3 mistakes you make when writing setting + how to fix them
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When we first get a story idea, we're often given an image: someone is doing something and it's fascinating. We might get a snippet of dialogue that sparks conversation and our own curiosity. We might begin with an intense conflict built from someone's desire, actions, and then the consequences and tensions those actions cause. We might even begin with a larger theme, an issue to explore and question and analyze and discuss. And this is often enough to get us going.
But the characters we birth and the plots we contrive and the themes we share don't exist in a vacuum. When we create all of these elements and fuse them together, they create a larger space, a larger world, where everything happens. And this is setting.
Setting is the backdrop, the surroundings, the place where the story takes place. It's the environment, the location. It's the world in which our characters live, and the lens through which the reader understands this world. It is the concrete grounding of a story in place and time.
Often, what we think of as setting, comes out as figuring out when and where the story happens. This emerges as a time and date, and locations. We draw maps of fictional towns and worlds. We research elements of times past. We describe where our characters are located: the leaves on the trees, the flowers they smell, the rain that falls.
But setting does NOT simply equate to drawing maps and designing house floor-plans and planting trees all around your world. It isn't just about the weather or the town where the story takes place. Setting certainly can be these things, but it also goes a lot deeper than that. Sure, setting grounds you in place and time, but it also sets the mood and tone, provide a lens to understand the world through, and works in conversation with your other elements (characters, plot, and theme). Setting does A LOT more work (even if it is subtle, background work) than we often give it credit for.
So how do you infuse setting into your story? How do you get your setting to do its work – productive, necessary, hard work – without going overboard? What should you focus on in the creation of your setting and what can you ignore? We're going to look at the 3 mistakes writers often make when designing their setting and how to fix it.
Mistake #1: You're building too big
Every story needs a world that is fleshed out; however, you may need more or less world-building, depending on which genre you choose. If you're going for a scifi or fantasy genre, you're going to need a lot more world-building detail than if you're writing literary fiction. Science fiction and fantasy both are genres that require highly detailed worlds, and readers are enthralled with them. Literary fiction can still have a highly detailed world, but it's not the focus of the novel; rather, it's the character's actions, arc, and ultimate consequences that readers obsess over. Both are fine paths to choose. You just have to be aware of what path you're going down.
*If you need a bit of help figuring out where you stand in this context, I did write a post on the difference between genre and literary fiction with a workbook that will help you determine what your novel's goals.
I'm a literary fiction writer, so my response here is going to be tailored to that. However, these concepts apply across the board, no matter what you're writing.
It's natural to have a love-affair with the world you've created. You want to draw maps, paint scenes, flesh out the whole world. You need it to be believable, whether that means it actually needs to look like Times Square in New York City today, or it needs to be a dystopian future with an alternate planet and spaceships involved. If your reader doesn't buy into your world, they're not going to buy into your story.
However, it's easy to go a bit overboard with this. It's very easy to get caught up in the creation of your world and suddenly you can't stop world-building. If you're constantly creating maps and designing governments and writing description, you're going to stray too far away from the story itself. And the story is what matters most.
Don't bog down your story with details of your world. Your reader doesn't have to know the WHOLE world, only enough to get them to grounded. Your reader doesn't have to have EVERY detail, just the important details. Your reader doesn't have to see it ALL, just a little taste so they can imagine the rest of this.
One of my favorite authors, George Saunders, often dives into supernatural, futuristic, crazy, and unique worlds. (See George Saunders in action with "The Semplica Girl Diaries" here!). These are worlds that are unlike our own, and would seem to require a fair bit of worldbuilding. And yet, he only includes the bare minimum of what is necessary. He doesn't have pages and pages of descriptions on what things look like and sound like and all those juicy details. He gets to the point and moves on. When I saw him live in Pittsburgh a few years ago, he mentioned that his internal editor is a nun constantly asking him, "George, is that really necessary?" and so he constantly removes descriptors (adjectives, adverbs, even whole paragraphs) until all that remains IS what's really necessary. He told us he condenses sentences from "He sat on the plaid green couch" down to "He sat," simply because all that was really necessary to tell the story was the fact that this character was sitting.
"He sat on the plaid, green couch." >>>>> "He sat."
