This month we’re talking about setting. I was thinking a lot about this on a trip to California where I had the strange experience of walking around inside someone else’s imagination. It was spring break and we were in California to visit family. While there, we stopped at Universal Studios to see Harry Potter World.
Our mouths dropped open when we turned a corner and realized we were walking around Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.
The details were perfect. Moaning Myrle was droning in the bathroom. There were robes and Quidditch supplies for sale. We ate lunch at The Three Broomsticks, bought wands at Olivander’s and stood on Platform Nine and Three Quarters.
The amazing thing to me, as a writer, is that everything I saw came out of one woman’s imagination. None of this was real of course, but it felt real because J.K. Rowling built a world so deep and rich that people will spend real money (and quite a lot of it, as I realized later when I looked at my credit card statement) to walk around inside this world for a few hours, to inhabit a physical manifestation of a place that exists only inside her head and, thanks to her ability to describe that world, inside ours.
When they turn your book into an amusement park, you know you’ve done an exceptional job of world building.
Right now, I’m in the process of re-reading the Harry Potter books out loud to my children for the second time. It’s the best part of my day. And as I do this, I try to identify the ingredients in J.K. Rowling’s secret sauce, to analyze exactly what makes her world building so epic.
The details are in the details.
J. K Rowling doesn’t just tell us Harry took a History of Magic test. She describes the questions. By the time she’s done, I feel like I took that exam with Harry.
There are hundreds of details in these books that do not advance the plot. But woven together, they build a world as colorful and arcane as the real one we inhabit each day.
Great movies do the same thing. I’m a lifelong Star Wars nerd and I recently re-watched The Force Awakens. I love the sequence where we first meet Rey. J.J. Abrams packs that scene with details that reveal vital information about the character and her world.
When Rey tips the empty water can to her throat and pounds on it to release those last few drops of water, we instantly understand that her world is one of heat, dust, hardship and deprivation. Behind her we see the giant husks of decaying star destroyers. She lives in the shadow of a dead empire. And because her world is so different from our own, we want to step inside and inhabit it with her.
World building is my favorite part of writing. I think this is the reason I love dystopian fiction and science fiction. Why stay in this world when you can inhabit a different one?
The single best thing about a good writing or good reading session is that moment when you look up from the computer screen or the page, and you’re disoriented for a moment. You were in another world and you’re startled to remember that the real one still exists.
Sometimes it’s a relief to find the real world is still there. Sometimes it’s a disappointment. I remember being crushed as a child when I realized there was no piece of furniture in my house capable of transporting me to Narnia.
I think that’s why writers write. If we can’t find a wardrobe to take us to another world, we’ll create one of our own, and use words to take us there.
Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor and reporter and former House and Senate aide who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star, the Wonder Dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion or unloading the dishwasher.