Nuraliah Norasid is a writer, researcher and educator based in Singapore. Her debut novel, The Gatekeeper, won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016 and the Best Fiction Title for the Singapore Book Awards in 2018. As part of her virtual residency with the National Centre for Writing in June 2021, Nuraliah was asked to provide five essential pieces of advice for fellow writers.
I like to think of stories as being set in worlds — universes existing in the landing pads of our curved palms, as something nebulous, their spatiality existing almost solely in our minds as we move through the actions of our characters and the narrative.
Sometimes, parts of the world are laid out for us, opened up through meticulous exposition and description like a photograph or a folded-up poster with pointers to direct the reader’s eye — ‘there to the large billboard emblazoned with an authoritarian symbol, to the dark line of trees just beyond the cottage, this empty room with the jacket hung over the back of the chair that looked like who had been sitting in it had just left in a hurry’.
At others, the worlds exist in the background: a fleeting image beyond the action, fragmentary in the way we see them — perhaps a mobile phone being pressed to a red ear in front of an indie café advertising free scones with every two orders of coffee, a carved dragon on an archway partially lit up by a sconce as a small band passed under it on their way to grabbing weapons from the weapon’s rack.
Whether held up and described in attentive detail or illuminated at key points of a story’s actions, the worlds in which stories take place are at once self-contained in their narrative contexts and connected to larger perceptions, experiences, and the lived and observed realities of our own world and positionalities. Beyond just being the ‘where’ of the story, story worlds and the spaces through which characters move can be excellent, even indispensable tools to clue readers in to the underlying factors that have impacted and shaped the story’s characters, their worldviews, habits, and even physiologies.
The worlds in which stories take place are at once self-contained in their narrative contexts and connected to larger perceptions
However, the development of a story’s world can prove to be a big and tedious undertaking (unless you, like me, enjoy spiralling into the overzealous ideation and process work of coming up with fictional newspaper articles and café names). It can also be incidental and organic, required and considered when the story shines a light on it at various points in the plot.
Writing a rich and nuanced world does call for a writer to have built some foundation in observation and being attentive to detail. Below are some considerations that have helped me bring nuance and subtlety into story worlds and settings, mundane or fantastic.
Observe the world around you in close detail
To be a writer, I feel, is also to be an observer of the world. I fondly recall the nature study lessons that I had for science class in primary school, when the teacher would take us to the back of the school where the science club kept a small garden in which the members grew fruit trees, such as papaya and banana, herbs, and other common houseplants. The objective was to collect leaves and seeds, make drawings of it in your nature study exercise book and write notes and observations about it.
Similarly, when it comes to writing and thinking about setting, places and spaces in our stories, a useful part of the process would be observing and being attentive to the details of the world around us. Apart from sitting on a public bench and making observations, a walkabout is always an excellent way to gather information and observational data.
A walkabout is always an excellent way to gather information and observational data.
Go in close and feel the textures of a building’s façade, look out for cracks and how they have or have not been patched up, find the augmentations and alterations in the designs that can show how the city and its collectives treat those in the margins, see how different places have different kinds of foot traffic and think about why there are these differences. In urban spaces, take note of how nature co-exists or are curated in public or personal spaces, how a plant may push its way out of unexpected places. When in nature, take note of variety, try and find words for how the air feels, listen to the sounds and note how individual notes make the whole symphony.
Find a bit of time to write, as descriptively as you can, everything that you have seen. Take note of the details that stuck out to you and ask yourself why they do. Pay careful attention, especially, to instances or evidence of co-existence, conflict, contrast, anachronism, and diversity that you can see in your observations.
Add meaning and inference to concrete details
Concrete details — the appearances of furniture, the placement of objects, the facts and realities of what a front door and the porch might look like, for example — are useful in creating a clear image in the reader’s mind. Inferences, to the character or the events of the story, as well as to various other narratives and realities that exist in the larger story world, can be embedded into these details. Doing this in a way that is vivid and descriptive, but also subtle (perhaps, almost in passing) can help these details stay in the reader’s mind without taking time and attention away from the moving plot. Try playing around with a mix and match of highlighted and mundane details, action, and background in a scene to give it life and meaning.
For example, a detective might glance at a keyboard in the house of a murder victim, notices that the most-used keys are W, S, A, and D — indicating that the victim or someone in the household is a PC gamer — before being called to pay attention to another detail by their partner. The presence of a particular flower noticed by a character moments before a pivotal meeting can help frame a story within the narrative of an urban legend without alluding to it in a heavy-handed manner. Showing the protagonist passing by a home built in the 1800s which is surrounded by modern day condominiums with floor to ceiling glass windows not only shows the nature of urban development in that city but also how the landscape is changing. It can even be a way to frame the story’s conflict.
