Writing Outside the Story

By Rosemary Bird-Hawkins

In this feature I’m going to explore the idea of writing outside the story. This is not the same as going off on a tangent, or writing something to be edited that will have its place in the book, rather it is a way of discovering more about your characters and the world you are creating, a way to discover back story and motive. 

In an interview for The Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.’ 

I would suggest that knowing your world makes it substantial, gives confidence to your writing which seeps through to your reader. No matter whether you’re writing a fantasy, historical, or contemporary story, the worlds in which your characters live must be convincing – they must function under the rules that you have created (fantasy) or that used to exist (historical), or that exist now (contemporary) – and there must be a sense of wholeness embedded in your writing (that hidden part of the iceberg). 

So, how do you get to know your world, how do you write icebergs? 

1. Get to know your world: 

If you’re creating a whole new world you need to understand the rules that it exists by. Why does it have three moons? Why can people fly? What are the consequences of these rules? This information may not be necessary to the plot, or even fully explained in the story, but because you know the reasons they’ll be there behind the words, it will show in the way everything fits together and make sense. 

If you’re writing a historical piece you’ll need to do some research to understand the world of the past and how to recreate it. Investigate all the small details such as what did people eat? Where and how did they buy their food? What was the popular entertainment at the time? How and when did people get their news? These details will build up the world for you to know inside out. 

The same is true for real-life contemporary writing: learn what you’re writing about, discover the nuances. Google and YouTube are great aids for this; with a little perseverance and a decent internet connection you can get in touch with people who can feed your knowledge. 

2. Less is more: 

Once you know everything it’s tempting to drop it into your story like a boulder and leave it there as a monument to the depth of your world. Be wary of this, one or two carefully placed words often work better than a whole paragraph of description or explanation. Read the opening lines of George Orwell’s 1984 and see how perfectly he sets a tone of otherness and gives us enough information to understand something of the world we are about to enter. 

3. More is also more:

Knowing and seeing things clearly in your own head sometimes means that you forget that others need to be led where you want them to go. They cannot see what you see, you have to show them. It really helps to get a fresh mind to read your work and ensure that you’re using enough touches of description and world building to allow what you know to translate onto the page. 

4. How speaketh thou? 

Be wary of colloquial dialogue and using slang words. Colloquial dialogue is hard to get right and can become a barrier between your reader and your character if not done convincingly. Slang grows old incredibly quickly and can really make a story feel out of touch. Using one or two words consistently can be all you need. It’s a ‘balancing act between keeping the story and the characters accessible, while leaving the language with just enough special vocabulary or dialogue to remind us that we’re in another time [or place].’**

5. Get to know your characters: 

Write short scenes or vignettes of all your characters’ childhoods, or most informative years – even minor characters – fix in your head the events that shaped their lives, and so their motives. Write it from their point of view, you could even try first person, and your background characters will become more than just a useful way to move the plot on or reveal information. If a character isn’t fully formed enough to have a back story or a scene from their past, do they really have a role to play? 

6. Drawing out inspiration: 

Try drawing your characters and pinning them up where you work. You could draw a picture of them at the start of the novel and another of how they’ll look by the end. What changes have they been through? How does this manifest itself physically? I ‘google’ images (normally manga images because I like that style) and then use that as a basis to help me draw mine. 

7. Character collages: 

You could also cut out pictures from magazines or catalogues (obscure magazines are good because you get a range of different people). Create a character collage to represent different aspects of the character – their hobbies and interests, their loves and hates, what drives them. 

8. Character questionnaire: 

Create a questionnaire and fill it out as your character. Include abstract questions that you may not have thought about such as what sort of music does your character like/dislike? What’s their favourite food? What is their most treasured possession? The answers may be more revealing than you think. 

All of these exercises are obviously time consuming, but they’re also fun and a unique way of getting to know your story. I would suggest that it’s best to play around with these ideas if you’re feeling low on motivation or stuck on how to move the story forward. I think nothing makes writing stronger than the confidence of really knowing and understanding your world and your characters. An example character questionnaire can be downloaded from my blog

**Paver, Michelle Writing historical novels for children from Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2009 (A&C Black Publishers Ltd: 2008) p.129

Rosemary Bird-Hawkins has an MA in Writing for Children from Winchester University and has been running creative workshops for children for ten years. She has worked for various publishers as well as freelancing as an editor. She currently lives in Dorset with her husband, cat, two rabbits and a house full of books and instruments. Rosie writes fantasy and dystopian fiction for children and hopes one day to be published. Until then she continues to seek out more stories, while encouraging others to explore their writing abilities. For further resources and information about running writing workshops, you can visit her blog.


  1. A really useful set of tips! Thanks Rosie. Number 5 looks like a good task to get me going.

  2. Thanks, Rosemary, that was helpful. I haven't written a novel in a wholly fictional world for a while, but when I did I found it helpful to write artefacts and supporting documents to get me into the world - newspaper stories, diaries, psychological profiles etc. These then become nice bonus items that you can put up on your website etc. to support the book when it's published. I blogged about it here: http://www.whoatemybrain.com/2010/12/researching-fictional-world.html

  3. Yes, some very useful tips here. When I'm creating a new world in something I'm writing I sit in cafes making notes. I find it a good thinking space. It reminds of what needs to exist in the world I'm creating.

  4. Thank You Rosemary - some great ideas.You're so right about 'more is also more' !
    And Nick, great point re your world building becoming the website when the book is published.

  5. This has come just at the right time! I'm about to add a contemporary thread into my historical novel so this is a reminder to make the present day world as real as the historical one. Thank you!

  6. Many grad programs at various universities and specialty schools will require you to write a personal statement in order for you to apply to the school and if you are not sure what to write then you need to know where to look so that you can figure it out.


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