World-building Through Storytelling

In January of this year, I spent time every day writing short stories, and developing ideas. Several of these stories fed into a shared universe, with a single item at its centre: a phone book for the supernatural, called The Black Pages. Taking a look at some of the different people whose businesses were detailed within this imaginary phone book, I built up a few key points for the stories: what sort of hierarchy existed, what sort of laws surrounded magic, what people were capable of, who knew who in the wider universe, etc.

Flash forward to March, and I put together a book that had been playing about in my head since long before The Black Pages. I saw an opportunity with an existing story I had written to expand the world I had created, by introducing a character I’d been thinking about for years: Death, in a beige sweater. Making a brief appearance in a story tale called The Local Necromancer, Death’s story had me captivated. And so, I churned out A Death in the Family, a book that tells the story of Benjamin Cooper, after years of deliberation and a morbid fascination with the folklore surrounding death and the end of times. The book allowed me to build up a few things I had established in my short stories.

A friend asked me about world building and story telling yesterday – a nice coincidence, given the fact that I was planning this post – and I gave her a simple answer that I can put more concisely now: build the world through the story.

I started with the necromancer. He had a name. He had a story. I followed up on his tale with two more related stories. One gave me a fun tale, the other gave me a policing organisation. One thing that always interested me about any story worlds dealing with the supernatural were the governing and policing forces. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had the Watchers. Supernatural had Heaven and the Men of Letters, but nothing beyond Hell that was internal to the supernatural creatures. The Shadowhunter Chronicles has the Shadowhunters to police the supernatural, with each subsection of magical being having their own governing forces.

The slightly dodgy artwork for a short story booklet. Cheap and cheerful!

I needed order, and I had a necromancer. He needed opposition on two fronts: one group that deals with the consequences of his business, and another to try stop him. I also wanted some element of comedic relief, and with my young, beige sweater-ed Death on the scene, I had a solution: Reapers. I hadn’t built up many rules surrounding them, but they felt like a natural opposite to the necromancer, and that they were only going to be regular people. Death became a day-job.

I also introduced, in a third story, my police and clean-up crew: Damage Control. One supernatural solution, one human solution, and two more characters to play a role in the events of the book that was putting itself together in my subconscious for a few years.

Building a world requires a certain level of patience, and a degree of understanding how much information is too much for a reader in one go. In an ideal world, people would read my short fiction in a set order: The Local NecromancerThe Monochrome Marriage, and the as-yet unpublished, Damage Control. It’s a mini-arc of stories that focus on one element of A Death in the Family.

Hanging Up The Scythe is important for context with the book that followed, but could be read before or after it. It mostly deals with the ‘why’ of its protagonist’s story, and gives him a little more ‘air time’ than he receives in A Death in the Family.

In that order, readers will be introduced to the concept of the supernatural, given a few set rules for how certain elements of it work, and be shown the consequences of someone’s actions. Looked at as chapters, each one provides an extra glimpse into how things work in the fictional world. That same mind-set was maintained when writing the story of Benjamin Cooper, a complete outsider to the supernatural world. Readers learn things as he does, and with a new job to adapt to, there’s only a certain amount of info-dump he can feasibly deal with on a day-by-day basis.

A common rule when writing is that each chapter in a book should deal with one important thing. I gave Ben ‘cases’ to deal with – souls to Reap – as a way of containing each element of his learning. The prologue tells the reader that Death is a living, breathing person. The first chapter introduces Ben, and allows for some understanding of the rules at play. The second chapter deals with his first case, and the procedure behind Reaping. And so on. That’s the spoiler-free version of events, but it should be pretty clear how I addressed this book: something new every chapter, partly to build up the world that the story takes place in, and always to give something for Ben to overcome – be it a complete change in his life, or the first day on the job.

While you don’t necessarily need to work on several stories at once to develop your world, short stories related to your novel can serve as a valuable tool to show more of the world that would otherwise exist only in the background of your narrative. They can be quick and easy to read, providing the reader with a glimpse of the world through another character’s eyes, without having to influence the main plot of your book. How you release them is up to you – and there’s a whole other post I can write about my methods of late in that field. In the meantime, figure out what’s relevant in your world building to your story, and focus on writing a tale that allows you to introduce your reader to new concepts as the narrative unfolds.

A Death in the Family is will be released on April 1st, at the inaugural K-Con in Kerry. Check out for details of the convention. Read about the book below:

Benjamin Cooper is about as close to death as someone can get, without actually dying. Literally.

In the wake of the Worst Year of the Century, the Coopers are visited by a man straight out of folklore, Death himself. Ben is forced, by way of fulfilling a supernatural debt, to take over the mantle of Reaper.

But life as Death is more complicated than Ben could ever imagine, and perfectly executing every order is rarely an easy task.

A Death in the Family is a tale of paying for others’ decisions, seeking to understand dying, and falling hopelessly in love.



About Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is a writer, born, raised and still living in Dublin. By day he's a student and bookseller, by night he writes fiction and uses social media.
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