You don't have to go this extreme, and likely, you shouldn't. However, it is something to keep in mind. You could spend your entire life crafting a fantastic world for your story. But if it isn't relevant and it goes overboard, it's not going to do you any good. To fix it, give just enough information, and then move on. Focus on finding the right details: necessary and specific little bits and pieces that you ABSOLUTELY need to get the point across, and then move on.
*If you need a bit of help figuring out how to write beautiful and necessary details that are uniquely yours, I did write a post on specificity in details with a workbook that will help you make your story come to life.
SO FOR YOUR STORY: Flesh out the world your characters will inhabit. Draw maps, design governments, plant trees, and make it a real, authentic world. But don't go too far. You want to give just enough of an anchor without drowning the reader in description. Don't overdo it and give too much information – as long as you know what's going on, your reader will surely figure it out. But don't be too sparse that your reader thinks your characters exist nowhere at all. Try to be Goldilocks – not too much, not too little, but jussssst right.
Mistake #2: You focus on only the external things
When we think of setting and world-building, we often think of location. We think of maps and trees and weather and time of day. We think of the concrete, external pieces. But setting involves a lot more than just these. A fully fleshed out world doesn't mean that you have a fully fleshed out map. You could lay a map on the floor and throw some characters on it. But that doesn't mean we're going to believe them. It might look pretty, but to fully understand our characters and our world, we have to actually get to know the world our characters inhabit.
In addition to the larger external things, you also have to pay attention to language, culture, and history.
Setting is LANGUAGE
The way your characters talk doesn't just come from out of the blue. They were raised with certain accents, certain mindsets, certain phrases, dictions, and lexicons. This comes from where they were born, where they live, and how they were raised. What this means is that when fleshing out your world, you need to consider what kind of language is most representative of that world.
Think about it this way: A 98-year-old woman from London isn't going to sound the same as a 10-year-old boy in Boston. A character in the city isn't going to be walking around saying "Howdy" and "Yes Ma'am." A rough and tough cowboy isn't going to be wanting "tea and crumpets" or "fish and chips." On a smaller scale, the inside lingo and phrases (inside jokes, code-words, ways of explaining things) in my family isn't going to be the same as how you explain things in your family (i.e. Do you know what it means when a cat goes "in your triangle?" What about if you wanted "soft waffles" for breakfast?). The way your characters talk is influenced by the place where they're from, where they live, and their closest friends and family. The way people talk in your story is going to be representative of their personal histories and their collective histories. It's going to help your story be believable and realistic.
Does this mean you should write dialogue using phonetic spellings and overemphasized accents? Unless you're Mark Twain, probably not. Instead, get inside your character's head and see how they think, see how they speak. Choose specific words over specific accents. Consider the world in which they live.
One of my favorite examples of this (and one on the extreme scale) is Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. Burgess presents the reader with a futuristic world in the near-ish future that has evolved from our own, but renders a foreign world nearly inaccessible for readers. It's not that Burgess created a world with dragons and medieval people, or a technologically advanced world with spaceships and robots, but he created a foreign world simply by culture, behavior, and language. If you try reading the first page, you'll be hopelessly lost. The characters use a language unfamiliar to us, and as readers, we have to try to figure it out and make sense of it before we can even begin to figure out what's going on. Burgess doesn't achieve this by descriptors and slow detail, but by diving straight in and demanding that the reader catch up immediately. It's tough, but it's successful.
SO FOR YOUR STORY: Consider the language your world uses. How do people talk? How do they explain things? What code-words are necessary to your protagonist's identity? How would your protagonist explain the weather today, and how would that be different from how your antagonist would explain it?
SETTING IS CULTURE
Another thing that Burgess's novel does to achieve its haunting and disorienting effect is immersing us in an unforgettable culture. He considers the behaviors of his characters, the culture they live in, the rules they abide by (or don't abide by). He considers what's normal for these protagonists and shovels us into it.
What makes it fascinating, is that the things they consider "normal" in their world (their culture and behavior) are things we condemn as inhumane, violent, and terrible. But in this fictional world, this is how things work.
SO FOR YOUR STORY: Consider how people think, what they believe, how they operate. What's "normal" and acceptable in this world, and what isn't? Is this representative of the world at large, or just for your particular characters (i.e. are they at war with their world?). What do they eat? How do they behave? What social ideas do they have? Are they religious?
