By Angela Dell’Isola
By a virtual show of hands: when I say “world-building,” how many of you immediately think of Tolkien? Or George R.R. Martin? J.K. Rowling?
The term tends to be heavily linked to fantasy and science fiction, because it often implies building something from scratch: producing maps; coining new words, phrases, or languages (back to you, Tolkien!); and constructing full-fledged structures for the governments, economies, and social frameworks of their alternate realities.
This is one approach to world-building, and it’s yielded some pretty fantastic (see what I did there?) results. But is it the only approach? I don’t think so, and it’s not exclusive to fantasy and science fiction. World-building can be an important tool across all shelves, and it doesn’t need to be a 20,000-league dive. Cue “minimalist world-building.” It sounds like a total oxymoron, I know.
Minimalist world-building is the writer’s equivalent of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, rather than giving readers a guided tour. It’s letting your readers use their imagination to fill in the gaps by providing just enough of a foothold to allow them to stretch their toes to the next one.
But, if you’re paring down the construction of a world to its minimum, isn’t that just “setting”?
Not quite. Setting is your story’s big picture of time and place. It’s your grandmother’s waterfront cottage.
World-building is the clean, crisp, lemongrass scent of the immaculately scrubbed kitchen. It’s the t-t-t-t-t-t-ttttttttttt of your grandmother’s sewing machine complementing the tinggggggg-ting-ting of the wind chimes hanging in the four-season porch.
Setting creates the framework; world-building inserts the reader into that framework. And the thing is, you don’t need to include every fathomable detail in order to wrap your characters and reader within a space that looks and feels three-dimensional. You just need the right details. Here are some tips on finding them.
Know your function.
It’s important that the details are infused with purpose. Why am I sharing this? What can this information do? Ideally, what you’re looking to do is more than just paint a picture.
Maybe you’ve chosen to share the serenity of lemongrass-scented walls and the gentle t-t-t-tinggggg of the so readers will notice the hardened development of your character when these details are traded in later for the smell of burnt wallpaper and the p-p-p-p-p of gunfire. Maybe you choose to include them because they will become markers on an emotional spectrum: the sound of a sewing machine can propel your character to a place of calm, or longing, or sadness. Maybe they’re physical markers: when your character smells lemongrass, they are “home.” You want your details to support the story, not be the story.
Every world—real or imagined—has a history and culture. No world exists in a vacuum. The minimalist approach just requires references to that history. Let’s compare Tolkien to Suzanne Collins. Tolkien explored all the way back to the very origins of his world, while in Collins’ The Hunger Games series, we know that Panem is the result of a troubled history because of brief allusions to the natural disasters that occurred before the start of the story. The presence of “peace-keepers” implies that some show of force in order to arrive at the new world order. But that’s it. That’s all we know, and yet, it’s enough to infuse the world with an additional layer of credibility. Panem could totally be real.
Know more than you show.
As with other elements of a story, the author should know more than readers are allowed to know. For example, you may know that your character gets unusually excited about the prospect of homemade mashed potatoes or that her least favorite personal attribute is her gravelly laugh. You never mention these details in your book, but combined with a variety of other details, these traits help guide your character.
In the same way, you should explore the world of your story in more depth than ever sees the light of day. The more familiar you are with its twists, turns, and bridges, the better informed you will be when determining which details are the most critical to share.
At the end of the day, minimalist world-building is just one in a long, long laundry list of possible writing methods that can be used to establish a realm of “what’s possible” in a story. I’d love to hear if it’s a path you’ve explored and/or enjoyed, and if so, if you have tips to offer fellow writers in the comments below!
Angela Dell’Isola is the director of operations for Story Shares, a nonprofit dedicated to improving teen and young adult literacy. She has zero creative focus, bouncing from furniture upcycling to painting to sketching to writing and back again in the span of a morning. Sometimes she finishes things. Someday she hopes to finish most things.