The Basics of Story: Setting

Write a setting or build a world that your readers love.

In preparation for NaNoWriMo coming up next month (!!!!!) I’m doing a new series this month! If you’ve never tried your hand at writing a 50,000-word novel in a month, or if you just want a refresher on the basics, then this series is for you. I’ll be writing about the Basics of Story.

There are several parts to any good story. As a reader, I’m sure you know what sort of characters, plots, settings, etc, make for your ideal story. In this series, I’m breaking the elements of story down so you can be well prepared and well equipped to bust out several thousand words in November.

We’ve already discussed Character and Plot, so be sure to check out those two posts. Then come back here and we’ll be diving into…


Setting, and along with it, world building is one of those things that cause writers to get all giggly. We could nerd out for several hours on the intricacies of the fantastical worlds we have created or read about. Nothing gets a writer excited and apprehensive quite like building your own world from scratch.

Every writer has to do world building, whether you’re creating a fictional place or writing about downtown New York City in 2016. Both require research, thoroughness, and a liberal use of correctly used adjectives.

Setting is the tool you use to move your reader into your story. The setting of your story is what allows your reader to escape their daily life and become fully engrossed in the plight of your characters and the beauty of your world. Whether you’re writing a place you know well or creating a world from square one, your setting is as much a character in your story as your protagonist, antagonist, and everyone else.

Luckily, creating a captivating setting doesn’t need to be complicated. Here my top tips to writing and creating a setting that will take your readers on your character’s journey with ease.

Tip #1: Write What You Know

One of my favorite books is Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. Why? The book takes place in Seattle, through the eyes of a woman who hates Seattle. I’m a born, bred, and raised Seattleite, and I LOVE the city. To pieces. So why is a book about a woman who hates Seattle one of my favorites?

Because everything she hates (three words: back angle parking) are things I know. Things I can laugh about. I can understand the world of the story because I KNOW exactly what and where she’s talking about. I get the inside jokes, I’m familiar with the architecture, I know the map.

The book makes me laugh because the things the main character hates about Seattle are some of the things I have a fondness for. And too, some of the things she hates, I hate too.

That back angle parking, though…is there a Seattleite out there who gets me?

It’s the reason we see New York City in Most people know New York City, or at least know enough of it and know if it’s reality, so that when some crazy villain crashes through, we feel something. We feel pain and fear and the idea of the Hulk rampaging through doesn’t seem so foreign.

It’s the reason Paris will forever and always be the City of Lights, and be near and dear to everyone, no matter if you’ve visited or not. Think of the worldwide reaction when Paris was hit with terrorist attacks in 2015. Even for people who had never visited understood, through stories, movies, books, all taking place in the city, that Paris is special.

You want your readers to feel that deep emotion for your setting. You want them to feel connected, intimate with where your story takes place.

How do we best portray emotion, or sound, or touch, or place? By writing what we know. We write about sadness best when we’ve experience deep grief. We can use words to describe the sound of a trumpet, We can create a world that will pull at the heartstrings of your reader, will make them loyal to it, by writing about the worlds we know.

Were you born and raised in the Kansas prairie? You could probably write a bomb historical fiction piece on settling the prairie. Do you know the London subway by the back of your hand? You could write the story of a whole world in the London underground (I would totally read that!). Were you raised near a forest? You could write about an enchanted forest and goings-on of its inhabitants. Do you love the ocean? You could write about mermaids.

It’s really as simple as that.

Tip #2: Create Your Dream World

If you’ve ever seen the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, you know that the things Alice describes in her opening song are in fact the places and people she experiences on her journey through Wonderland. Even though it was a dream (and even though Lewis Carroll was on drugs), the oddities of her world aren’t so odd after that opening song.

If you’ve ever had a bizarre dream or thought something in our world would be better or more interesting if it were just a little different, now is your chance to make those things a reality. Add them to your story and see how your characters react. Is it normal? Abnormal? A part of daily life or a rare treat?

In my dream world, I’d probably be able to fly, so I could create a world where everyone flies to get around. Or a world where animals can talk or mythical creatures actually exist. The possibilities here are truly endless.

Similarly, drawing on your own dreams and wishes is also drawing on what you know. Perhaps you don’t know what it would be like to talk to a talking animal as well as the mountains in Colorado, but you have enough to set you on the right track and get you writing.  

Tip #3: Use the problems we face in our world as guides for the problems faced in your story’s world

One important thing in many stories is the necessity of a social conscience. There is no perfect world; something is always off. There are plenty of issues to draw inspiration from for your story.

A great example of this is in Harry Potter. The books have been praised for addressing several societal issues (like class systems and money, paying your way vs. hard work, etc.) but the one I want to touch on is the one that hits Hermoine: house elves.

Every issue needs someone to call it’s bluff. A whistleblower to say “this is wrong”. That’s exactly what Hermione does with the plight of the house elf. While her efforts are laughed off at first, according to J.K. Rowling, she was actually quite important to improving their lot.

This example can remind us of many issues close to our hearts. The subjugation and enslavement of people is wrong and in the magical world, the enslavement of sentient creatures is also wrong. The fictional story of Harry Potter is a beautiful mirror to the problems in our own world. And the figure of Hermione is an inspiring role model for people who want to make a difference to causes in our world that are close to their hearts.

Not only will these make your world well-rounded, they’ll pull your reader in and make them even more invested. Because let’s be real…I’d proudly wear my S.P.E.W. badge. It made me love Hermione more (as we talked about in our post characters last week) and made the Wizarding World even more real to me.

Tip #4: Use your characters to explain lesser known bits of setting

Nothing makes me shut a book faster than being tossed into a world that I have no familiarity with. You’ve read a book like that before, I’m sure. You’re barely into the first paragraph and already there are several words you can’t understand.

My recent book club book was a bit like this. As my girlfriend described it, “Every tenth word is a made up word!”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for made up words. But for goodness sakes explain them! You’ll lose your readers like that if you toss jargon from your made up world around like your reader is just supposed to infer what they mean. You end up with a frustrated reader. And no book sales. Which is sad for everybody.

A great way to abate this, however, if to use your character’s point of view(s) to explain unknown elements in a world. In the Hunger Games, Katniss reflects on the history of Panem and the Twelve Districts so we, the reader, aren’t left in the dark wondering what the heck Panem is and why there are districts, and who is this chick anyways, and what in the world is a HUNGER game?

If you fail to fully induct your readers into your world, suddenly, your reader is deposited outside of this story you want them to be inserted into and instead of captivating them, you alienate them.

Tip #5: Don’t be afraid to use magic or technology

This one is simple and so amazing for two reasons: 1) because magic and technology can be so much fun to mess with and 2) because it can literally solve all your problems.

Whether you need a motive for a character, a cause for a villain, a scary voice, the ability for characters to just show up places or learn things hyper quickly or memorize cake recipes or whatever, magic and/or technology can do the trick.

Plus who doesn’t love a magical world, or a dystopian with crazy tech?

Tip #6: Make your world as small or as large as you want

There’s literally no end to your imagination. Your world can extend through the entire universe (like Star Trek and Doctor Who have for the past 50+ years), or you can keep your space limited to two or three locations. You could have an entire story happen in an interview room, or a teenager’s bedroom, or the throne room of a castle, or you could have your characters travel to the farthest reaches of the universe or jump into parallel worlds or even expand the boundaries of physics.

It really is up to you, as all world creation is and it’s a beautiful, terrifying, spectacular thing. Don’t lose the opportunity to make something great in your story. You could end up creating a world people wish they could live in.

Because I’m not the only one who checks closets for Narnia right?

Alexis Truitt

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