Less is More: A World-Evoking Workshop

Open Notebook BlankThis past Saturday it was my great pleasure to host a workshop at the first ever Derby Book Festival. As part of Writers’ Day at the Quad, I was among a number of writing and publishing professionals assembled to pass on help and advice to would-be and current writers of all stripes. I was the banner-waving SF+F writer, so my workshop had to be somehow connected to that…

It’s a really broad set of genres, so the only thing that I could really settle on that set apart spec-fic writing from the others, such as YA or Thrillers, was that all SF+F is set in worlds that are, on some level, different from our own. Transmitting those differences to the reader is one of the biggest challenges for writers in the speculative genre.

It’s hard to replicate a live workshop in a blog post, so here is a not-very-close approximation. Feel free to give it a try if you like. Thanks to those that attended, I hope the workshop was useful, I certainly enjoyed running it and hearing your thoughts. If you could do this as a group or perhaps as part of an online writing forum that would be awesome.

Aim of this Workshop

A real difficulty in SF+F writing is conveying our alternate worlds to the audience. The further from our own world a setting moves, the harder it is for the reader to envision and the writer to describe without relying on ‘info dumps’ and character exposition.

This workshop will provide insight into the methods and challenges of writing in fictional worlds and cultures for sci-fi, fantasy and other speculative fiction. Using a piece of sample text we will look at how writing conveys information about the world, both explicitly and implicitly, and the ways in which a writer can use this knowledge to evoke a fictional world in a subtle and natural fashion.


There is an astounding amount of things we know about our world and cultures that we take for granted. In the absence of contrary information from a story, we assume that these norms apply to fictional worlds too.

The key to a successful setting is a blend of large ideas and small details. Little things can hint at big concepts, and broad visions can be illustrated with incidental details.

World creation should be treated like research – it should go unnoticed by the reader. Small aggregations of knowledge are far more effective than force feeding. Identifying how the world will be unveiled to the reader is just as important as the mechanics of the setting itself.

Exercise One – Sample Text

Read the sample text and make notes of the culture of the characters; the physical environment; the characters themselves. Divide your notes between:

  1. Information conveyed to the reader about the world in which the scene takes place.
  2. How that information is conveyed to the reader.

For example:

Cultural – Gambling is acceptable – alluded to in dialogue.

Physical – There are dogs in this world – referenced by proxy (dog charity box).

Character – Tom is overweight – logically follows from needing to diet.

World Creation 2

Less is More Workshop sample text

For those who can’t take part in a discussion, I have attached a document with my very basic comments. Short version – nearly everything in the sample text tells you something about the world!

The big upshot of this is that the best way to describe a world is through the characters – their actions, reactions and experiences – rather than directly to the reader. This is the ‘Show Don’t Tell’ principle, but applied in a sensible fashion. Your characters do not have to directly experience every single aspect of your world in order that you can show it to the reader.

Less is More Workshop download

Exercise 2 – Writing Exercise

Pick an aspect of a fictional world – one that you are working on, one that you are making up just for this exercise or perhaps from a favourite work. It could be a character traitor, a physical phenomenon, a superstition, anything.

Write a line or short passages that convey that aspect of the world without directly referring to it as narrator (.e. info dump) or having a character explain it to another (exposition). Try out three or four different ways of conveying the same piece of information without direct reference.

Think about and if possible discuss the experience.

Final Note

I think that writing a piece of fiction, however short, highlights more about a world that you need to create than any amount of pre-planning. Literally having a character walking down the ‘high street’ of your main locations, or a conversation between two characters doing something mundane will help you understand you world and get under its skin so much more than world creation in abstract isolation.

A message for Stef, the lady from the Prison Service: If you would like some free books to help with your students, please contact me via mechanicalhamster [at] gmail [dot] com – Thanks!

Published in: on June 12, 2015 at 9:47 am  Leave a Comment  

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