SETTING IS HISTORY
You've likely created some backstory materials for the characters in your story, but have you created a backstory for your world? Again, your world and your characters don't exist in a vacuum. Everything exists somewhere and came from somewhere. And so you need to consider what that history looks like.
SO FOR YOUR STORY: Think about what has happened before. These could be natural things, environmental things, political things, cultural things, religious things, architectural things. Things used to be one way, and now they're different. What has changed? Why? And what impact does this have on the present scene?
This may be more relevant for some stories over others. If your story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, we need to see the history of how society fell. This gives history a much larger weight than a story where the downfall of civilization isn't a major plot point. Feel out how much history you need to figure out about your world.
For example, in my current work-in-progress, my protagonist goes to clean out her late great aunt's old house. On a character-level, she must dig into the history of the great aunt. But on a world-building/setting-level, she must dig into the history of the town her great aunt lives in, because there's a ghost haunting the front yard and the whole town is obsessed with it. Figuring out this town (this world) will provide a rich, deep history that significantly impacts my protagonist's present.
Paying attention to these characteristics – the culture, language, and behavior – are what's really going to make your world believable for the reader.
Mistake #3: You don't emphasize the consequences your setting has on your story
Setting shouldn't be kept separate from the rest of your story elements, because it has a much bigger impact and influence than just serving as a backdrop. It impacts character, and character impacts setting. It's impacts plot, perception, and mood.
As Chuck Wendig says, the story comes first: "You build a world to serve the story or stories you want to tell; you do not tell a story that is slave to the worldbuilding." Your story is there to dictate how the world has to be. The world that you create works with the story, conversing with it, providing reasoning and consequences, enhancing the story you're trying to tell.
"Doing the opposite — leading with the worldbuilding — is what you’d do if you were writing a roleplaying game which has to tell all kinds of stories, not just yours. If you put the cart before the horse the horse is gonna headbutt the cart and knock it over and then you’re all, WAIT NO MY CABBAGES then we laugh at you" – Chuck Wendig
Your story comes first, but your setting influences your story. And you have to consider how your setting will influence your story in terms of characters, mood, perception, and plot.
Your character is a reflection of their setting, where they come from and where they live, and they are directly influenced and impacted by their environment. Whether this be in mindset, history, belief systems, language, culture, political purposes – ANYTHING – their environment has helped shaped them for who they are. You have to pay attention to how setting affects your character.
"Your version of, say, Chicago, is vastly different than the talking penguin's version." – JEFF VANDEMEER IN THE WONDERBOOK (211)
Your setting is NOT objective. It's inherently subjective because of your character's perception, even if you're not in their close point-of-view. What your protagonist believes about their world and what they perceive their world to be like is going to be very different from how your antagonist believes and perceives the exact same world. You have to consider how best to describe the world you've created from the view-point you're following.
Your setting could be a mirror of the mood or tone of the story, or it could contradict it. If it's "a dark and stormy night" and your protagonist is walking up to a abandoned castle, we're going to chills up our spine. You will be setting the mood of the story as haunting, scary, lonely. If it's a sunset on the beach with a glowing sky and gentle waves, you'll be setting a mood of calmness, romance, peacefulness. At the same time, you don't want to be cliche. To take it up a notch, you could contradict your mood or tone with your setting. If you reversed the plots of these cliched settings, you'd get a very interesting effect. What would it mean to write a romantic story at a haunted castle on a dark and stormy night? What would it mean to have a revenge murder happen during a gentle sunset?
And, your setting can impact the plot greatly. David Mitchell's non-traditional novel Cloud Atlas spans six separate sections, with six different protagonists, and six different worlds. Each world is vastly different from the last, covering historical settings to modern day to futuristic to post-apocalyptic. Each section (and each world) could read like its own separate story with its own separate plot, all vastly different depending on the world in which the people live. For example, the conflict that plagues the first section, protagonist Adam Ewing on his trip across the Pacific in the 1800s, is an entirely different conflict that plagues protagonist Sonmi-451 in a dystopian Korea with human clones. Just go read Cloud Atlas. Read it for setting (and characters, and voice, and structure, and theme, and overall awesomeness).
Your setting can be a fantastic and influential asset to your story. Make sure to give it the attention it deserves so that it can be functioning on a productive level for your story.