by Cecilia Lewis
Setting and worldbuilding are critical aspects of your novel. Having a vivid setting can pull readers into your story and bring it to life, and unique worldbuilding is often what sets a book apart. In editing both my clients’ books and my own, I find that establishing the setting is an underdeveloped or underused skill for many writers. I often work with my clients to strengthen the setting details in their works, and I also work consciously on establishing the setting and worldbuilding in my own writing.
But writing setting can be difficult, as it requires the perfect balance between too much and too little information. It’s important to incorporate enough vivid, meaningful details to bring the story to life without including too many irrelevant facts that detract from the story you’re trying to tell. As you work to deepen the worldbuilding and establish the setting in your work, here are several basics that can help.
When it comes to worldbuilding, specificity is key. Writers can add authenticity to their setting by including specific, precise details to their descriptions. Say “pine” or “oak” instead of “tree.” Try “Chevy” or “pickup” instead of “car” or “vehicle.” The more specific you can be, the more vivid the setting becomes.
Refer to the setting more than once
If there’s not enough detail to set the scene, your characters become “talking heads,” with nothing but a blank background in a reader’s mind and no sense of where the characters are. References to the setting should be subtly woven throughout the scene, in addition to setting the scene at the beginning.
Check for clarity
This is especially a problem for fantasy and science fiction writers, but I’ve seen it in other genres as well. Sometimes the worldbuilding is so overly complex, with too many specific details, that it can become confusing for the readers. Try to make the specifics of your world as clear as possible. If in doubt, ask a critique partner or beta reader if they find it confusing.
Use all five senses
Many writers focus on describing what a character sees, but not what a character hears or smells or feels or tastes. While you don’t necessarily need all of these details at once, it’s important to make sure that you don’t completely neglect them. Using all five senses is an underutilized technique for many writers. I once had a creative writing professor who asked the class to do a free-writing activity where we described a setting. Afterward, she asked if anyone had used details for any sense other than sight in their description. Only a few had. Without thinking about it consciously, writers often forget to think about these details. Set your writing apart by consciously engaging the senses in your setting.
One of the biggest problems I see in slush-pile manuscripts is too much infodumping, especially in the early chapters. By infodumping, I mean including large chunks of information in one place, often interrupting the story in order to convey worldbuilding details to the reader. This technique not only interrupts the story but also makes the prose seem clumsy and forced. Plus, readers will usually skim a paragraph that contains nothing but description. Try weaving small details throughout the scene instead.
Stay in character
Another issue that I see frequently in submissions are descriptions that don’t read as if they’re from the character’s point of view. As you’re considering which details to include in a scene, ask yourself: What would this character notice? How would this character react to this detail? For example, a car mechanic is going to be very specific about the make and model of cars he sees, and probably notices other details about them. Whereas someone who doesn’t drive may not be more specific than “car” or “truck” but will notice where all of the bus stops are on any given route. Having characters interact with the environment around them is a great way to not only include setting details but also reveal subtle characterization.
Make sure details are relevant
Similarly, make sure that the details you include are relevant to the story as well as the character. Including a detailed description about a particular item signals to the reader that it’s important. Don’t mislead readers and slow down the story by including information that doesn’t serve a purpose.
Guest post contributed by Cecilia Lewis. She is a professional freelance editor and writer. She currently works in editorial for a mid-size publisher and has formerly worked as an editorial assistant at a literary journal.