Setting and its Purposes in Early Planning

You are probably aware of the three main elements of storytelling: plot, setting, and characterization. While these elements are usually talked about separately in writing blogs, in truly great fiction they are very hard to separate from one another, and each one directly influences the next. This is because characters must fit within their world; the plot must fit within the setting and the characters must be willing to participate. In most fantasy novels the setting is changed too, if not the climate or world itself than at least human society. Today I’m going to talk about setting and how you can either use it to create a story or how you can discover it by looking at the basic elements of your idea.

I am lucky because my stories usually come to me whole. But sometimes a character or a plot appears without giving me any real information about where it comes from. To discover this setting, you must study the mannerisms of your characters or the nature of your plot. You must ask them questions and if they will not answer you directly then think about how they do answer. If your character appears to you in Victorian dress and speaks of the King of England, you know where she came from; if she wears totally unfamiliar clothes and lives on a space station, you know your setting-in both of these cases you also know the genre from this information. If the story that you want to write is going to be about a warrior princess, you must have a kingdom where women are able to fight-or make her the first and a rarity-and your story is probably on an alternate Earth or a different world altogether. By asking questions about the story or the character you can learn about your setting; and if you’re lucky, your character will even be forthcoming with the information.

This principle works in reverse too; by thinking long and hard about your setting, you can create a beautiful story. Most writers don’t work this way and come up with either plot or characters first. but those who do usually build beautiful and fascinating worlds which enrich their stories. If your world is medieval or Victorian and someplace other than Earth, you know that it’s a fantasy. If it’s based on Mars or another planet in another galaxy and they have robots to do all of the menial labor, you know that you’re writing in a science fiction world. When you build a society you can then look for opportunities for conflict. As you create your kingdoms think hard about how they relate to each other if you want to write a war or political fantasy; build a magic system and a schooling system and think about how you can use those things to create a story. Think about what themes you want to use and where it is suitable for your main characters to spend most of their time. I don’t suggest this method for all of your stories because it can take a long time, but if you happen to have a world that you hold dear to your heart but which has no story, don’t give it up entirely; go back to it once in a while and ask questions.

There are several ways to make the setting come to life in your work, and I could write an entire series of posts about that, but for now what’s most important is that you take your time with it, you put detail into it, you work hard on it. If you want to make your world seem really alive you need to have an idea about its poetry and about its music and its traditions. You need to have small things like sayings and maybe new curse words. Science and philosophy are usually the most important aspects of a science fiction world, while politics and religion are particularly important to develop in a fantasy world.

For those of you working in the real world, you still have to do work, even if it’s in your home town. You need to do research and make floor plans for important buildings, use maps to figure out where your characters are going and how they get there. If it’s in the past don’t think you don’t need to do research unless you’re a history major-and even then you might need to do a little research on a specific location. Libraries and the internet will be your best friends for this.

For those of you in the process of planning a project right now, I suggest that you create a simple map of your world and then of the area where most of your story takes place, and then begin thinking about a religious system and a political system. Next week I’ll be talking about plot.

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2 thoughts on “Setting and its Purposes in Early Planning

  • Greetings!

    I always enjoy your posts and I’ve been reading even though there have been no comments left.

    I *love* your idea of “characters must cooperate”. So true – that was one of the central problems with my ScriptFrenzy this year. I had an uncooperative cast of characters. But, like last year, I have planted seeds of an idea.

    I think setting is critically important to plot because – as you say – it is the stage for the characters. Both SF and Nano this year have been new settings for me – both real cities. I have detailed maps of both. The Nano had me posting the map right beside where I write (and I consulted it OFTEN). For SF, I bought a map but then did not post the map. It might have been one of my downfalls of why SF didn’t work so well this year.

    In other news, my work blog is about 2 weeks until it goes live. It would not have been possible – in part – had I not your example to follow. Very big glompy hugs from me to you … : )


  • RP,

    It’s nice to hear from you. I figured you were probably too busy Screnzying your fingers off; glad to have you with us now that Screnzy is over.

    Setting, whether it be on our world or the next, is crucial-but it is also one of the most interesting things to play around with and to work on for any story. I could talk forever about creating a believable setting. Keeping your maps on hand is also particularly important, especially when you’re just getting to know a world or a city. Personally I keep all my maps in the different binders I have for different projects; I have them in house any time I need them.

    I look forward to reading your work blog. I fear I’ve fallen a bit behind here but I am trying my very best and sometimes it’s virtually impossible to get to it with all the work I have to do anyway.


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