4 Stunning Ways Bestsellers Build Story Worlds

Story Worlds

Every story is set in a *world* – a specific context, subject area and environmental focus. 

It’s probably  easy to come up with the “world” of Star Wars or Harry Potter (harder to write perhaps, but easy to identify). 

But EVERY story is set in a unique world. It doesn’t matter what genre or subgenre. And this world changes and informs everything in the narrative, from characters to action to theme.

  •  The Language of Flowers is set in the *world* of flowers
  • Moby Dick is set in the *world* of fishermen
  • The Escape is set in the *world* of military prisons and secret services
  • Ashley Bell is set in the *world* of cancer survivors and surfers
  • Past Lives is set in the *world* of hypnosis and serial killers
  • The Assasins is set in the *world* of Assasins and spies 
  • The Net is set in the *world* of computers
  • Miss Congeniality is set in the *world* of beauty pageants and the FBI

Note that the story world is NOT synonomous with the story setting. Though it probably is connected. 

4 Ways Bestsellers Build Story Worlds

1. Limit Worlds 

While some stories blend a half dozen worlds, most bestsellers limit the *world* to 1. 

You might have the *world* of a submarine, firemen, refugees, Cowboys, Jedi Knights, a school for wizards, Middle Earth, mobsters, football coaches, male strippers, astronauts, oil drillers, coal miners, taxi drivers, etc. 

Why Limit Your World?

  • Too many worlds confuse the reader and often dilute the story
  • Better to go deeper into one world than wider into multiple worlds. 
  • Staying with one world brings single focus to your story 
  • You can explore the world 
  • The world can inform and expose the story
  • The world can become a character and/or symbol of the story 

2. Unique World 

You get extra points for coming up with a world readers haven’t seen before or a different aspect of a world we know. 

Harry Potter, King’s Dark Tower series and Lord of the Rings take us into a completely new world. So does Koontz’s Frankenstein series. 

Then there are stories that take us into a world we think we know, flipping our expectations and showing us the dirty, fascinating or dark underbelly. Think of Dexter, Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses – who hasn’t had a horrible boss? But these bosses are the *worst* bosses. 

Koontz’s Funhouse is another prime example. Many people have been to a carnival or amusement park. Koontz shows us the world of carnivals through a dark, creepy lens.

3. Collision of Worlds

Most stories focus on a single world, but involve a collision of two (or more) worlds. 

Every buddy cop story does this. Two opposites are forced to work together. Every fish out of water story does this.

 In some ways EVERY story involves a collision of worlds. 

  • In Harry Potter, the human and wizard world collide
  • In Silence of the Lambs, the FBI and serial killer world collide
  • In my Past Lives series, the hypnosis, reincarnation and serial killer world collide
  • In Jaws,the human and animal world collide
  • In Misery, the writer, serial killer and mental health world collide. 

In the unfolding narrative of a story, the main character often moves from his *normal* world to a completely *new* world marked by escalating conflict and danger. 

4. Explore the World 

Most bestsellers fully explore the global *world* of the story. Lesser stories skim the surface.

When stories don’t dig deep into the world, it usually means the world isn’t intimately connected to the story. The world might be an afterthought instead of a central element designed organically with the story idea.  

5 Ways To Explore Your Story World 

  1. Introduce the world early. On the first page if possible. The later you wait to introduce the world, the less story time you have to explore it. 
  2. Connect characters to the world. A nurse in a hospital or medical world. A river guide in a whitewater rafting world. This gives the character and the story a reason to explore the world. 
  3. Thrust a character into a new world. Contrast highlights the new world, allowing readers to see even old (or normal) things in new lights. 
  4. Connect the world to the story. A serial killer on a plane gives us reason to explore the world (and setting) of the plane. 
  5. Thread the world into every part of the story. Every scene explores a different aspect of the world. Dialouge is world-specific. Every character represents a unique part of the world and responds differently to the world of the story. The central conflict hinges on the world, escalates through the world and resolves in the world. 

Key Takeaways

  • Choose a single story world
  • Connect the world to the story concept, idea and premise
  • Fully explore the world
  • Reveal new layers of the world through characters, conflict and dialogue


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Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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Posted in screenwriting, writer, Writing

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