Worldbuilding 101: How to Develop the Setting of a Story
In the last entry I discussed the importance of creating compelling characters and I will cover planning out your plot in the following section of this guide. But for now, let’s focus on another fundamental component featured in (nearly) every story ever told, setting. Although developing your settings might not seem as important as inventing a charismatic cast or assembling a riveting plotline, allow me to assure you that it is still a critical task in writing a successful book.
In fact, fashioning vibrant settings that will capture your reader’s imagination is a core component of storytelling, an aspect which many authors seem to spend too little time on over the course of completing a novel.
The power of setting
What is the setting of a book?
At its most basic level, the setting of a story is defined as the physical location where a given scene occurs, along with the surrounding geography, climate, and culture. Setting also includes such elements as the weather, the time of day, and the impact of recent events on the local environment. Examples of the setting of a story include: the apartment where your main character lives, the bar where he fell in love, and the graveyard where he buried his wife after the tragedy that launches him into the conflict of the story (inciting incident).
Why is setting important?
A setting is much more than a simple backdrop to place behind a given scene. It is a vital, interactive feature of your narrative itself. A solid setting can help immeasurably in establishing immersion for your story, while a poorly-developed setting can prevent immersion from occurring to begin with. A lively setting can help to set the mood of a scene, serve as a source of foreshadowing or conflict, and a great deal more. Certain settings will also possess additional significance for some of your central characters, evoking powerful feelings, memories, or other associations when they reside in that environment. Furthermore, a setting does not operate in isolation, rather it cooperates with the other elements of your narrative to establish and enhance the action, atmosphere, and meter of your story.
A vibrant setting can improve the quality of a story in a number of important ways. To start with, the environments you chose as stages for your various scenes help to set the overall mood. For example, a lonely, moonlit hilltop conveys a rather different emotion than a verdant field of wildflowers. A setting also provides both limitations and possibilities for the characters who frequent them. A protagonist living on a small farm will have a worldview that is miles apart from someone living in the big city, and their respective options for recreation, romance, and commerce will be shaped by their environments as well.
A setting can also have its own unique personality or voice, contributing to the variety and complexity of a novel in much the same manner as its characters. Thus, some of your settings will be ideal for scenes of rising tension (see the post on planning out your plot), while others may be more suitable for scenes of falling tension. Some places will feel relatively safe, while others may be filled with an inherent sense of adventure and danger. Additionally, changing settings can be used to alter the pacing of a novel by accelerating or compressing time as well as to shift the atmosphere, flavor, and present level of tension flowing throughout the narrative.
Finally, places have the power to transform over time, evolving with the overall flow of your plot. This can be used to create powerful emotional effects. Just imagine the impact of a protagonist who is returning to his hometown (a place where several prior happy scenes occurred), only to witness it devastated in the aftermath of a regional conflict or suffering in the midst of an environmental disaster. Setting is important for a number of other reasons as well, some obvious and others more subtle, but hopefully this is enough to convince you that developing your settings is worth more than a mere afterthought.
A picture is worth at least a few dozen words
I’m sure that you have heard stories about authors who have traveled the world, spending weeks or even months touring exotic locals in order to gather true-to-life material for their novels. Well, I am here to tell you that unless you are writing a work of fiction that is set in a specific real-world location, all of that traveling is totally unnecessary, at least as far as building believable settings that enable realistic descriptive writing are concerned (but by all means go anyway if you have the time and money to spare).
This is because we have the great fortune to live in the digital era, where a thousand lifetimes’ worth of sights, sounds, and first-hand descriptions lie at our fingertips. At no other time in history have authors been able to access countless millions of pictures, videos, audio recordings, and other historical documents, all at the press of a button. And thus, you can use the internet (as well as physical photographs) to generate compelling scenes, full of lively details that will allow your readers to immerse themselves within them. For example, I have several chapters in my first novel that take place within a fantastical version of a tropical rain forest (the Deepmist Jungle), an exotic terrain type I have not yet had the opportunity to visit in person.
Do bear in mind as we continue this discussion, that revealing a setting to your reader is established by the quality of the details you present, not the quantity. In fact, it is counterproductive to bombard your audience with long lists of sights and sounds, as the setting is there to serve your narrative and not the other way around. Instead, allow a few carefully chosen details to establish the atmosphere or “flavor” of a given scene, pulling the reader into the present reality of your story by introducing them to a few evocative particulars. Then you simply need to get out of the way so that their imagination can paint color between the lines you have drawn.
Exercises for developing settings
Exercise: Using Google image search (and other photographs) to flesh out settings
For this exercise, you are going to use Google image search to help build up a setting, as well as to generate some of the early descriptions you will be incorporating into your novel. You can also use Google street view for this exercise if your setting is in a modern city. To begin with, simply jot down a few search terms that are related to the environment of your setting. In my case, when I was researching my fantastical rainforest, I began with some basic terms like “jungle” and “rain forest.”
