In all forms of artistic expression, readers and viewers have come to expect certain elements from their preferred genre. The Happily Ever After in Romance. The quirky sidekick in a Cosy Mystery who may or may not be a cat. The chosen one in Dystopian Future.
But these are not set in stone. Devitt, et al have described genre as any form of communication with socially-agreed-upon conventions developed over time.”
The range of genres available to authors now has vastly increased compared to fifty years ago.
Fifty years ago, a Romance novel was very different to what we see today. There are literally dozens of sub-genres. Over time, reader expectations have expanded in some directions and become more embedded in others. The Happily Ever After is embedded but everything else is fair game. Hot Tip – if your Romance doesn’t have a HEA it may not be a Romance and you need to communicate this lack of HEA loud and clear in the blurb/marketing, or you can expect the reader’s disappointment to be reflected in your reviews.
Understanding your genre is central to world-building and word-building is for every story, not just epic fantasy, or science fiction. Your characters need somewhere real to live. Even if the world you’re building is exactly like ours, the world of your story must be communicated to your reader.
No doubt, booksellers found displaying books in categories useful. Some of the most common genres are:
What are your strengths. What are your areas of special interest or knowledge? If you don’t enjoy research, don’t attempt accurate Historical fiction. Focus on genres that allow more freedom for your imagination. If you love detail and procedure, write stories that invite this approach.
Follow your curiosity. Choose a subject that fascinates you. Chances are readers will find it interesting, too. Most writers start by writing the kind of book they like to read.
Explore different Genres. Read widely. Enter competitions that push you out of your creative comfort zone.
Who is your Audience? What are the expectations of readers in your chosen genres? Once you learn the rules you can break them with style and push the boundaries of what readers have come to expect.
Writing to Market. There’s nothing wrong with writing stories with a market in mind. You can even, “over time,” create your own niche through identifying a story that wants to be told. Twenty years ago, Reverse Harem (which grew out of Anime and Otome games – literally “maiden game,” a story-based video game that is traditionally targeted towards women.) was still limited in its reach. Then in 2018 it became a huge seller through Amazon, mostly due to its uptake by Indie authors.
Each to their own!
If you want to write your own thing, go for it, but forget about the dollars for a while. Write because it’s what you want to write.
Once you have decided on the genre, you owe it to your reader and yourself (if you want sales, reviews, etc) to include at least the basic elements expected in that genre.
The basic building blocks of a genre are the tropes – the characters, language, storylines, and settings often used in the style.
Knowing the world of your story and communicating it effectively to your readers makes everyone more “comfortable”! According to Aristotle in his Poetics, the best endings are Surprising yet Inevitable, those where we don’t exactly see the events of the ending coming, but as it unfolds, it’s the only way it could have ever happened.
We feel good when we’re reading such stories because like that moment when the beat drops or our favourite song comes on, we ‘know’ what’s going to happen to some extent and we humans love being right.
We get a hit of dopamine when we realise that the story played out in a way that was just…right, and perhaps because the author avoided cliches and stereotypes, it surprised us with its uniqueness.
Legendary screen-writing teacher Robert McKee says, “all cliches in stories are a direct result of one thing: The writer does not know the world of their story.” (pg. 67, Story)
Without effective world-building, writers all too often rely on stereotypes or cliches but one reader’s stereotype or cliche is another’s must-have in a story so write the story you want to write!
While Quinn’s books adhered closely to their Regency setting, the recent Netflix adaptation is set in an imagined Regency world where the races were equal.
The Bridgerton series is a huge success because in changing the rules and communicating these new rules perfectly to the viewer, Shonda Rhimes has offered contemporary viewers a more widely appealing series.
We all love the moment the idea for a story comes to us but can freeze when we sit in front of our computer. One way to capture the idea without turning off the creativity is to create a Word Cloud.
Think about a story you are working on or wish to. What is the seed of that story? I find it helpful to write that ‘seed’ element in the centre of a piece of paper and then fill the page with everything that word evokes. Word Clouds can be done for entire whole genres or for an individual story.
Spend a few minutes making a word cloud. Brainstorm the tropes, reader expectations, cliches and stereotypes for your chosen genre. Use Google where necessary and have fun!
What is your catalyst? Pick the aspect of the world you’re most excited about and start there.
Establish the type of world you want. Sometimes the genre you choose can help define your setting in many ways. Knowing this will help figure out the tone and mood of your world.
Setting up the physical boundaries of the world helps create a more believable setting.
Define the culture and language. What do the inhabitants of this universe believe in? Is there religion? Is there a God? Do they have any sacred customs? Breathe life into the characters by giving them a meaningful existence. How do the inhabitants communicate? Do you need to create a language system?
