Setting the Scene

Setting plays a huge role in stories, no matter what genre you’re writing. Fleshing out this element is necessary, though sometimes painful. Whether you’re writing a coming-of-age story set in a fictional town in rural Minnesota or an epic fantasy, you must delve into your setting.

There are three primary aspects to configure when fleshing out your setting:

Physical, Geographical, and Historical.

Physical setting is what generally comes to mind at the word setting. It’s the time of day, weather, season, etc of the story and its individual scenes. Physical setting is often employed to create symbolism, mood, and tone.

Geographical setting is the where. Is your story set in a rural French village or a bustling American city? This will generally have a significant impact on the implications of historical setting, which I’ll explain in a moment.

Historical setting is, most obviously, the historical period in which the story is set. It is, less obviously, the social, cultural, religious, economic, and political atmosphere. These factors will vary depending on your geographical location.

When choosing a setting, look for conflict. The setting should generate tension and conflict, even if the hero is comfortable in it. (For example, a character who has a secret can be comfortable in a small town, but the close community works against him because the people want to know his complete biography and will do a lot to obtain it.) Now think about the mood you want your setting to evoke: is it comfort and safety, or fear and suspicion? The setting should have a mood that contributes to the story. Note: the mood must contribute to the story, or it will be an unnecessary detail that will bore readers and should be excluded.

Once you’ve decided on mood and the type of conflict the setting will inspire, you need a location. (This section will be devoted specifically to those who are writing novels set on Earth. I’ll touch on the setting of science fiction and fantasy books in a moment.) This part is a little bit harder to define. For one of my novels, I wanted a decidedly European feel (my character was a hardcore American, and I wanted to force her outside her comfort zone). But I also wanted a small village, with friendly people but a decidedly ‘small-town’ flavor. In the first draft, I invented a tiny English town. This made-up town would have been good enough, had I fleshed it out. However, I did not. So in the rewrites, I took to Google Maps and began combing the coastlines of Scotland. The area had to be rural, but not too rural. I needed room to expand and add a fictional manor. Thus, I found Cruden Bay, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It’s a small village, but also a tourist attraction–so while the community is tight-knit, like I wanted, they also have an appreciation for the cosmopolitan.

And then the real research begins. If you hate research, you can get away with printing a map of the town and just knowing where everything is, if you’re already familiar with the basic culture. I prefer to extensively study the culture and geography of my setting (but I’m a detailed person). If you’re writing a novel that occurs in a country you’ve never experienced first-hand, it’s always best to research food, culture, prominent religions, and geography. Yes, I said food. Most cultures have a variety of traditions that revolve around food and drink. You generally won’t find the French feasting on a quintessentially American dish like a cheeseburger.

Writing an Other-worldly Setting

This type of world building is more complex than writing an Earth setting. Not only do you need to configure the physical, geographical, and historical settings, you also have to invent them. And in inventing them, you need to keep a few things in mind.

1) Rules

Every system works by rules, whether they are spoken or not. Some of these rules limit behavior (if the character does [this], [that] will be the consequence). However, the rules I’d like to detail involve magic and/or special abilities. If superpowers or magic exist in your story world, they need limits. Without boundaries, the character gets off scot-free with wonderful abilities which snaps suspension of disbelief in the readers. Readers will think of these powers as a ‘talent’ and just as people’s talents are not limitless in the real world, they cannot be endless or unrestricted in the story world.

You need to be consistent with your rules. Characters cannot violate these standards, and if they do, consequences must occur as a result. Again, the system of rule-breaking and consequences must transfer from the real world to the story world, or suspension of disbelief will suffer.

2) Customs

If you look at any country, you’ll notice specific traditions that permeate the culture. Things as small as phrases and wives’ tales, and as large as coming of age ceremonies and marriage traditions. In your story world, create customs and rituals that are regular part of life. Your story does not need to be centered around the customs, but they need to be there nonetheless. Common traditions that vary from country to country include birthdays (generally a specific birthday that is associated with adulthood), courtship and marriage, and child-rearing.

3) History

Your story world will have its own history, and you will be the one to make it up. I suggest finding a country/continent to base your story world on, as it will be simpler and more realistic, but you can also start from scratch. You can use your model country to structure your story world’s government, climate, wildlife, and vegetation.

Know your setting more intimately than the reader will. Your audience will sense that you know what you’re talking about, which will create a layer of trust.