Imagine your favorite movie with nothing but the characters in front of a white screen. No background, no objects, nothing. Without the world around them you lose the illusion of being swept away. Similarly, in writing, your world gives your story and characters the depth to entrance your reader. The way you build your world on the page can mean the difference between a story that is flat and lifeless and one that leaps off the page.
So how do you build your world in a way that makes it feel real without bogging the reader down with every little detail?
Here are 3 tips for layering in your worldbuilding organically:
1. Give your reader the information necessary to support the scene. Is your character being impacted by the political situation in your story? Give some background on it. Are they about to interact with a religious figure? Tell us a bit about the religion. When providing this information, focus on what’s important in that moment. Is your character in a new setting that a scene is about to unfold in? Is there a particular ritual or historical event that will come into play in future chapters? Then spend time establishing them. As the importance of something to the immediate scene decreases, so should the amount of words you spend detailing them. Is the curtain just a curtain? Give a quick description that sets a scene. Is it obscuring a hidden passageway your character will later use? Then linger a little longer on the way it hangs strangely askew, and the prevalent rumors that the castle was built by a mad queen who liked to run around the tunnels at night.
2. When it comes to actually delivering this information, filter your worldbuilding through your character’s point of view (POV). For example, if you’re describing a castle, instead of just telling us what it looks like, show us why it matters to the POV character. Do they hate the wealth that castle represents, and so fixate on the gilded edges? Do they long to be a part of the court inside it, and so linger on describing the occupant’s clothes or behaviors they hope to emulate? Are they in a new country with food they’ve never eaten, and so they study everything intently, comparing it to things they eat at home? The trick is to make the description an extension of your character’s thoughts, without actually having them stop and think about each thing.
a. For example: “Bob looked at the tall, white buildings. Each had wide windows. He thought it looked like a nice place to live, unlike his home.”
“The bright white of the tall, immaculate buildings taunted Bob, whose home in the slums was stained in ash. No one but the Gold Coins, the city’s elite, could ever afford that many windows. He’d dreamed of living in one of those homes since he was a child. But that was before he’d become a soldier in the king’s army. Before the war became his life.”
The second paragraph is longer and more detailed, but you learn so much about the world and character without being presented a list of information.
3. Provide worldbuilding description in the context and flow of the story. For example, don’t jump away from a heated conversation between rivals to dump six paragraphs of description about their surroundings and the history of their families. Set the scene before and as it develops: as each character arrives, the significance behind their meeting, how it relates to larger parts of the world you’ve built, then dive into the scene, threading details as you go.
For me, editing for organic worldbuilding is best done in line edits. Use your first drafts to get all that information on the page, then go back and comb through with a focus on the things discussed above. Look for places where you force information in places it isn’t needed to support the scene, or where you can reframe a detail more deeply in your character’s POV.
When in doubt, consider what is important and when it is important, and focus on delivering it in the context of your characters and their story.