List the rules and laws. The inhabitants or this world have their own independent existence. Who is in charge? Why? Do they use magic in this world? If so, who can use it, and how powerful is it?
Describe the physical environment. What’s the weather like? Establishing the environment and how it impacts the life within it can be a useful detail in the creation of your world. (The big picture, your environment, time and place)
Identify the history. What is the history of this place you’ve created? Have there been any world wars? Do the countries within your world have enemies? Are there rival races? Is there a sole antagonist? Providing the backstory for your world can give it an added dimension and make it feel more tangible.
Hot Tip – Read existing works to inspire. Revisit the works of successful authors to get inspiration. Never steal ideas but read widely. The work of other fiction writers especially those in your chosen genre will show how they answer the same worldbuilding questions within their own worlds.
Literary agent Felicity Blunt says, “I want a book that feels unique in its setting, where location is a main character rather than a forgotten bit player. A reading experience that accesses all five of my senses and for that reason is truly immersive.”
Every story needs a setting. This can be a real place or time period. It can be completely invented. Or it can be anything in between. Up to a point setting can depend on the genre, but more and more, fiction is pushing the boundaries of what we expect in any given genre.
Neil Gaiman urges writers not to fall in love with “Show don’t Tell.”
He says ‘Be the storyteller! Most people know what a tree looks like; We need to describe what makes that tree memorable or important to our characters. What is that one thing that makes this tree fulfill its role in the story?’
Dr Leanne Dodd, author of both fiction and non-fiction, who will be speaking to us later this year has this to say on world-building.
“A wide range of elements might make up your setting, landscapes, dwellings, social conditions or even individual objects or smaller spaces within these. Use sensory detail. rather than describing a quiet, dark alley, contrast it with the flashing of a torch, the echoing sound of fleeing footsteps, the smell of rotting garbage. Use the senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, sound to evoke a feeling, or presence, about a place that makes it seem real.”
Employing the senses and a balance of showing and telling can bring your story alive for readers.
Setting is just as important for non-fiction. Travelogues, travel memoirs, general memoirs, and biography really must convey a sense of place to their readers. Bill Bryson does this wonderfully in his travel memoirs. As does Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. Closer to home, author Bri Li evokes the Brisbane CBD in her memoir, Eggshell Skull.
A good habit to develop is practicing describing your environment. Even if you can’t whip out your notebook, make mental notes. Stories are everywhere and if you’re sitting on a train or attending a wedding or even at work, there is always something that will add life to a current story or inspire a new one. (During my circuit class at the gym yesterday, I wondered how many murder mysteries are set in gyms. All those heavy weights!)
Option 1: The Big Picture
Let’s Write! Choose a well-known location and write a short description of the area in a way you might describe the area as a setting for a story.
Option 2: The Finer Details
Describe either your current environment or a visualise the environment of an intimate scene from your current work in progress.
Prolific author and founder of the 20booksto50K movement, Craig Martelle, gives the following world-building advice for authors, especially those who want to write a lot of books. He says,
“Start with minimal world building and construct the rest as you go.”
Martelle urges would-be prolific writers not to spend thirty years building intricate Tolkienesque worlds unless that’s your goal. He says the world building should be character driven. We don’t need to explain every detail of the world before we can start telling the story. The aim is to set a scene and create the world of the story as we go.
A fog of tobacco, smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the cafe.
She had come in from the rain and drops the water still trembled like delicate dew on the fur coats of some of the women
inside. A regiment of white apron Waiters rushed around at tempo serving the needs Of the Munchner at leisure. Coffee, cake and gossip.
He was at a table at the far end of the room, surrounded by the usual cohorts and toadies. There was a woman she had never seen before. A permed platinum blonde with heavy makeup, an actress by the look of her. The blonde lit a cigarette making a phallic performance out of it. Everyone knew that he preferred his women demure and wholesome, Bavarian, and preferably all those drindls and knee socks God help us.
The opening paragraph of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson introduces the time period, the setting, the location and the tone with which our Main Character views the proceedings and people before her.
In the past, writers had the luxury of time and words to entice the reader. In this fast-paced world we have, according to Aussie author Jackie French, about seven seconds to grab our reader. Like it or not, we must intrigue them from the very first line.
How about this one…
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
This is from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. We immediately know that we are somewhere, and sometime, very different from the usual and we want to read on.
I love this opening paragraph from Sally Hepworth’s The Younger Wife.
