Use Expressive Words To Build Your Story World

story world

The marriage of story with detailed, expressive language will help you build a story world that is the heart of great writing.

Dawn FieldDawn Field (July 20, 1969 – May 2, 2020)
In late 2015, Dawn Field submitted her first post to the BookBaby Blog. A molecular biologist, Senior Research Fellow of the NERC Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, guest professor at the University of Goeteborg in Sweden, and co-author of the book,
Biocode: The New Age of Genomics, Dr. Field came to us hoping to find a forum to share her experience and love of language with an audience of writers. While many unsolicited submissions don’t quite meet the needs (or standards) of our readers, something about Dawn’s writing stood out. I posted the article, and to my grateful amazement that initial contribution flourished into a five-year collaboration resulting in nearly 100 posts published on the BookBaby Blog. Sadly, on May 2nd, a voice that was an inspiration to so many of us in the self-publishing community was lost when Dr. Field suddenly and tragically passed away at the age of 50. We will continue to publish the pieces Dawn had submitted (she was always months ahead of schedule) in honor of her commitment to teaching and to the craft of writing. Rest in peace, Dawn.

You can start a story from the “bottom-up” with a handful of great words. Perhaps it’s something a character says or a symbol. Maybe it’s the name of your lead character — or even the title of the book.

Or you can work from the top down, forging a story concept and then finding all the best words to tell it. Either way, by the final draft, every page of your manuscript will be full of story-specific words.

But where do all the great words come from? From the story. Here are three tips to help you find the words to create your story world.

1. Find, define, and create story-specific language

As you build your story, you must selectively and creatively fill in all the juncture points between story and language. Even more important is how you choose the best words to express your literary elements: plot, character, setting, conflict, theme, tone, and mood.

Where are these juncture points? Everywhere you look in great writing. Pick up any book you love and search for these story-specific words. Even, if you are writing realistic fiction or a memoir, you still want as many “flavor” words as you can fit in.

The power of story-specific words is that they define a story world. They all belong inside the story and bring in readers. Where else do you hear about Quidditch other than in the world of Harry Potter? Upon hearing that coined word, you are immediately in that storyworld.

2. Draw on knowledge, experience, and imagination

The stronger and more vibrant your story language, the better the experience for readers. This takes a lot of work to build. It’s not just words, but concepts you need. It is key, tangible aspects of your plot: places, names, and symbols. List them out and bring them to life with great names.

In building this compendium, you can draw on a mix of your knowledge, experience, and imagination.

Knowledge means drawing on facts about how the world works as well as your own specialist knowledge. You can research the right words to suit specific topics — like the strategic battle moves of 12th Century Britain. If your story world is imaginary, you can describe it with consistent and powerful “ficts” — the facts you make up.

Experience might be your deepest well of inspiration. You might draw on people you’ve known to imbue a character with a special way of talking that is specific to a geographic area, profession, or personality. You might draw on places you’ve been or unusual experiences you’ve had. Have you traveled the world, almost died, or raised kangaroos?

Of course, as a writer, you can side-step reality and start hatching your own ideas. Go as far as you want into the depths of your imagination. Push the boundaries. Create new realities.

However you draw on knowledge, experience, and imagination, it’s all about fleshing out your fundamentals. Quidditch is a memorable and fitting word, but it’s the culture, history, and rules of the game that make it world-famous today. Those details are so well-imagined, Quidditch has leapt off the page and is being played by muggles (on brooms, no less).

3. Mind your fundamentals

The fundamental elements of your story will be described by your “crux” words. We all know what it means when a Jedi pulls out a lightsaber or talks about the Death Star, the Force, the Rebellion, or the dark side.

Names of characters are often symbolic and can certainly represent their spirit or reflect details such as birthplace and birthright or key plot points: the son of the king bears the name of the king. We put a lot of weight on a name – think of Voldemort, the one whose name we dare not speak.

Other important words will help define your characters, like their character signature, which you can use instead of a name. We all know Harry Potter is the boy with the lightning-bolt scar.

Your diction, or choice of words, will define your author voice and voices of each of your characters. Each character must be unique. If you drop all the dialogue tags, you should still know who is doing the talking.

When it comes to plot, it’s all about mining your story grammar to make your text experiential. What eternal and universal topics are you covering? Love, war, peace, betrayal?

Who does what and why? Maybe the story grammar of your tale reads something like: attack, escape, starvation, hiding, fighting, victory, trek back to civilization, overthrow of enemies, celebration. What is the vocabulary that brings all those topics to life?

What about setting? Are you in New York, Tokyo, or Hogwarts? What about motifs, symbols, and themes? Is there a Mockingbird or a mockingjay in your story? Names of places, big events, symbols, and even props are all great sources of material.

A word cloud of “desert, berries, nuts, cave, head wound, crown, palace, parliament” paints a very different picture than “ocean, moon, mermaids, surf, kraken, pearls, galleon, pirates.”

As you go into the depths of detail, you continue to build your palette of story-specific words. This is where your story really comes alive.

—  —  —

When story-specific words are lacking, it means the substance of your story is lacking. Sit down and work on your story language. How can you make more abstract details specific?

Can you make some of the currently intangible fears or worries of your characters concrete with a great symbol? Can you make up names for the specific foods, rules, traditions, or myths of your story world? All the word-brewing is about enriching the text so that readers can experience it. This is the long process of putting your ideas into words.


  1. This is a good article and I’m saddened at the lady’s demise. In my teaching days I urged students to hang their notes on word hooks e.g puchassing. Under this the whole activity of a company’s buying policy and control can be noted and recalled. I mention this in response to Ms Fields article as it contains a range of wotds which can be used to appraise and edit the story. I have learnt a good deal from this item.

  2. I don’t know how to begin this, except to say that for someone I never met in person, Dawn was someone I loved. For her fierce insistence that literature is important, that my writing was important. From the first email I received, it was clear she saw value in someone she’d met only in correspondence.

    Over the years we communicated, we argued over everything because she was a demanding person, not one to hide herself. And I must have sent her into rages over how ignorant I was about fiction. She studied the details, the nuance, and I skated blithely over top of subjects. She must have hated my sense of humor, yet the nights when she’d begin at midnight and continue a dialogue for the next few hours before I finally had to go to bed during a work week, those long sessions drove me to take up a novel I thought I’d never touch again. It’s her fault I’ve spent so much time writing the damn thing.

    She shared with me her young adult fantasy sent a page or two at a time, typed into her cell phone and sent by email. It seemed she was creating it on the fly. I’d get one version of a scene, then a corrected or expanded one. This went on for weeks. Typed on her cell phone! I’d get a blast of images, comment on them, get her cryptic but ever on target answers. I don’t know if she ever pulled it together past the first drafts she sent. A singular image of her young heroine flying over Lake Maggiore stays with me. She was sharing this wonderful story and she was thanking me for reading it! Thanking me?

    It always felt we had an intimate correspondence, one in which there were only the two of us, and it was flattering as much as I suspected she carried on multiple such correspondences. Her grace was in being able to touch people like that.

    The last email I got from her was last month, and as usual it was short and to the point–would I send her my novel draft? No explanation why, only would I send it? I still need to talk to her. I always will.

    • In reply to Bill Evans. Though I have not conversed via email with Dawn for as long as you have I have found her to be the same. My writing, plot, characters have improved no end with ideas she has shared and constructive criticism she has given. Yet she has always made me feel valued for my input into her questions. She has at times asked for things and I regret not always having the time to respond. But I am jealous for the time you have had to become so inspired from her and the time she has given to you and been just as grateful. Bless her. She truly appreciates a good story. Even when it is in the rough.


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