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The psychology of world building

Use these tips and exercises to make any story come to life on the page.

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Layer 3: The surroundings

Now we arrive at the layer that looks like what we would traditionally expect from world building. This layer and the two that follow are where we turn our attention from the characters to the environment that surrounds them. In this layer, we look at your character’s immediate surroundings. This is scene-level world building where you give readers an impression of your story’s world by showing your characters in that world. World building is not about props and backdrops; the best way to make the setting come alive is through scenes where your characters navigate spaces and interact with objects in that world.

At this layer, it’s important to create an immersive sensory experience for your readers. It’s not enough just to tap into all five senses as though checking boxes off a list. Instead, you need to be deliberate as you decide which aspects of this scene-level world you will choose to describe and which elements you will let fade into the backdrop. Remember: Too much detail and information can overwhelm your reader.

Consider the objects and artifacts your characters might encounter. You do not need to include every single detail. Instead, ask yourself: What information and detail will the reader need in this moment to understand this scene? Focus on those elements. Also, depending on your character’s state of mind, different details will capture his or her attention. Your characters anchor your descriptions of your story’s world and have enormous influence on how you convey that world to your readers.

Exercise: five senses, minus one. Writers often rely more heavily on one of the five senses than the others. Write a passage of description in which you do not rely at all on the one sense you usually overuse. In other words, if, like most writers, you tend to rely on sight more than the other senses, then you can only use sound, touch, taste, and smell throughout this exercise. This is not to say that your character has suddenly lost that sense; rather, you are simply choosing to omit any description using it. A variation on this exercises would be to pick the sense you most often neglect and use only that when writing a short passage. This is a challenging exercise, but it will give you a window into your own writing process. You will discover which descriptive techniques you lean on too much, and you may also unearth some untapped creative resources you didn’t know you had.