shop, or a dank greasy diner?
Once you’ve experimented with this house, see how it feels to think about the story set within this world—too light, too dark? Too small for your main character, or not enough magic? Often when I feel like a story isn’t working for some reason, it’s because of the world building—I haven’t done enough, or I’ve picked the wrong vibe, like too much of a clean and cookie-cutter town for my angry abandoned girl story. So I find this kind of exercise useful in figuring out where the issue lies: go back to basics, and understand where, exactly, the bones of the story lie.
In contemporary as much as in any other genre, it’s important to pay attention to the details of your world, the same way you pay attention to your characters—you want people to be immersed in your words, and that means building them a fully-imagined world to get lost in.
Rebecca Barrow writes stories about girls and all the wonders they can be. A lipstick obsessive with the ability to quote the entirety of Mean Girls, she lives in England, where it rains a considerable amount more than in the fictional worlds of her characters. She collects tattoos, cats, and more books than she could ever possibly read.
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