Open Book Festival: Worldbuilding workshop

21 September 2015

My YA masterclass returned to Open Book again this year and to my absolute delight, was one of the first events to sell out. Last time we tackled How to write a YA novel, so this year I decided to narrow the focus a little bit.

I was joined by Cat Hellisen and Zimkhitha Mlanzeni to discuss the ins and outs of worldbuilding in YA. We were armed with coloured chalk, Iced Zoo Biscuits and juice boxes (and tons and tons of notes).

In a nutshell, worldbuilding sets the scene. It is the world your character lives in. It’s Forks, or District 12, or Hogwarts. Think of all the detail that went into creating Middle Earth – the maps, the languages, the rich histories. That’s worldbuilding.

But worldbuilding is more than just setting. It’s the backbone of your novel. You’re creating an entire world that must be real and plausible. In essence, it’s our world, but on a smaller scale.

It was a fantastic discussion and I learned a helluva lot myself – too much to fit into one blog.

Below are some of the points covered in my notes about writing a contemporary setting.

How to make setting believable?

Ask yourself a series of questions:
• Where in the world does your story take place?
• What year is it?
• What season is it and what’s the weather like?
• Where does your character live?
• What is the character’s house like?
• What is the neighbourhood like?
• Is it an affluent suburb or a poorer area?
• Where does your character go to school?
• What is the social hierarchy?
• What social media platforms do they use?
• How does your character travel?
• Where do they shop?
• What currency is used?
• Are there trees? If so, what type of trees are they?
• Where does your character eat?
• What are their favourite places to hang out?
• Is anything interesting happening in the neighbourhood? An event or festival?

Use your five senses. What does your character hear at night? What are the smells coming out the school tuck shop?

It’s one thing for you to know all these facts, but your reader needs to know them too. Weave all these details into the narrative. I’m not talking about adding pages and pages of descriptions. They must form a natural part of the story – the places where the action happens. Move your character around. Let the reader see what they do.

A helpful tip is to write in scenes.

How to research?

• If you’re setting your novel outside of South Africa remember that the little details might be even more complicated, like currency. Do you know how it works? What are the denominations? How much does an ice cream cost?
Don’t just make things up.
• If you have a scene set inside a police station don’t guess what it’s like. Go visit a police station or ask someone. If you don’t do your homework, you’ll miss little details like the fact that everything is written down laboriously with pen and paper and that even the smallest statement takes a hundred years to process.
• Draw on your own experiences.
• Use the tools available to you. Google, podcasts, the library. And throw yourself out there and talk to people. People love talking about themselves.


Your character’s family and friends also form part of their world. These characters also have homes, jobs, stories.

Ask yourself even more questions:
• Who are your character’s family and friends?
• Who are his/her neighbours?
• What are your character’s likes and dislikes?
• What does your character feel about their family?
• What does your character feel about the neighbourhood?
• Who does he/she like/hate?
• What is their family history?
• What are their religious beliefs?
• Has he/she travelled anywhere?
• Does he/she have a job?

I could go on and on and on, but these are just a few tips to help you along the writing road.

Thanks to everyone who attended. It was a fantastic experience. I’ll definitely be doing another one soon.


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