Worldbuilding In A Scene

Allow me to start today with an apology to you, gentle reader.

I promised this post would be up yesterday. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I left the house at 6:15 yesterday morning and did not return until 8:30 last night, and all I wanted was my bed and at least 7 hours of sleep. Both of these goals having been met, I’m now getting things back on track. I thank you for your indulgence and understanding.

With that, let’s get started.

A “world” can be as big as an entire multiverse a la DC and Marvel Comics. It can be as small as the inside of a subatomic particle. Many writers try to go for the sweeping grandeur of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, while others literally make the character live in their own mind.

Both of these have their benefits, drawbacks and limitations. Go too big with your world, and don’t have a sufficient supporting cast to encompass it, and you wind up with an echo chamber, a painted cardboard backdrop which lacks texture, life and depth because it’s simply too large to make the nice, snug envelope for the characters that it should be. Too small, with too large a cast, and your world winds up feeling cramped, busy and paradoxically difficult to track.

For today’s worldbuilding exercise, I am going to start small. One person (maybe) in a single room. Terry Goodkind, Jim Butcher, Mercedes R. Lackey, Ursula K. LeGuin and thousands of other writers have done this successfully. Start small and build big. Hell, even Tolkien did it with the Shire. It’s okay to start small and work your way to bigger, discovering your world along with the readers. Right here, right now, this is what I have for my world.

Date: Present

Place: America, any major city

Location, Major: Apartment

Location, Minor: Bedroom

The convenient thing about using a time and place you’re familiar with, at least to start, is that you already know the customs, mores, language and zeitgeist. You don’t need to explain to a New Yawker what it’s like to live in New York. You don’t need to tell an American what America is like. Hell, for that matter, America’s outsized presence in world media means US life really doesn’t require much explaining at all. (Ethnocentric but nevertheless true.)

We now have a “world.” We’ve defined where and when we are. We know the rules that govern our world. We can tweak these to suit our liking, but in the example I’m about to provide, it’s unnecessary because this will be a contemporary piece which functions in the “real” world. I am now good with my own rules 1-3, and rule 8 won’t really come into play, although it could if I wanted it to, since Rule #1 explicitly states that for our purposes here, I’m God. From here, I’m going to point out the laws I’m following as I write like so: [1].


Tina opened her eyes, but it didn’t help. Her eyelashes whispered against the satin cloth tied against her face so that no light filtered through [5]. Trying to peer through the blackness in a futile attempt to see only provoked the beginning flicker of a headache, and she closed her eyes again, relaxing into the soft embrace of the comforter beneath her [4].

Her nose began to tingle, then prickle, building to a full-on itch. Scrunching her face failed to dislodge the itch and left her feeling silly to boot [7], so she tried to raise her hand to her nose. She made it all of three inches before her wrist met the soft interior fabric of the leather wrist restraints binding her, arresting her motion effectively. Desperately, she wrinkled her nose, hoping against hope the itch would dissipate.

How long had she been here? She didn’t know. Her slow, regular heartbeat and steady breathing gave her no clue, but at least she wasn’t having an anxiety attack [6]. Of course, she probably wouldn’t, since Angela had been the one to place her here. It might have been five minutes. It might have been around an hour, and that actually seemed more likely given the pressure building in her bladder. It probably wasn’t much longer than that.

Acknowledging the sounding alert from her bladder only made it worse [4,5,7]. Thinking about how much iced tea and lemonade Angela had fed her over the afternoon caused her to squirm in a bid to ease the uncomfortable fullness. She imagined she could hear her insides sloshing around as she moved, which made her think of waves on the ocean, which redoubled the pressure, which made her think of waterfalls, fireplugs, rainstorms…

Now you see that a world can be as large and complex or small and simple as you choose to make it.

Which means it’s your turn to give it a try. See if you can build a single believable scene in a world of your choosing following these rules. If you’d like, post the results in the comments! I’d love to see what you come up with.

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