J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”
Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:
Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)
Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.
First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.
For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.
That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.
The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.
The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.
Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.
A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.
Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.
In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.