Like all elements of fiction writing, storyworld is multifarious. It isn’t a stand alone concept but is a composite of components that are, in and of themselves multifaceted.
Storyworld is exactly what it says it is: the world in which your characters live, breathe, and have their meaning. It goes beyond setting. It is the expression of your characters. Storyworld “shows” your hero’s personal growth as it morphs and changes throughout the story.
In this way, writing fiction is the opposite of real life. John Truby puts it this way, “In good stories, the characters come first, and the writer designs the world to be an infinitely detailed manifestation of those characters.”
The key here is “manifestation of those characters.” Storyworld isn’t separate from your characters. It isn’t a rigid space that existed before your characters came into existence. The space your story takes place in (a house, a town, a city, a jungle) represents your characters. And it changes as your characters change.
Where do you begin building your storyworld for your characters? It starts by knowing exactly what kind of story you are writing. I’m not referring to genre. I’m talking about story structure, the bones of the kind or type of story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.
This is a difficult step that will take a great deal of time to work out. I’m against formulas in fiction writing as a rule, but I will offer you this “formula” for puzzling out how to decide story structure because it is an organic one rather than paint by numbers.
Story process + original execution = Story structure
Here are some examples of this formula:
The Time Traveler’s Wife: A time traveler learns to love his wife and leave a legacy for his child knowing he will die at age 43. (Story process: love story. Original execution: he is a time traveler, plus the ticking clock of his approaching death)
The fact that The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story means that the storyworld is largely made up of man-made, indoor spaces where people are thrown together in intimate ways. Apartment, house, crowded bars, even the library where he worked. He moves from man-made space to man-made space and each move is more claustrophobic than the last. Only the sprawling meadow (a natural arena that juxtaposes the man-made arenas in the rest of the book) by Clair’s childhood home provides a utopia for Henry. There, he falls in love and becomes a man. This made it all the more poignant when Henry meets his demise in the meadow.
Notice the amount of detail that went into creating this shifting, intimate, and yet menacing world? The storyworld expressed Henry, not the other way around.
Here’s and example from John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story:
It’s a Wonderful Life: Express the power of the individual by showing what a town, and a nation, would be like if one man had never been born. (Story process: dystopia to utopia = fairy tale. Original execution: An angel shows George two versions of his small town.)
Storyworld: Two different versions of the same small town in America.
Because the structure of It’s a Wonderful Life is a fairy tale, it requires a kingdom in which the characters live and our hero rules over (in this case a small town). And, because the original execution is two towns, every element of the first kingdom had to have a contrasting element in the second version (which also had a different “king” the banker, Mr. Potter). No detail could be missed from the buildings, to the town’s name, to the weather, to the moon overhead.
Your storyworld is no less detailed.
The good news is, your storyworld has set boundaries which you erect around it. The drama of your novel will take place inside of these walls. When you think of your novel, you need to think in terms of contained space. Where are the boundaries of your story? Is it a town, a city, an island, a house, a boat, a shoreline, a hut, a jungle, etc.?
If your story structure requires multiple worlds (for example: Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Pleasantville, etc.) you must connect the worlds in some fashion. My newly completed manuscript takes place on an island off the East coast, but I have a man-made space on the mainland that I need to include in my storyworld (it symbolizes futile attempts to attain wellbeing outside of the character’s organic storyworld); therefore I used the system of ferry service as a bridge between the two worlds. That meant that I needed scenes on the ferry, and that the ferry itself be organically part of the larger storyworld.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, a brief introduction to the topic of storyworld. There is a great deal more to consider based on the specific story structure you will use, and the original execution you will employ.
The key is to remember that the world your characters live in is a manifestation of those characters.
Thoughts? Also, feel free to ask any questions or for clarification. I’ll do my best to engage with your ideas and ponderings and together, we might come up with something helpful.