Every time you write a story you create a world.
It’s a simple idea at its core. You take the reader by the hand and say, “Here is a place I want you to visit. A place you can believe in. Something will happen here. I want to share it with you.”
Writers talk about world building all the time. Especially genre writers. But I believe every writer creates a world when he writes a story. It is a microcosm of what might be, or what is, or what was…but it is a world, make no mistake about that. No matter how long or how short, that story you present is part of a world.
Of course, we are familiar with the big examples. Dune by Frank Herbert comes to my mind when we talk about world building in SF. You can live in that world. It’s full and rich and there’s weight to it.
Dune is a real place. You can live there. Die there. Love there.
For fantasy I always think of Middle-Earth. Deep history, language, races, culture, creation story….that’s a living, breathing world. You can live there, too, thanks to Tolkien’s imagination.
All fiction is rich with worlds we can live, and believe, in. And, with some stories, there are worlds you don’t want to live in. They are too mean and nasty, like 1984 by George Orwell. But, even with their crushing horror, they are no less fascinating.
These are obvious examples. I’m arguing every story has a world, even if it’s only background support, or stagecraft. For the story to work, the world has to work. Even if it’s no more than window dressing, or a simple stage which allows the story to progress.
A story cannot exist without a world. If the story is about non-existence, that framework in which the story exists must be believable. The non-existence must be believed by the reader. The psychological underpinnings must have some fundamental truth to them or the story won’t work.
Worse, the reader will feel cheated. There aren’t many cardinal sins in writing, but cheating the reader is definitely one of them.
So the long and short is, every time you write a story you make a world. The trick is to make the world believable enough to support the story you are trying to tell in turn. I’m not saying this is easy.
I’m simply arguing it’s necessary.