After entering each of these searches, I first unfocused my eyes and took in the totality of the images sitting side by side on the page, getting a feel for what it might be like to fly over these locations from a bird’s eye view. Eventually, some of the individual images began to stand out and demand my attention, and these I opened to full size and considered at length.
After you have saved the best among this first set of images, try mixing up the search terms a bit to see if you can find anything else that might be of use. In my example I wanted a few more shots of a certain look of tree, so I searched for, “tropical canopy,” “banyan trees,” and perhaps a half dozen more terms to round things out. After a while, I selected ten images that spoke the most powerfully to me, saved them, and began to ponder them one at a time, describing the details that leapt out at me in brief phrases and sentence fragments, words which I came back to when describing my jungle setting during the novel drafting process.
Now if you are going to be writing about a specific real world location (contemporary or historical), Google image search alone is not going to cut it. To really get the details right, you are going to need to do a bit of research, first by pouring through multiple first-hand descriptions and then by making a visit in the flesh.
Exercise: Using audio recordings of ambient sounds
After I had a nice collogue of relevant images to refer back to (which I also tended to put in the background while working on scenes in that environment), I began to search for and then peruse audio recordings of various jungle noises as well, once again describing the aspects of the soundscape that I wanted to use for my own story. At this point I had a nice reference filled with rich details to pick and choose from, and so I proceeded to draft the initial descriptions of my jungle, the ones I used when my characters were exploring it for the first time. When utilizing this soundscape searching technique yourself, don’t worry if the scene you are listening to isn’t a perfect match for your setting (unless your story depends on true-to-life specific locations). Simply extract the relevant noises you feel would work well in your own environment and leave the rest behind.
Exercise: Building up settings by drawing a map
Another powerful tool for developing your early settings is map drawing. Regardless of whether a given setting is composed of a swath of wilderness, a city, a building, or even a single room, mapping out the location and its contents can help immeasurably when attempting to visualize your fictional local (I advise drawing a map even for settings based on real-world locations). This exercise will help you to wrap your head around the layout of your setting early on, as well as serve as useful reference later in the drafting process.
Being able to take in at a glance the individual buildings, doors, windows, and even furniture present in an environment will assist you when your scenes involve characters moving through these locations, as well as help to ensure continuity when revisiting these settings later on. For example, if someone bursts in through the front door of a bar and runs up to the counter, just looking at your map will tell you how far away they are when they enter the room, what they have to maneuver around on their approach, etc.
You don’t need to go crazy and include every last chair or residential block on your maps, but do try to jot down the relative position of anything the characters will likely have to interact with, pay attention to, or move around, over, or through during the course of the scene.
Exercise: Drawing inspiration for settings from your favorite places
This is a variation of my image search exercise. But this time, instead of trying to craft a setting from various pictures and audio recordings, you are going to attempt to distill some of the feelings and associations you have regarding your favorite real-world locations. For this exercise, make the effort to go out and visit the place in person if you can, but working from memory will do in a pinch. Once you are on scene with paper and pen in hand (or are imagining doing so), start by writing down the details that initially jump out at you. The sights and sounds that in your humble opinion, make this place unique and wonderful. After you capture some rich details from each of your five senses, keep sitting there for a while and take in the atmosphere.
You are going to be looking for two things next:
- First, focus on your personal associations, emotions, and memories of the place, the reason it means something to you to begin with. These will be useful when determining the relationships between the fictional settings you base on this place and some of your central characters.
- The other thing to keep an eye out for is anything interesting that happens. Snippets of conversation and the brief interactions between the people walking by. The banter of merchants and their customers, the shuffle of the line in front of a nearby club, etc. These details, ones set in motion, are great to include when describing your setting for the first time and tend to be more interesting to your reader than long lists physical traits.
How to worldbuild: Treating your setting like a character
I want to talk a little bit more about the process of transforming lists of physical and auditory descriptions into living, breathing environments. As you start to assemble these various details into unified settings, you are going to want to spend some time fleshing things out, just like you have for your central characters. You want these environments to be as interesting as possible, as rich and vivid in your mind’s eye as you can make them before you begin writing, so that they come to life on the page when your characters arrive and begin to explore.
This effort will pay off when you start drafting in earnest, as your settings will evoke a compelling atmosphere, flavor, and texture naturally, all thanks to the time you spent getting to know them before your pen hits the page at full tilt. Remember that it is perfectly natural for a given setting to become richer in your mind over time as you continue to write your novel, in fact this is one of the reasons that revision usually requires multiple cycles. But for now, you want your main settings to be about as well-developed as your central characters.
How to describe a setting
Describing a setting for the first time
As when describing characters to your readers for the first time, the first time that you introduce an important setting to your audience, you are going to want to highlight enough details to provide them with a complete picture. I want to emphasize that describing a setting should never upstage the characters and events of your story themselves. A setting provides context and atmosphere to a scene, but should not get in the way and interrupt the pace of the action.
