The following piece is just some edited lecture notes from a few years back. But I'm posting here in case it is useful.
How do you build a convincing world in fiction, in poetry, or in non-fiction? How do you make a place come to life? How do you make your world habitable for your characters? How do you make it habitable for your readers?
There are two ways to think about this:
- Building worlds is like architecture
- Building worlds is like conjuring
As a writer, you need both. You need to be like an architect, and you need to be like a conjurer. However, different writers combine these two things in different ways. Some writers are more like full-time conjurers, but they still have a good grounding in architecture. Some writers are more like architects, but they dabble in conjuring. All writers sit somewhere on this spectrum.
How is writing like architecture?
Think of your writing as a building. There is something unsettling about entering a rickety building. You just don’t feel at ease. It is the same with writing. You don’t want to invite people into your story or your novel if it is half-built. If it is still a building site, the only people you should let in are people who have hard hats: your beta readers, your editor, or your agent.
On an actual building site, letting in the public too early causes problems. People fall down holes. Walls collapse. Inevitably, there are lawsuits. As a writer, the risks are not usually so severe. But it is still a risky business letting your readers explore your world before you are sure it is fully built. Readers don’t always behave. They poke things they shouldn’t poke. They ask awkward questions. They stumble over things you thought were properly nailed down. So you need to make sure that the world they are in is made safe and secure. You need to think like an architect.
Some of the best advice I know on this kind of architectural world-building comes from the Italian writer Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose. Eco’s book is a historical thriller set in a fourteenth century Italian monastery. Eco is a meticulous architect, and his fictional monastery is wholly, horribly believable. When two monks, William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, turn up at the monastery, a series of brutal murders unfolds. The murders seem to mirror the events of the Book of Revelation. And so, William, a champion of rational thinking, sets about investigating…
Umberto Eco’s book is a murder mystery. But it is also steeped in medieval myth, religion, art and thought. In a particularly famous passage (too long to quote here!), Adso has a vision of the apocalypse in front of the stone carvings around the church doors. When I first I read this passage, I not only felt that I was entering the physical world of the monastery, it was also as if I knew what it was like to see those carvings through the eyes of a medieval monk.
Cosmology, or creating a universe
Some time after the publication of The Name of the Rose, Eco wrote a little essay on the book. He published it as a postscript for later editions. Eco claimed that this postscript was not about interpreting the book (that, he says, is the job of the reader). Instead, it was about showing the reader the technical problems involved in writing the book, and how he solved these problems.
Eco’s postscript is a fabulous guide to the technical challenges of architectural world-building. It is worth reading whatever kind of writer you are, even if you don’t read The Name of the Rose.
Eco took a year, he says, to build a convincing enough world to start writing. He was a scholar of the Middle Ages, and so he had a head start. But how to turn this background knowledge into a story that feels like it is taking place somewhere real?
He made maps. He wrote lists of all the books in the monastery library. He studied architectural floor plans of similar monasteries, so he could build his own. He designed the monastery with all the care of an architect. He worked out the number of steps on the spiral staircase. He calculated how many paces there were between the cloister and the refectory, so that when his characters walked between the two buildings, he knew how long their conversations should be.
Eco was unsparing in his attention to detail. He wrote in the section of his essay called ‘The Novel as a Cosmological Event’ that:
“What I mean is that to tell a story, you must first of all construct a world, furnished as much as possible, down to the slightest details.”
To say that the novel is a cosmological event is to say that writing a novel involves creating a world in all of its details. A world that is whole and consistent and entire. This world is not just physical. It is the conjunction of many things — geography, mood, atmosphere, the quality of light, the feel of the air, the way people talk, the way they think, the way they imagine, the way they dream.
World-building step by step
But how do you even start building a world like this? And how do you make it consistent? This is where things get interesting. You start, Eco says, from the bottom up.
If I were to construct a river, I would need two banks; and if on the left bank I put a fisherman, and if I were to give this fisherman a wrathful character and a police record, then I could start writing, translating into words everything that would inevitably happen.
What does a fisherman do? He fishes […] And then what happens? Either the fish are biting or they are not. If they bite, the fisherman catches them and then goes home happy. End of story. If there are no fish, since he is a wrathful type he will perhaps become angry. Perhaps he will break his fishing rod.
This is not much; still, it is already a sketch.
This is blindingly simple and straightforward. But for writers struggling to build a coherent world, it is revolutionary. Notice how Eco proceeds question by question.
- Where are we? By a river.
- Somebody is on the bank. Who is this somebody? A fisherman.
- Which bank? The left one.
- What is this fisherman like? Wrathful, with a police record.
- What happens next? He fishes.
- What do the fish do? They bite (or they don’t).
These are simple questions and simple answers. By asking one question after another, Umberto Eco patiently allows his world to take shape.
