When it comes to writing a novel, screenplay, or game story, the fictional world is your home.

When you write an exceptional fictional world, such as those in Avatar, Final Fantasy VII, Middle Earth or Westeros, you create the equivalent of a fantasy-vacation: somewhere readers, players or viewers can escape to.

Writing a good fictional world and environments for movies, games and books is about:

  • Having a great idea to begin with
  • Bringing the world to life
  • Creating scene details that make the fictional world pop
  • Making the fictional world an active part of the story

Here are my top 5 tips for writing fictional worlds in novels, games and movies.


5 Tips For Writing Story’s Fictional World

Read my Ultimate Guide To Storytelling Techniques.

 1: Write A Fictional World That Is Alive

Regardless of genre, all stories are set in worlds and there is never a “real world setting”. Never.

The idea that a novel is set in the real world is an absolute lie.

Let’s prove that with an example that is obviously “Real”.

If I were to set a novel in the office that I am writing in right now I would still have personal bias and a unique perspective on that world. If both you and I were asked to describe this office we would do it in very different ways, and we would create a very different view of “reality”.

There isn’t reality. There is perspective. And your perspective on your fictional world is hugely important whether you’re writing a courtroom drama or high fantasy.

Creating a living, breathing world is a huge challenge. But there are several key points. The first point is to show important details of a scene in a freeze-frame so that readers / players / watchers can truly grasp that fictional world. If I’m describing this office, for instance, the fact that one light-bulb is out and that I have a student-loan form sitting beside me right now is vital. Those are just two details, but they tell you so much about the scene.

Not only should you focus on specific details of a scene but you should focus on specific unique details of a scene. Imagine a scene set in a football stadium. You could say “There are lots of chairs and a pitch in the middle”. So what? We already know what a stadium looks like. Focus on unique details. “The seat next to me has been slashed with a knife. There’s a bloodstain on the back. And on the floor is an army insignia that must have been ripped off”. Intriguing.


2: All scenery is always alive

Writing good description means not just accurately describing the scene but bringing it to life.

No master would write “The house had a big shadow”, but “The shadow crept ever outwards as though trying to escape the house itself”. Better, it is alive.



3: A setting is a character in itself

A huge part of novel writing is getting your characters right.

The setting itself is also a character, of a kind.

The best writers will make a place come to life by making it affect the character. In The Lord Of The Rings, for instance, The Shire is very much a living thing. It has a great affect on Sam and Frodo. When they’re in the Shire they feel at peace and safe. When they leave it they feel endangered. But even once they have left The Shire it remains with them as a beacon of hope and has a deep impact on their characters and their actions.

Settings should always affect a character. Imagine your character is a stay-at-home mom who has never travelled in her life. She’s feeling flat and deflated. Then she wins a vacation to France where she will get to visit the majestic Basilica De Sacre Couer, one of the most beautiful churches in the world. She will not be the person she was at home when she enters that divine building. She will change. The architecture, the candlelight, the statues… it will all psychologically affect her and will produce a different character perspective.

Good stories have scenes that are alive and that psychologically affect a character.   



4: Settings should produce actions that make them a part of the plot

You should consider your setting at the time of writing the plot.

Any writer worth his salt will know to bring a setting to life by making it active. Let’s say, for instance, that the story is a romance which begins with a divorce. Our two lead characters have been married for a decade and have spent Eight of those years sick of each other. But they’ve never actually argued about it. They’ve always remained silent. But on a particular morning when they’re on their way to work in the same car, there’s an awful traffic jam, and on the radio is an interview with a couple’s counsellor. He’s talking about everything a husband and wife can do to fix a marriage. The traffic jam is going to take hours and in their boredom they can’t help but listen to the guy on the radio. They start to feel like he’s talking to them, and it almost becomes like a therapy session in the car.

In this instance the setting has come to life and has cause a major plot-point. The very streets of this story are alive and are playing a pivotal role in the story.


5: Make It Somewhere Your Readers Actually Want To Go

The single most important tip for writing fictional world is this: make it somewhere readers want to go.

This is not meant to be taken literally.

Sure, there are hundreds of fictional worlds we would love to visit, such as Oz and Coruscant (the capital world in Star Wars).

But there are far more fictional worlds we would love to visit in our imaginations but not in reality: For instance, Oceana in 1984 and other dystopias

The key to writing a fictional world people want to visit is to make it intriguing. Beg the question “What if?”

We definitely would not want to literally go to Oceana, or to Dante’s Inferno, but when we think of the possibility of such a place, we cannot help but imagine “what if?”

Make your readers want to visit the fantasy world in their imagination. And to do that, beg intrigue.


Top 10 Fantasy Worlds Of All Time (just for inspiration)

  1. Narnia
  2. Westeros
  3. Skyrim
  4. Arrakis (from Dune)
  5. Wonderland
  6. Star Wars Universe
  7. Athens (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  8. Discworld
  9. Hogwarts
  10. Middle Earth

What is your favorite fictional world?

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Paul Harrison

Paul M Harrison is an entertainment journalist, novelist, and blogger, and a specialist in the theory of storytelling. Paul Harrison can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter or Facebook.


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