Weave stories, folklore, urban legends, and history into the story’s landscape
Whether in realist or fantastic settings, places are rarely narrative vacuums. Stories are often brought into them by people with their urban legends and personal narratives. Communities might have folklore that are closely tied to the place. The history of a place brings with it its own set of narratives that can be told through the layout, the presence of certain buildings and objects, even the absences of them shown in the form of trace remains. Some places might be made inaccessible, some buildings repurposed, transformed and the relics in them given new meaning.
When writing of a place or space, think about the sort of stories, folklore, and urban legends that the society that lives in them might have told
When writing of a place or space, think about the sort of stories, folklore, and urban legends that the society that lives in them might have told and passed down from one generation to the next. Think also about the place’s history and the history of the larger country, nation, planet, or kingdom that it exists in. What sort of marks would these stories, legends, and histories leave on the place? How can you show it through the descriptions of your setting and through the action of your story?
Show the rules and laws that govern the place in background details
Every place will have a set of either natural or man-made rules and laws that govern how things and people act and/or behave within it. This can be a legal system that makes cutting down specific ancestral trees a crime, or one that criminalises love between people of different races or the same gender. This can be a compact or a contract signed a long time ago in the story world’s past that maintains a mutually beneficial relationship between two communities of people. This can cultural or social norms that have been perpetuated from years of action and practice.
The rules can be natural and biological, governing how vegetation grow, where they can grow, what type of vegetation can grow in specific regions of the story’s world and why. It can be the role that twin moons play on the tidal movements and animal behaviours. It can be the types of symbiotic or parasitic relationships that exist between organisms in that land.
These rules and laws will have a bearing on the world that we see in the story’s present narrative. We might see it through a set of correctional posters plastered along the walls of a public school or the presence of law enforcement and excessive surveillance in certain neighbourhoods. Or the way buildings must twist and bend to accommodate the growth of ancestral trees that no one can cut down. We might also see a sapient species being errand-runners for another species that may have limited mobility to do so themselves (hence the compact). In this latter case, the differences in mobility can also be shown through different infrastructure designs and what public amenities are made available.
When creating and writing a fictional story world, it is always good to ask: how did the land came to be that way by the time of the story’s action?
Followed by: What sort of natural and man-made rules and laws govern the world? What will these rules and laws lead to in the setting of the story? How do I show this in the character’s surroundings?
Show the interactions between place and people/characters in trace
Various places and spaces often bear the traces of movement and use, sometimes through wear and tear, sometimes through lingering sensorial elements. This shows in the way stone steps of an old building might appear sunken in the middle from years of use, or a bald stretch in the grass might indicate how travellers have blatantly been ignoring the pathways made for them. The ways we habitually open a cabinet door can be one of the factors in how it might hang on its loose hinges. The cushions on chairs might dip a certain way depending on how we usually sit on them. The smells in taxis would have come from a slew of passengers with different colognes, perfumes, natural scents, odours that have clung to them from personal habits and the places that they have been to, such as the wet markets or a doctor’s clinic.
People are also marked by the places that they have been to, worked and lived in. You can show this in the practiced movements of your characters as they navigate a space: moving a chair out of the way without looking, automatically picking up a dishcloth on the way out of the kitchen while having a conversation the phone, ducking under cabinet doors just at the right moment, knowing just how to avoid scraping an elbow on a particularly rough wall. All of this can show the character’s unconscious familiarity with a space and make them an organic part of their surroundings.
Various places and spaces often bear the traces of movement and use, sometimes through wear and tear, sometimes through lingering sensorial elements.
A character’s posture can indicate the kind of space that they are used to work in; shades and shines on their skin can indicate a life spent outdoors or indoors. The way they never flinch at thunder or be bothered by heat from a fire can show the kind of environment that they are used to. A character conditioned to the pace of a city might be walking far too fast along the silent roads of the suburbs. A race of people used to the low gravity of their homeworld would move differently, stand differently on another world with a stronger gravitational pull.
So it helps to ask yourself: How has your story’s world or the world in your character’s backstory conditioned the way they move, stand and carry themselves? How one space has conditioned a character can also cause them to stand out in another?
Places and people often leave indelible marks on each other. It is useful to think about how one might shape the other and vice versa as you are developing your story worlds and characters. Know that the little things make the bigger picture.
Nuraliah Norasid is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Her debut novel, The Gatekeeper, won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016 and the Best Fiction Title for the Singapore Book Awards in 2018. Her writing has been published in a variety of publications including Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS), Karyawan Magazine, Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak Out, and Mynah Magazine.
Listen to Nuraliah talk about growing up in Singapore, the inspiration behind her early stories, and how gaming has influenced her writing, on The Writing Life podcast.
Nuraliah’s residency was generously supported by the National Arts Council of Singapore.