Whether we’re creating a whole new world, or one very similar to our own building a fictional world can be an intimidating prospect. What do we include? What don’t we include? How much description do we need? And on and on the questions go. Sometimes the answer is to put aside the big questions and begin with the small ones, or even a small space.
Worlds are big and infinite in their complexity, but that one room the protagonist is standing in is simple. What’s in there? Why is it there? What are they doing? This way we can build up a picture of the world one small piece at a time. Is it a world with mini cab firms where someone sits at a desk taking calls and there’s a battered old couch where they sometimes sneak in a nap? Is it a world with armouries full of polished steel people try to break into to get weapons for their rebellion? Is it a bedroom with a big four-poster bed, neatly made up, and waiting for royalty who will never visit?
Each one of these sets a scene and begins to tell us about the world and the characters. While exposition plays a big part in developing our world and explaining things, we need to show them to or they don’t happen in the same way for the reader. Consider when we’re reading and a character is described constantly as being brave, or kind, or considerate but we never see them doing any of these things. The reader may never feel that the character really has that personality, or if their behaviour contradicts the exposition it can become frustrating. (On a side note, characters saying a person or a place is different to how they appear isn’t quite the same because it’s that character’s impression.)
An example of a contradiction would be saying our character lives in a cold place but they’re always dressed for hot weather. We can have characters who feel the cold less but what about the characters around them? Do they dress like it’s cold or hot? Do they have heating or fires in their homes? Does our character who doesn’t feel the cold as much feel uncomfortable in other people’s hot rooms? Here character interaction reveals more about the world.
Perhaps we open our story with a character stood in a room that’s too hot for them wishing to get out into the cold. They’re in a t-shirt and jeans with their coat over their arm and another character comes wearing a chunky sweater. How they heat the room would tell us something about them or the situation. They might be using an oil heater because the electricity is out, or they don’t have electricity. They could have an Aga which, in the UK in the present day, suggests they might be middle class. Or in this world they might use technology like AI to heat their homes. Each choice creates a slightly different image of the world and the characters and from here we can build out one space at a time rather than trying to think of everything at once.