WRITING KNOWHOW Worldbuilding in YA

Our Writing KnowHow series on worldbuilding ends with author P.M. Freestone asking, what is most valued in your world? And what would your characters do to get hold of it?

In my last post, we considered how an important theme in YA literature — identity— can be informed by delving into the history of your story world. Today’s post looks at an equally important worldbuilding element in YA: what do people value.

The world of Shadowscent revolves around scent. Prayers only reach heaven on sacred incense. A visitor will be flattered or insulted by the oils burned upon their arrival. Personal fragrances are class markers. In our society, where we value visual appearances, we might find a restaurant or pub bearing the sign ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service’. But in the Empire of Aramtesh, it’s: ‘you stink? no drink!’

What then, is most valued in Shadowscent? The world’s rarest flower is worth more than gold. Its bloom is an auspicious event steeped in ceremony and celebration. Trade routes have been established for its transport. Its regulation and trade influences political alliances and tensions. And this impacts the lives and social station of the main characters.

What is most valued in your world? It doesn’t need to be as all-encompassing as Shadowscent’s focus on a particular sense. It could be as simple as arable land to produce certain foods. A particular technology that changes life in a key way. Perhaps a fuel for transport or other machinery. A skill only certain people possess. Or something symbolic, like gold, that can be traded for other commodities, influence or power.

Questions to ask yourself include
  • What is the most valuable thing in my world and why?
  • Where can this commodity be found?
  • How is it sourced, processed, transported, bought and sold?
  • What spheres of life (e.g. daily routines, religious, military) does it feature in?
  • Who controls/owns this resource?
  • How is life different if you have a lot of this thing, a little, or none?

Whatever is most valued in your world, I encourage you to explore its possibilities. Not only will it add depth to a book’s sense of place, it can also underpin one of the most important elements of story: conflict.

Because when people value something, they’re often prepared to go to great lengths to acquire it…

Header Image by Lee_seonghak from Pixabay

P. M. Freestone writes YA SFF. Her debut novel, Shadowscent: The Darkest Bloom, was published earlier this year by Scholastic, with the sequel to follow in 2020. She lives in Edinburgh with her partner and rescue dog, and runs Pulse events for SCBWI Scotland.

Eleanor Pender is Knowhow Editor. If there's something you'd like to know how to do, send your suggestions to knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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