by Donna Galanti
All stories happen somewhere. Whether you write fantasy, science fiction, or about the real world, worldbuilding is key to creating a meaningful story. Every genre written can benefit from this process.
Young writers might wonder, just what is worldbuilding? It’s the process of constructing an imaginary world for your story. Simply put, worldbuilding is so that your characters have a place to live, work and play!
Every one of your favorite books, movies, and TV shows involves building a world, even if it looks a lot like our own. The Harry Potter books are a great example. J.K. Rowling created an entire magical world, set within our own, each with its own government and laws. She even pulled elements from classic mythology and invented myths of her own. I also did this with my children’s books in researching for Unicorn Island with unicorn mythology and the Joshua and the Lightning Road series with Greek mythology.
Research is fun, but keep in mind that worldbuilding is much more than setting. It covers everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, land boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, transportation, food, and more. Showing young writers how to add worldbuilding to their stories will improve their writing and enrich their story.
Here are 5 ways to teach kids how to build a world in their stories:
1. Create a worldbuilding guide
Brainstorm and write down everything you know about your world; what it looks like, the history, and the characters. One fun way to brainstorm is to set a timer for fifteen minutes and write non-stop about one element of your world. Doing research on ideas you have can add great details. For example, in writing Unicorn Island I researched unicorns and discovered these fun facts about them; they live peacefully in the forest, their horn is called an alicorn and can heal, and a baby unicorn is called a sparkle.
2. Borrow from history to create your own world
Remixing events, cultures, and characters from history can be fun. Authors do this all the time! Take from history to create something new and uniquely yours. This can also help you stay away from stereotypes like … white-cloaked heroes, evil villains, and damsels-in-distress. For example, if you’re writing a fictional story with a medieval flair you don’t need to restrict your story to accurate medieval life. Perhaps in your world, the peasants rule over everyone—and royalty answers to them.
3. Draw a map of your world
To help immerse yourself in your story world, create a map. Whether your story is set in a big city or just one house, it will help you visualize your setting—and your reader, too. Take a few minutes to draw a map of your story, whether it happens on one street or in an entire world. Then ask yourself these questions: Did you learn anything about your world in drawing your map? Do your plot and characters work with the setting? To ground myself in writing Unicorn Island and Joshua and the Arrow Realm, I drew maps to understand my world better and also to ensure the events happening in the story made sense with their timing.
4. Add rituals into your world
Rituals involve the passage of an individual from one social state to another. Adding rituals to your story can add a deeper layer of worldbuilding. Some rituals we know are weddings, graduations, proms, and funerals. Another example would be birthdays. In the United States, these generally involve eating a ceremonial cake that is lit with candles, and the birthday celebrant makes a silent wish for the future. If you came from another world and didn’t know what a birthday celebration was, wouldn’t that sound magical? Creating rituals like this can also be magical in your story! Another example is in the Harry Potter world where every school year at Hogwarts begins with a famous ritual of the Sorting Hat in which the students are placed into their academic houses.
5. Use all 5 senses
When you describe your world, it’s important to show it from the perspective of the characters who live there. Using all five senses to do this can reveal a much richer setting. What does your character see, hear, smell, feel, and taste in this world? Don’t simply describe a mountain range from the outside; reveal what your main character would think about that mountain range if he or she were describing it. Did they have a scary night getting lost on the mountain or did they have a fun adventure there with friends? Their experience will shape how they view the mountain. And always be specific. Don’t be satisfied with “the trees were green.” What kind of trees were they? Oak trees or redwoods? What kind of green? Dark green like pine needles or light green like new buds? These details can make a difference!
Is your child still struggling to create a world for their characters? Read stories aloud to hear how other author’s create their worlds. Worldbuilding isn’t just for books. Watch and analyze movies together. Try fantasy movies like Mulan, How to Train Your Dragon, Moana, Star Wars or real-life movies like A Dog’s Way Home or Little Women. What did the moviemakers do to make the world come alive? Pay attention to the details that add life and depth to the story.
Here’s a final word on helping kids create a story world. Build worlds that you love and interest you and your readers will be interested, too.
About Donna Galanti
Donna Galanti is the author of the middle grade books Joshua and The Lightning Road, Joshua and the Arrow Realm, and the popular Unicorn Island series. She regularly presents as a guest author at schools and teaches writers through her online Udemy courses. Visit her at donnagalanti.com.