World-Building in YA Science Fiction

Within a 24-hour period, I not only met writer J.A. Souders, but she saved my butt. When a guest blogger went MIA, leaving me with a big, gaping hole for today’s blog post, she came to my rescue with this informative piece that features strong scene-setting advice for virtually all fiction writers, sci-fi or otherwise.

World building is just as important in YA Sci-Fi as it is in adult – arguably more so, since teenagers often are more accepting, and critical, of off-the-wall concepts. So that means no shortcuts. There are rules to world building. Here are three.

Show, don’t tell. This might go without saying, but you need to immerse your readers in your world. That may mean drawing blueprints for the “facility” your characters are running around in or a map of the area they live in. It means immersing yourself in that world. My latest book takes place in an underwater city. I closed my eyes and pictured the first scene. It needed to be perfect. So I set it in a garden with gorgeous flowers that scented the air. Which led me to… How were they getting air? Oxygen recyclers! Since it was a garden, it made sense that there would be glass windows all around and you could see the wild life – sharks, mantas, fish. And the water was dark, because they were deep in the ocean. I did that with each and every location my main character (MC) would be in. The labs. Her quarters. The Detainment Center. I even drew a map, so I knew where everything was. It doesn’t take much. Just a few details placed here and there throughout the first few chapters, and readers will have what they need to know.

Set and follow the rules of your world. If the story takes place underwater, a character can’t just walk outside and get a breath of fresh air – unless he or she has gills or something, of course. It’s important to establish early on what the rules are and why they’re that way. You can break the rules, but prepared to explain why they were broken and why it’s important. One of the biggest rules in my facility is no “pre-Coupled” touching. That means that if a couple hadn’t been “Coupled” – i.e., married – they couldn’t touch one another skin-to-skin. (That includes kissing.) So when another character kisses my MC, there has to be a reason why he isn’t punished, since another character had been killed for doing just that.

Tiny details. Besides the big setting descriptions – that you generally can’t avoid – I try to focus on the little things. Not laser pistols and swashbuckling aliens, but wrist watches and medications. I focus on the sounds they hear, the clothes the characters wear, even the food they eat. For instance, there is 50s music playing throughout the facility, and everyone is dressed in vintage clothing. Plus, my MC has never had meat. So that tells my readers, we’re either in the past, or an alternate reality, or my characters really like wearing vintage clothing, and she’s a vegetarian. If you’re having trouble coming up with these kinds of details, take a look at your surroundings. What would change in 50 years? 100? 200? What do the computers look like? Is there a TV? Are there books?

The key to world building is knowing that world. Because if you don’t, neither will your readers.

J.A. Souders was born in the heartland with an overactive imagination and an overabundance of curiosity that was always getting her into trouble. She first began writing at the age of 13 when she moved to Florida and not only befriended the monsters under the bed, but created worlds for them in which to play together. She still lives in the land of sunshine and palm trees with her husband and their two children, is an active member of the RWA, CFRW, YARWA and the SCBWI and is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.


2 thoughts on “World-Building in YA Science Fiction

  1. I think your second point is the most important. Set and follow the rules. That’s what makes or breaks a fictional world for me. If a writer is going along with this perfectly believable world, then suddenly the main character can fly, I just can’t buy it.

    Great tips and reminders, Jess!

    – Liz

  2. Jess, Your second point about setting and following the rules is so on-target. I recall reading a series where they set up rules in the first book and completely ignored them in the second–I was so disappointed. It was not a current series. I don’t think an editor would allow that today. Ruth

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