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Let’s Build a World Together

by Kate Messner
 | May 07, 2013
Research is a huge part of the writing process, not only for authors of nonfiction but also for those of us who write fiction. Historical novels, for example, involve extensive study of the time period in which the novel is set so that authors can make sure every detail is accurate to that historical period.

p: loungeri via photopin cc
But what about novels set in the future? How do you research something that hasn’t happened yet? Building the worlds of futuristic and fantasy novels involves a process called world building—the careful and detailed construction of a new world, with all the elements that a realistic world must include.

My 2011 futuristic weather thriller, EYE OF THE STORM, is set in the year 2050, in a world where climate changes have led to severe and catastrophic global weather patterns—and where corporations that have mastered weather manipulation use technology to protect their friends and destroy their enemies. And before I wrote a word of the story, I spent many hours and many, many pages creating that fictional world. It has to be real for me before I can make it feel real to readers. To fully understand my fictional world—and the characters who live there—I need to know not only the details of that world but also how it got to be the world it is. How did it come to this?

So when I’m working on a book like this, I spread my desk with colored markers and huge pieces of paper, and I map out my future world. Writing the future, for me, begins with a close, thoughtful look at the present. I started with the news of the day. What implications will these headlines have in ten years? Twenty years? Fifty years?

I sketch out a timeline and try to include everything that affects a society—wars and shifts in international relations, breakthroughs in technology, cures for old diseases and the emergence of new ones. And I ask lots of questions. How might our current environmental policies evolve in a way that leads to a global climate crisis? What nations will rise as world superpowers, and what nations will fall? What kinds of leaders will these nations have?

So I map out my world. I choose my future leaders, sketch out their policies, and then play the whole thing out like a movie. If this happens…what might be the backlash. If that happens…what would we expect as the result? And what might the unexpected consequences be?

The answers to these questions help to drive the plot of futuristic novels like EYE OF THE STORM, THE HUNGER GAMES, AMONG THE HIDDEN, and DIVERGENT. Students can deconstruct these novels to get a great sense for how authors build worlds. Most dystopian and other futuristic novels grow out of a seed in our modern-day newspapers. THE HUNGER GAMES, for example, imagines our modern issues with class differences, reality TV, and insensitivity to violence, taken to a whole new level, while EYE OF THE STORM amplifies our current concerns about climate and resulting weather patterns to create a frightening future scenario in which the weather controls almost every move a person makes.

When students are reading futuristic fiction in class or in their literature circles or book clubs, ask them to consider questions like these:

  • What modern-day issues do you think may have sparked the author’s idea for this novel?
  • What would have to happen for our current world to evolve in a way that makes this setting and its plot a real possibility by the time the novel takes place?
  • What do you think might be a more realistic scenario with the issue at stake, and what variables might affect how that issue plays out in real life?
From here, students can go on to create their own worlds to use as possible settings in futuristic stories. One way to approach this activity is to start with a big pile of newspaper front pages. Ask students to choose an issue discussed in the headlines and journal about the possible futures that might be associated with it:

  • What do you see as the current concern regarding this modern day issue?
  • What’s your best guess about what this issue might look like in the year 2050?
  • What would a worst case scenario look like in the year 2050?
  • What events/developments/human choices could cause this worst case scenario to develop?
  • If that happened, what would the world look like as this issue got worse? What might happen within ten years? Twenty years?
  • What would a best possible scenario look like for this issue, if things were to improve?
From here, students can create timelines outlining what happens between now and the future date they’ve targeted as the setting for their stories. Ask student writers to imagine not only the particular issue on which they’ve chosen to focus but also what other issues might look like in the future. Remember that our world includes many interconnected elements, both natural and manmade.

I’ve created a world building guide for writers that has dozens of questions to prompt this kind of thinking. It’s long, and available online in three parts:

http://www.katemessner.com/dystopian-world-building-worksheet-part-i/
http://www.katemessner.com/dystopian-world-building-worksheet-part-ii/
http://www.katemessner.com/dystopian-world-building-worksheet-part-iii/

For more ideas and sites to share in the classroom, visit my EYE OF THE STORM RESOURCES board on Pinterest:

http://pinterest.com/katemessner/eye-of-the-storm-resources/

Once students have a solid world created, they should begin to have ideas for some of the problems that world might present for its characters, and that’s where the plots for their stories really begin to take off.

And finally, an added bonus to all this study of futuristic darkness, talking about world building often leads students to the realization that we are engaged in this practice every single day—not when we’re writing, but when we’re making the day-to-day decisions that shape our current world.

Often, studying worlds gone wrong prompts students to begin an even more important conversation. How can we best work together to build a world gone right?

For more advice on using EYE OF THE STORM in your classroom, check out this Teacher's Guide.

Kate Messner is a former middle-school English teacher and the author of E. B. White Read Aloud Award-winner THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z., SUGAR AND ICE, EYE OF THE STORM, CAPTURE THE FLAG, the Marty McGuire chapter book series, and two picture books, SEAMONSTER’S FIRST DAY and OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW. She lives on Lake Champlain with her husband and two kids. When she’s not reading or writing, she loves hiking, kayaking, biking, and watching thunderstorms over the lake. Visit her online at www.katemessner.com.

© 2013 Kate Messner. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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