One of the big problems with large-scale fictional worlds is a lack of consistency. It can be hard to keep track of everything. But if each new decision you make is consistent with the decisions that have come before, and if you stick to this rule, consistency is guaranteed. The world will hang together naturally. And with each question you ask, it will become more finely wrought, more complex.
So much for architecture. What about conjuring?
But world-building is not just a matter of engineering and architecture. It is not just about making sure you’ve got solid foundations, painstakingly piling up the bricks. It is also about something a bit more intangible, something that even seems a bit magical. This other approach I like to think of as ‘conjuring’.
If you are writing an epic three volume fantasy novel, Eco’s approach to world-building is useful. Even if you are writing a short story, the question-and-answer approach can help nail down some basic architectural questions that need to be in place for the piece to work. But architecture is not the whole story. Too much emphasis on architecture can make your writing heavy and lumpy (as some people have accused Eco of being). And if you are writing a haiku, spending a year drawing maps and diagrams is overkill.
So what do I mean by ‘conjuring’? Conjuring is about bringing a world into existence, but doing so without the heavy lifting. It is world-building with the minimum possible machinery. The world appears with all the shimmering effortlessness of something brought into existence through the use of magic.
Conjuring is more subtle than architecture. And for that reason, it is harder to talk about. It is not about what you build. It is about the spaces you leave. Umberto Eco’s contemporary, Italo Calvino, talks about this as ‘the subtraction of weight’. Cut out everything that you don’t need to say. Whittle down your writing until it is gossamer-fine. Trust in your readers, and allow them to trust in you. Let them make connections of their own, without feeling you need to guide them at every stage. See how much you can say with how little.
On the marshes with Du Fu
The best way of seeing this in action is by giving an example. So I’m going to use a poem by the great Chinese poet Du Fu (712–770).
In the original Chinese, the poem, ‘Thoughts While Travelling at Night’, is only forty characters long. But it does a remarkable job at conjuring a consistent sense of a world. It is no less fully realised and convincing than the medieval monastery Eco so painstakingly builds in The Name of the Rose.
Here’s a translation:
Thoughts While Travelling at Night
soft breezes on the shore,
the tall, lonely mast
of a night boat.
arc above flat fields;
the moon rises
in the great river’s stream.
How can a name be made
from only writing?
A court official should retire,
when old and tired.
Fluttering here and there,
What am I like?
Between the heaven and earth
a solitary gull.
Look at how Du Fu does so much with so little! He picks out specific details, draws connections between them that are soft as the breeze. He doesn’t connect the wind and the grass explicitly. But putting them side by side, we can feel the grass move with the wind. The mast of a single boat conjures loneliness and abandonment. It is a mast, not a sail: the boat has nobody in it. But as it stands against the horizon, it is a visual echo of the poet who stands and looks at it. If this were a painting, we would see two vertical lines against the marsh and the sky: the poet and the mast. Reading the poem, we only see one. But we infer the other.
But Du Fu is not just describing a scene. He is also telling a story. He is talking about the struggle for recognition through writing. He is writing about being shackled to his official duties, because he needs to pay the bills. As a reader, you can feel his weariness, his tension, his sadness.
Finally, in a move that gives the poem a real punch, Du Fu brings together the scene and story with the surprising image of the gull. The gull is both a gull, and a simile for the untethered, lonely poet. The protagonist and the world are brought together. Inner experience and the world outside are united. The Chinese tradition has a word for this interconnection: qingjing jiaorong, literally the ‘fusion of feeling and scene’.
What is happening here? There is architecture, if you look for it. Just as Eco recommends, Du Fu furnishes his world down to the smallest detail. But there is no heavy-lifting machinery. There is hardly any weight at all. It is all gossamer threads. It’s a masterful, almost weightless piece of work.
Architecture or conjuring?
Architecture and conjuring are metaphors. They are metaphors for the kinds of work you may have to do in building a world. Which you favour more will depend on the piece you are writing. That fantasy novel series out of necessity needs to be more architectural. That tiny poem is more a work of conjuring. But the best architects understand the conjurer’s arts; and the best conjurers know about architecture. In practice, the task is to find a balance between these two.
So these are the questions I ask when I try to bring new fictional worlds into existence:
- Do I need to think harder about how this world hangs together? Do I need a more careful, more fully worked-out architecture?
- How can I get away with less? How can I remove the heaviness? How can I subtract weight?
For almost everything you write, the best writing will lie somewhere in the space between these two sets of questions, in the space between architecture and conjuring.
The original poem in Chinese is this:
- For Calvino’s thoughts on subtracting weight, see the essay ‘Lightness’ in: Italo Calvino. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. (Penguin 2013). See also this piece here.
- The 2014 edition of Eco’s book contains the postscript: Umberto Eco. The Name of the Rose. (Houghton Mifflin 2014). It has also been separately published as Reflections on the Name of the Rose (Vintage 1984)