In fiction, the world the story takes place in is called the setting. And in all forms of fiction, setting is a key element in telling the story. More than just a backdrop, setting can influence the behaviors, fashion choices, and histories and backgrounds of the author’s characters, as well as how those characters can grow and evolve within a story. That being said, a good setting is essential to creating a great story and an author cannot afford to be sloppy when it comes to the worlds they create.
Luckily, there are several techniques in the writing trade that allow authors of all genres to carve out a wonderful world for their setting. By using them as guidelines to create the setting of your novel or short story, you can bring your world to life in ways reminiscent of your favorite authors.
1. Make your world believable. This is more important than one might think, and especially in speculative fiction such as fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. If a world is unbelievable and the reader has trouble investing in it, they may lose interest and the story itself will suffer.
A good example of this would be if someone were to write a short story with the premise, “In the future people are given pocket watches with time-traveling abilities at birth but it is a taboo to use them. Until someone actually uses their watch.” Well, that doesn’t make much sense, does it? If you have time travel technology and you give it to everyone, why forbid them to use it?
And it’s not just big things that can derail a story. In the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, the titular organization is tasked with hunting down aliens in Great Britain, particularly in the Welsh city of Cardiff with a large alien population. Unfortunately, I lost interest in the show when I found it ridiculous that a branch of an organization in a major metropolitan area such as Cardiff with high amounts of alien activity would only have five very laid-back members on the payroll. Thrilling story, but the lack of people makes me suspicious and causes the illusion that is fiction to wear off.
2. Do your research and be as accurate as possible. After believability, this is probably the most important point. Mainly this deals with anachronisms, just as digital watches during the Vietnam War or other little things that a discerning audience would pick up on and point out.
This is also a call to do research if you’re writing on a subject you know little about. If you are writing a romantic thriller set in Nazi Germany, it would be good to do plenty of research on Nazi Germany, its government, its culture, and everyday life, and not rely on just the few WWII movies you’ve seen and Wikipedia. After all, your audience is often very clever, and they will notice when things don’t add up, if there’s only mentions of Jewish persecution or if Hitler’s the only Nazi official we actually hear about.
Of course, you don’t have to be accurate to the point that you have to be perfect. Dan Brown’s novels are filled with several inaccuracies, most of which are so minor that it’s too much of a bother to verify them. However for major elements that could heavily influence the plot, it’s important that one do their research, even if it is tedious to do and their least favorite part of writing.
3. Know how much you need to describe your setting to paint the picture. Depending on what sort of story you’re writing, you may need to do a lot of description or very little to create the image in your reader’s mind. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby takes place during the Roaring Twenties, which is a well-known and well-documented era. Because of this and because that era was still fresh in his audience’s memories, Fitzgerald didn’t need to use a lot of description to bring 1920’s New York to life.
However, stories such as Harry Potter, while similar to this world, are very different form our own. JK Rowling had to devote a lot of page space to showing how vastly different our world is from that of the Wizarding community. And even more so for writers like George R.R. Martin or George Lucas, whose worlds might as well be alternate universes to ours. In the Game of Thrones novels and in the novelizations of the three Star Wars movies, whole sections would’ve been spent on explaining and exploring the strange and alien worlds of the characters within.
Knowing how much description is needed for a setting can help an author not only utilize their setting to its utmost fullest, but also help an author hone their skills to the point where they know how much is needed to describe the setting of a story just by thinking it.
4. A full history is helpful, but it is not always necessary. When I started writing my dystopia novel Reborn City, I devoted a full chapter to how the world of RC developed from one any reader of this blog could easily recognize as their own to one full of independent city-states, countries few and far-between, and rampant Islamaphobia in certain places. However during the second draft, I cut out the chapter because while it was informative, it took attention off the main story and I thought it would be better to leave those events up to the imagination.
In my opinion, this was a good move. Without the history I created, there are huge realms of possibility for the events that led to the world of my characters, and I’ll have plenty of room to experiment and create in later books.
However, that is not necessary for other authors. Some authors prefer to have a complete history of how the worlds that are the settings of their stories came to be, even if they don’t include all the details in the stories themselves. Others prefer not to have those histories, giving them room to experiment and to go in different directions, although this leaves the possibility of retcons occurring.
In the end, it is the preference of the author that is important. Just remember to find a balance between explaining the world’s history to strengthen the story and explaining the world’s history to the point that it is only entertaining to you.
5. Don’t be afraid to go in new directions and try something never done before. In the end, the author knows what’s best for their story and should create the setting that best serves them. Sometimes, that involves exploring new territory for the author and trying things not usually done in fiction. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it can lead to whole new trends in fiction and end up influencing writers for years afterward.
The most important thing, of course, is that what you do with your setting serves the story you are writing.