Science fiction and fantasy writers have no excuse for not making every page compelling and original. They have a universe (or multiverse) of possibilities. If you’re writing a contemporary story, it can be a lot harder to find ways to discover points of interest in setting that are filled with the commonplace and familiar. But you can borrow techniques from speculative writers to make even the most humdrum locale imaginative and enticing.
One of these is point of view. Often SF and fantasy feature an explorer who is a stranger in a strange world, providing a familiar perspective on an unfamiliar landscape. In contemporary fiction, this can be a route to new insights. A proven approach to enlivening a known setting is viewing it through the eyes of a newcomer – a fish out of water.
The movie Crocodile Dundee is an excellent example. Throughout the story, the title character reinterprets New York from his Australian Outback perspective. The crowding in the city means the place must be full of friendly people. A car antenna is a boomerang. A bidet is a mystery. And a knife – well, that’s not a knife. Dundee doesn’t know the social rules either – leading to a faux pas regarding gender and stopping a purse snatcher because he doesn’t know enough not to get involved.
Fish out of water stories have been played for humor and for heart. But, even if no characters in your tale are from somewhere else, the writer can adopt an unusual point of view as a development tool. One approach I’ve taken is walking through my settings, my stories, and even key conversations while imagining myself to be a child. What’s surprising? What’s mysterious? What’s compelling?
The “fish” can also be someone with an urgent need. What would catch your interest in terms of resources and vulnerabilities if you needed to prepare your setting for a zombie apocalypse?
The point is not to introduce new (and inappropriate) characters or bizarre plot turns into your work, but to break down assumptions and notice new aspects of familiar places. Probing for deeper understandings, asking naïve questions (why?), forcing yourself to make rules explicit can add texture, drama, and understanding to a work. It can also uncover connections and suggest plot points that surprise, but feel inevitable.
I’ve also found that, for me, it increases affection for a setting. I understand that one reason people like disaster movies is because, as they see remnants of the familiar world in a new context, feelings similar to nostalgia are evoked. The same thing can happen in a far future story when today’s brand logos appear or, for that matter, when you show off your hometown to a visitor.
Breaking down assumptions, discovering new aspects, digging deeper, and making surprising discovering in a setting you know all too well isn’t easy. Assuming a stranger’s point of view, with a specific and engaged perspective, is one worldbuilding tool that can open up new ideas for you.
If you’d like to learn more about using worldbuilding techniques to improve settings in contemporary stories, join my online Savvy Authors workshop, The Perfect Setting – How all writers can use the tools of worldbuilding Nov. 10-23. We’ll explore a range of techniques that will raise stakes, increase reader interest, and suggest fresh possibilities for your stories.
Peter Andrews is a full-time, independent writer of speeches, articles, and blogs. He has dozens of short stories and hundreds of nonfiction articles in print. He has worked professionally in PR, and as a Web producer, speechwriter, and radio producer. He is the author of the popular How To Write Fast Blog.