I always cry at weddings. Nothing original there, I know – except perhaps the reason. Most people cry out of joy apparently, or because they’ve been catapulted back to their own wedding day and are overwhelmed by the emotion of it all. I cry because I’m sad, sad for me. Sad for the bride. Sad for the institution of marriage. Sad enough that it makes me cry. I’m especially sad at this wedding.
We immediately conjure a wedding in our mind’s eye. We can picture the narrator, sitting in the last pew, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. We know she doesn’t like weddings and yet here she is at this event that makes her particularly miserable. And we want to know why!
Here’s the opening sentence for my own work in progress based on the short story I wrote for the Scarlet Stiletto Awards.
“The car wrecks in the overgrown backyard didn’t concern her, but the dead body in the old Commodore was a real problem.”
One of the perks of being a writer is the opportunity to while away the hours reading and indulging our curiosity. You can get away with ‘researching’ anything! Libraries both real and online are invaluable resources.
Being a writer is a great excuse to travel! Place has always been my favourite inspiration for stories. My first two novels were inspired by visits to Paris. Both use real places but while the genre is technically Contemporary fiction, both use elements of magical realism, with the world’s rules including time travel.
You can also take elements away from an otherwise true to life setting. The movie Yesterday posed the question, ‘what would the world be like without the Beatles?’
Craig Martelle suggests using maps – both the real and created variety- to keep tabs on where your characters are physically within the story. I used Google Maps to see how long it would take to walk that far. While I am not writing a textbook or travel guide, I don’t want someone to read Gallice’s story and find it hard to believe that a pilgrim could cross Brittany and England on foot.
It doesn’t matter how good your art skills are, make sketches of your maps, buildings, vehicles, animals etc. Who knows, down the track, you may be able to use those sketches in your work, in your social media or even as part of an NFT.
Use Pinterest to create a virtual mood board or make a real one. The benefit of a virtual mood board on Pinterest is you can save research from websites and provide links to it later.
The first thing the reader wants to do is ‘land in your world.’ Write a couple of paragraphs introducing your setting, focusing on the sensory experience of the character, introduce your reader to the world of your story. This exercise is perfect for fleshing out the setting using all our senses.
For example, rather than writing, ‘Parker looked across the road and saw a vast forest. He gestured to his team to fan out…’ write from Parker’s perspective – what Jim hears, sees, smells, feels and tastes.
‘The ground dipped away sharply at the edge of the road, the gravel verge meeting a vast forest that stretched away to the horizon. Mist rose above the trees, bringing with it the clean smell of pine. There was something else, a scent beneath. Something metallic. Parker’s fist open, gloved finger’s flexing and the team surged from the truck. As one booted-foot crunched the gravel the forest exploded in gunfire.’
Close your eyes and picture yourself sitting in some kind of vehicle. It could be a car, plane, train, or horse-drawn carriage. Whatever works to help you see you, or your main character, arriving at their destination of choice. Now open the door.
Describe what your Main Character sees, smells, hears, feels, and tastes.
What is the first thing you see? What do you smell? What sounds do you hear? Step out onto the ground. What do you feel underfoot? Take a few steps and look around. Is there anyone else there? What is the weather like? You see a building. What is the architecture like? Is there a shop, cafe or restaurant nearby? What kind of food do they eat here?
Here is my attempt to introduce the town of Roadside to my readers.
The cracked asphalt bakes in the midday heat and the air vibrates with cicadas. The kids gape at me from the confines of the air-conditioned car. We’d spent the morning swimming in the sea and lunching in a café that wouldn’t be out of place in the city. Beachside buzzes with holiday makers and second-home owners, just fifteen minutes, but a whole world away. This detour, this brilliant idea I had one night after too many wines, makes me want to slam the car door and head back to the coast. To hell with the money.
The main street is called Melbourne Road. There’s a general store, a servo, and half a dozen boarded up empty shops. The words “ghost town” spring to mind but, as promised, the Emporium building is like a sleeping beauty. Out of habit I lock the kids in the car and look both ways before I cross though I don’t think a car has travelled down this road all morning. I stand on the opposite side of the street and snap a quick photo.
‘Good morning,’ says a cheery voice behind me.
I turn to see a little old lady in a bright red apron waving her free hand. The other hand holds a hose spraying a soft haze of water over the plants for sale outside the shop.
‘Are you lost?’
www.worldanvil.com – World Anvil is a set of worldbuilding tools that helps you create, organize and store your world setting.
Read Ten of Swords – Kate-Lyn Therkelsen – Winner of the 2022 GenreCon Short Story Competition.
Read Death of a Show Princess by Christine Betts here. https://writerpainter.com/2021/12/02/death-of-a-show-princess/
An excellent Ted Talk on Worldbuilding https://youtu.be/ZQTQSbjecLg
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