5 Ways to Build an Epic World

April 27, 2016 by Erin E. M. Hatton

If you’re writing a novel, you need a setting. If you’re writing a fantasy novel, your setting needs to be an epic world. Whether you’re writing fantasy, historical fiction, or even something in your own backyard, you need to immerse the reader in that world without drowning them. There are a lot of novels that achieve this, and lots more that don’t. The ones that do work seem to follow these five guidelines:

1. The world serves the story—the story does not serve the world.

You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to create this vibrant world, so it might be tempting to bend the story to accommodate a certain exciting bit of world building. Resist that temptation. If it doesn’t advance the story, leave it in the background. That being said, sometimes your world building will inform the story by suggesting a plot point that might not have occurred to you. If that’s the case, then carry on.

2. Less is more.

This ties in with #1. You may have a full topographical map, lexicon, and thousand-year history planned out, but that doesn’t all have to go into the story. Hint at this rich history. Sketch out the landscape in broad strokes. Throw in a few phrases of your made-up language but not the whole dictionary. Otherwise you’ll overwhelm your readers. You can always release a companion volume, or put it all in an appendix at the back.

3. Make it smell real.

You may need to keep your world building details minimal, but when you do add them, make them count. Follow the three senses rule: Every description should incorporate at least three of the five senses. Sight and hearing are easy, of course, but what about touch, taste, or smell? These are the things that make a world alive.

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4. Follow the rules—but break them sometimes.

Your world is going to have some rules—laws, societal norms, what have you. Your characters will generally follow along with those rules. But they will also have to step outside the rules at strategic moments. Just make sure that whether they follow the rules or bend them, or break them entirely, they do it not at random, but in a way that advances the story.

5. Borrow, but be original.

You don’t have to come up with an entire world from scratch. From Tolkien to Martin, the best world builders have relied famously on real life history and myth for their stories. But give it a big original twist—like if you want to base an entire story on the War of the Roses, be sure to include dragons and ice zombies. ;)

How about you? What are your best world building tips?

Erin E.M. Hatton won the 2015 Free Publishing Contest for her novel, Across the Deep. Learn how you can enter this year’s contest and try your hand at winning a free book publishing contract from us here.

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About this Contributor

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Erin E.M. Hatton is the author of Otherworld and Across the Deep, winner of the 2014 Free Publishing Contest for Fiction. She has also authored several short stories and novellas. She graduated from Redeemer University College and lives in Barrie, Ontario with her husband Kevin and four children.
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