Where your story takes place is an important fundamental piece of the storytelling puzzle. While the setting isn’t make-or-break the way plot or characters are, deciding on a setting does have an influence on the believability and impact of your story. Things don’t happen in a vacuum, so even if your story is set in the real world, it’s important to think about how the environment affects your characters and the events.
Two Methods for Choosing a Setting
There are two ways of coming up with the setting for your story, and it all depends on what comes first. If you have your story in mind first, it might dictate the setting for you. As I said before, nothing happens in a vacuum. Therefore, when you are imagining your plot and your characters, they are probably in a specific time and place. That’s your setting! If you can’t nail down a specific place, write down some of the details you’re seeing/feeling/smelling. What’s the weather like where they are? What time of year? How are they dressed? These things will help you research places where your story might be set.
But maybe you’ve read about or visited somewhere new that has inspired you. In this case, you’ll probably be playing with the ideas of the place before you have a story in mind. You’ll need to think about what type of people inhabit (or inhabited) the place and what they might’ve been up to day-to-day. This is called world building, which you also need to do if the story comes first but I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Setting vs World Building
While closely related, setting and world building are not actually the same thing. The setting is the time and place of the actual events of the story. It can, and probably will, change from scene to scene. World building, however, is the bigger picture and encompasses more than just the physical space of the story. Most writers think world building is only for fantasy or sci-fi writers, but it’s also important for those writing other types of fiction or even memoir. For example, the setting of your story might be Russia. But the world would be Moscow in the winter of 1980 during the Cold War.
At times, it can be helpful to have a general understanding of the geography of the world you’re writing about, especially if your characters will be doing any traveling. Geography also impacts things like climate (mountain weather is very different from the desert) and even culture. If the area is remote, then the culture will have developed independently of the others surrounding it, which can have interesting dramatic implications.
This is a very important part of the world of your story. Even if your story isn’t about politics, religion, race, or art/popular culture, those things still exist and will inform your characters. Take for instance my example of Moscow in the winter of 1980, that comes with a very specific political climate that has to be acknowledged if your story is going to be remotely believable. Also, if you’re writing about a time different from your own, anachronistic (chronologically inconsistent) references will destroy the illusion for the reader.
Magic and Technology
If you’re completely inventing the world of your story, then it’s up to you whether or not there’s magic or what the technology looks like. Here’s the thing when creating in this realm: there need to be rules and they have to be consistent. There should be conditions under which things work and don’t work, and limitations (voluntary or naturally occurring) on what can be done. Otherwise, you run the risk of a “because magic” scenario in which there are no stakes because everything can be fixed with magic.
Make sure it serves the story
More detail can be great, but it can also just be more. When you’re considering the world of your story, especially if it’s 100 percent fictional, it can be tempting to just keep playing with the world rather than playing in it, i.e. writing. That’s why I recommend focusing on the details you need as you need them for the sake of your story.
Unless it directly impacts your characters and/or the plot, you might not need to know entire bloodlines or the minutia of governmental proceedings. Take stock of what you need to get you started. This will probably include (but not be limited to):
- the time of year
- city or rural?
- climate/general weather
- your main character’s home
- time period (past, present, or future)
- real or completely made up?
- technology, magic, both, neither?
Keep in mind, the further you go from the time/place you know, the more research you’re going to have to do to make things believable.