I think what most people want in a story is to immerse themselves in another world. The most obvious way to do this is a sprawling novel with lots of lore, although it’s not the only way. I recently read a very short story, but I was immediately captured by the setting.

How do you write a story that immerses the reader? I think the most critical thing is to have a clear mental picture of the world in which it takes place. I’ve been reading The Fellowship of the Ring recently, and it’s obvious just from the writing that Tolkien had this extremely detailed vision of what everything looks like in his mind.

This sounds simple, but it’s harder than you’d think. I’ll often get what I think is a great idea for a story, but then before long I get stuck writing it. And I think the reason is that I haven’t really got a clear picture of what the whole world looks like; just a few characters and plot points.

This might be less important if you’re writing in a contemporary setting, although I still think it might be tougher than many people realize. It’s true I can describe the contemporary world, but only from my perspective. To write a really immersive story in a contemporary setting, perhaps the key is to be able to see it from multiple perspectives.

Most people, including me, would say that what matters in writing is telling a good story. And I still think that’s true. But suppose that the literary profs are right, and that there are only a few archetypal story patterns. If that’s the case, then maybe the trick is to build the world first, and let the stories grow organically in it.

This might be why some authors return to the same setting again and again. Lovecraft had Arkham, Wodehouse had his vision of aristocratic English clubs and country houses, etc. Once you have a really good world built up in your mind, you can keep going back to it with new stories regularly.

But I can’t claim to be any kind of expert on world-building, so I’m curious to hear what others think of this.


  1. Chuck Litka says:

    I can’t conjure up more than a vague impression of any image in my head, so I don’t really “see” the worlds I build. What I do is focus on small, concrete details that are relevant to the scene and describe them. Hopefully, if I provide enough little details, the reader can extrapolate from them to complete the scene in their imagination. I guess that’s how they do it for a stage plays.

    Though I must confess that I did use Google maps and street view for the setting in one of my stories.

    And yes, I start with the setting first, and then search for a story to set in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good suggestions. I like the idea of letting the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks.


  2. kingmidget says:

    As Chuck describes, your post is very related to our previous discussions about description.

    I agree with you that world-building doesn’t belong just in sci-fi or fantasy. Even stories that are based in the modern world, still need to be in a “world.” A place that makes sense, that draws the reader in.

    The interesting thing for me and my own writing is that, as with the description issue, find myself not doing much of that. For a few years, I was in a writing group led by a woman who spent most of the time teaching us how to fill our literary worlds with sights and sounds and smells and objects and people. Almost every one of her exercises was based on that. I’ve gone away from what she taught in those classes and I need to figure out a way to get back to that. While I will always be a minimalist when it comes to description, there still is a need to provide context and place. And there are little tidbits of sight and smell and sound that can add depth and texture to a story.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Some stories need a world built for them, while others are obviously set in the present world assumed to be familiar to the reader. But it is possible to imagine a world and create stories set in it. I’ve read horror stories in which main characters with real world personal problems are annoyingly distracting from whatever the horror is. If that’s well done, the point of view character should be transparent, merely a vehicle for the reader to experience the horror. Think of the two guys in Blackwood’s “The Willows.” And Lovecraft’s characters are quite featureless; his focus was always the setting and atmosphere.

    Liked by 1 person

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