16th April 2024

Build Worlds – Part II

World Building is ultimately about creating the illusion of reality and depth. To create that illusion, we need to use details, to evoke mood and tone with details, and to put points on the notional map of the world we are creating.

The first part of this article looked at building worlds from small details and pieces of unfinished stories. These techniques help to create worlds that feel real, and that an audience experiences on an eye level. Go read it here. This second part looks at particular techniques that fit with that approach.

Create an Illusion of Depth

The truth is that we are not trying to build real worlds, we are trying to build worlds that feel real. No matter how much detail you put into a world as you build it, there will be gaps. Worlds created by stories are very much like movie sets, the ones made of board, and slats, and painted fabric. They look real but only from a certain angle. If they are made of bricks and cement like real houses, they have no plumbing, or interiors. This is not an attack on world building, far from it, but an observation. Worlds serve the experience of an audience. The question is how we best create that experience – how we create an illusion that does the magic trick of making fiction live in the audiences’ mind as well as they read the page or watch the screen.

“Worlds created by stories are very much like movie sets, the ones made of board, and slats, and painted fabric.”

Detailed but not drowning

We have already looked at how you can show the nature of a world through small details – objects, brief details about customs, culture, languages. This is very effective, but it’s a technique that has to be deployed with care. Too much and the whole world you are creating can be drowned in detail, and the audience will feel that nothing and no one can appear without dragging a museum’s worth of objects and history with them.

There are no hard and fast rules for how much is too much. Like any writing technique, it is a tool that can be used as much or as little as the effect you are creating requires. A good guide is to have most features of the world treated without extra layers of detail or context. Characters walk though doors, across rooms, talk to people, pick up cups and drink without noting on the features of any of these objects. When a feature of the world gets additional points of details, it should serve the story, adding to the mood, characters, and plot.

Most importantly, it should be part of and driven by the characters’ journey through the story. If a character sees, hears, touches or tastes something, talks to someone else, or needs to go somewhere, there is the opportunity and need for world building. But the character’s action put us in those places.


Evocation in world building is where you create a feeling, a mood, a sense in an audience’s mind about the world of a story. It is not about facts, or understanding – it is less tangible, it’s the texture of the weave of your world. Think of the rain that is always falling in noir detective stories: a bit of evocative world building so often used that it is now a trope. That rain gives you a feeling. It is not telling you about the weather patterns of the local area. It evokes cold, and tears, and blurred shapes half-seen, walking with the collars of raincoats pulled high. Similarly, if a character notes the sound of the prayer songs rising at midnight out of the streets as the day cools under the stars, then you are evoking heat, and space and a sense of tradition and mysticism. The details and facts of the world can be different from what is evoked, but evocation is what gives the audience their strongest sense of where they are and what it is like to be there. Because of this it is often best created through environmental details that touch the senses: smell, sight, taste, sound, texture, colour, weather, temperature. Think of these as the background to a painting where the characters and details are in the foreground.

Points on maps

Points on the map refers to putting a dot on a map of a place, giving that dot a name or description, and that’s it. No further details, no fully worked through concept. Just a dot. You may well not know anything more about that dot either, and you don’t need to. It creates the idea that there is more out there, that there is more to see and know, but that you just haven’t seen it yet. This is the illusion of depth and it’s a powerful technique when building worlds in an audience’s mind. It’s not just tied to maps either. The same principle is at work when characters make an off hand comment about a place, person or situation and no further information is added; it creates the sense that the world extends past the story.

” It creates the idea that there is more out there, that there is more to see and know, but that you just haven’t seen it yet.”

It’s not just a…

Mundane objects say more about a world than the history books. Nothing is just what it is. Everything can show the audience something new, and everything can contribute to the story and the world that it is happening in.

For example, we can tell a lot about a culture by how it treats drinking water – out of a glass? Or a metal cup? Or with no receptacle at all, but always poured directly into the mouth? The shape of a knife can tell you a lot and imply more – curved and light and worn in a lacquered scabbard. Or straight and heavy, with a thick blade hung on a hook on a wall but never carried. What people eat and how is something that humans automatically draw meaning from – fruits floating in syrup, pickled out with an ivory skewer, or dark broth thick with the smell of meat and smoke and dried herbs.

The world as tapestry

As said in Part I, the best way to build worlds is not to do it from the top down, but to use small details and strands of unfinished stories. We create a tapestry, with details braided together to form a texture that feels as though it exists beyond the story and has countless more stories to tell.

If you have any questions on notes and writing, drop them in the comments.

John French

April 2024

Last thing…

If you have enjoyed this article, and think someone else would too, please send it to them, and…

If you want to be the first to read articles, stories and news from me then please, sign up to my mailing list:

Edited by Greg Smith

Written without AI


  • David Rider says:

    Love it. I’ve heard worldbuilding described as trying to make the audience perceive an iceberg, with deep unseen details that are there under the surface, but in reality the iceberg is hollow. It gives a hint that below the surface it is a massive and fully formed world, but it’s merely an illusion of grand scale.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For Exclusive Content and Updates

Sign up to my mailing list

Sign Up