Creating a Believable Story World

I like routine. It helps me get into the right frame of mind for writing. Watching Judge Judy in the morning while I’m eating my porridge, sets me up for the day.

If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not true,” is one of Judge Judy’s little sayings. It got me thinking about fictional worlds, and how as writers we ask the reader to ‘buy into’ the story we’ve created for them. It’s called, suspension of disbelief.

If something in our created world doesn’t ring true, it throws the reader out of the story. By ‘true’, I don’t mean factually correct (although it is important to get our facts straight). I mean, do our created world’s rules, laws and behaviours remain consistent throughout? Here’s a few example ‘worlds’ to explore.

Magic

Magic has its own rules, and so do magical worlds. In David Eddings’ Belgariad, magic is conjured by ‘The Will and the Word. There’s a scene where Belgarath an experience sorcerer explains to Garion, his grandson, how every magical act has consequences. Thereafter in the story, every magical act follows this rule. Magical rules are like physics. Just like in the real world you can’t break physics, in a magic world you can’t break the magical rules (whatever you’ve deemed them to be).

Fantasy

When I started writing Cradlesnatch. a story set in a hidden city, deep in the mountains, I only a vague idea of how the occupants came to be there, or how they managed to live in comfort and wealth if they never left the city. This lead to my characters making inconsistent references to how their world worked.

In fantasy the social, political and economic workings of a city or country often impacts on the story. I doesn’t need to be explained in detail to the reader, but it can be good to type out a potted socio-economic history of the place on a sheet of A4. It may sound more non-fiction than storytelling, but it’s well worth the effort.

Science Fiction

Is your science fiction more 2001 Space Odyssey or Star Trek? Do the rules of physics apply in every minutia, or is breathable atmosphere on newly discovered planets never a problem? It doesn’t matter how your alien worlds work, so long as they’re consistent.

Supernatural

It’s fascinating how the rules of vampirism have developed over the past couple of decades. Vampires are now infected with virus, they use sunblock and UV glasses to go out in the day, or perhaps they sparkle in sunshine. If you’re writing about vampires, werewolves, zombies, angels, ghosts or any of their ilk, be sure you know what rules apply to them in your own story. Again, typing a Statement of World Rules, can be a useful reference tool.

Time Travel

On the DVD extras for the second Back to the Future film, there’s a cut scene, where the aged Biff, returns from the past having given his teenage self a book which will change his future. The aged Biff then ‘disappears’ from the future timeline in which he was now redundant. The reason this scene was cut is because if Biff disappeared, then the hero, Marty, would also have disappeared when he returned to a future timeline in which he was redundant.

Time travel’s a tricky thing to get straight. Work out the rules, write them down, make sure your story doesn’t break them.

Crime

If you write crime fiction do you choose to make your crime world realistic, with CSI swarming over every crime scene, or is it more Sherlock Holmes, with your detective pocketing evidence as he goes along? It can one or the other, but rarely both. You wouldn’t expect Lewis to take evidence from a scene, unless you clearly explain the reasons and consequences so his actions still make sense within his story world.

Conclusion

One of the things I’ve found editors pick up on most is inconsistency within a story world. It pays to write a Statement of World Rules sometime after you’ve got that first draft down on paper. As a reference tool, it can help your story have a truly believable fictional world.

If you’ve found this post helpful I’d love to hear from you, or you might like to use the Share buttons below to tell others about it.

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11 thoughts on “Creating a Believable Story World

  1. byjhmae says:

    Great advice. I was called out in a story rejection about the time travel rules in my story. The critic, however, was basing his rejection of my story on HIS own Statement of World Rules, not mine. A little unfair.

    • I know what you mean. I had the same thing happen once with an editor. Maybe we should send them the Statement of World Rules the same time as the manuscript.

  2. theresamheine@t-online.de says:

    Dear Lorrie,

    Thanky you so much for this post. I found it really helpful. My children’s story is set in an ice age, where everyone lives underdgorund. Apart from the reason for this, an asteroid has knocked the earth of its axis and no longer moves, I hadn’t got much about how the different ice-pods functioned. So it was all abit lame. Now I shall do as you suggested and write a piece about the life and society and the rules of the ice-age world. I think it will be very useful.

    Best wishes

    Theresa

    Von: This Craft Called Writing

    An: theresamheine@t-online.de

    Betreff: [New post] Creating a Believable Story World

    Datum: Thu, 16 May 2013 13:48:40 +0200

    Lorrie Porter posted: “I like routine. It helps me get into the right frame of mind for writing. Watching Judge Judy in the morning while I’m eating my porridge, sets me up for the day. “If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not true,” is one of Judge Judy’s little sayings. It got “

  3. ann says:

    Interesting thoughts in this blog. One of the reasons why I write about the here and now, I think. Making sense and keeping it true is so much easier.
    Ann

  4. ann says:

    Interesting thoughts in this blog. One of the reasons why I write about the here and now, I think. Making sense and keeping it true is so much easier!
    Ann

  5. […] are creating Lorrie Porter recommends you build yourself A Statement of World Rules in her article Creating A Believable Story World. She recommends you do this after you’ve completed your first draft so you can reference it […]

  6. dpnoble says:

    I can see you wrote this blog more than a year ago, but it came up when I did a search looking for some inspiration to help me make a time shift believable in my current work in progress. Your thoughts are very helpful, I will set about writing my Statement of World Rules right away!

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