This means that you should avoid barraging your reader with long lists of details, as this is actually counterproductive to engaging their imagination. Instead, focus on a handful of vibrant particulars, presented in the order that a given character notices them. You won’t need to include such a lengthy description of this setting the next time you use it in a scene, so feel free to go on for at least several sentences as you introduce the environment to you reader. That way, when you return to it later, you can refer back to a relatively small handful of details in order to refresh this description in their mind.
When working out these early portrayals of settings, try to move from the general to the specific, the same way that a reader’s mind would process the location if they were to walk through it for the first time. Start with tangible, concrete details, the things that a character can touch, hear, and see. Tabletops and paving stones. A scent of brine and the sound of waves lapping against the pier. Then move on to more nebulous or abstract details that are more a part of the present atmosphere than the enduring physical environment. The hint of an arriving storm in the air. A creaking sound that is out of place. Notes of tension thrumming throughout the crowd filling the street.
Bear in mind that the descriptions of your setting should match the skills and familiarity of the point of view character who is experiencing it. You would describe a busy workshop quite differently if your character were visiting it for the first time as opposed to being in charge of the shop. The chaos of industry might be distracting bordering on overwhelming to a newcomer, but should reveal a hidden order to someone who belongs there. A rack of tools might feel like a jumble of wood and metal to the uninitiated, while each device would possess a distinct purpose and identity to a craft master.
Increasing immersion by describing settings in motion
This is a fairly common piece of advice, but since it is such a good one, I wanted to make sure to include it here as well. The idea is that your readers will have a hard time digesting block paragraphs of description all in one go, so it is helpful for you to distribute details evenly across the introduction to a scene. A powerful technique to achieve this outcome is to describe your settings while your characters are walking (running, strolling, dancing, or fleeing for their very lives) through them, using the pace of the action to spread out your descriptive attributes.
For example, say you have a rural farmer visiting the big city for the first time. Rather than listing everything that he witnesses all at once from the moment he steps through the city gates, try dropping in shorter segments of detail as he continues to explore the setting. Given his humble upbringing, our farmer might reach down and touch the bricks in the road, marveling at their red hue and evenness. As he continues toward the market, he might stop to admire the sheer number of people going about their daily routine, so many more than he has met over the course of his entire life.
Instead of merely describing the various shops and merchant stalls, lay out how wondrous and luxurious the goods on display are. How wealthy the (modest) shopkeepers appear and how opulent their goods seem to our farmer’s eyes. Of course, a character who grew up in this hypothetical city would be completely used to the sights of commerce and trade by now, and you would describe them with a sense of casual familiarity if this was your PoV character instead.
Allow your narrative descriptions to flow naturally as your PoV character moves across a setting and scene. Think about which details he or she would notice from these various sub-settings first, as well as which would only sink in after some time. Throughout this process, try to pair detail with action rather than providing simple lists. Our farmer might have to detour around a crowd or fight his way through it as opposed to merely glancing at the throng while walking on by. Feel the warmth of the morning sunlight on his skin rather than simply observing the time of day. By putting your descriptions in motion, your reader can more easily imagine your settings, enhancing immersion and allowing the unique ambiance of your fictional environment to shine through.
Exercise: The five senses in motion check (Taking a stroll through your setting)
This exercise is intended to assist you in further developing settings that have already had some work put into them, especially as you ponder how to describe them in motion. The idea is that you want to incorporate sensual details regarding not only how the setting appears to the eyes, but data from the other four senses as well. Keep in mind that you won’t need to use all five senses when describing every scene (taste gets used less for obvious reasons), just enough that the environment will come to life and appear authentic to your reader.
This is a bit similar to my earlier exercise on following a main character around over the course of their daily life. But this time, instead of walking a step behind a character, you will be taking a mental stroll across your setting “in person.” Start by closing your eyes and pretending that you are entering this environment for the first time and go from there. As you begin to build up this image in your mind, write down any relevant sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile details that come into focus. If anything action oriented is happening, follow it for a while and see if something exciting occurs.
When you feel like you have exhausted this mental exploration, its time to mix things up. Try changing the weather or time of day. How does the place appear in the morning, evening, or middle of the night? What does it feel like when it is sunny, stormy, or overcast?
You can also experiment with moving the “camera” in this exercise. What does the setting look like from a hundred feet up in the air? How about thousand? Now try zooming in for an extreme close up, describing your approach in order. Start by viewing things while remaining far away, then move forwards to get up close and personal, and then head all the way inside (this last bit only applies to buildings and other enclosed spaces, obviously).
Now, I want you to come to a stop in your mental meandering, ideally somewhere in your setting that has a good view of the surrounding terrain. Next, I want you to take a long, lingering look at the horizon. If you haven’t already done so, now is a good time to consider what lies beyond the immediate boundaries of your setting. When your characters look out their windows, what do they see? The profiles of tall buildings and chimney tops? Rolling hills or snow-capped mountains? Perhaps a distant glimpse of the endless ocean?
Once you have written down whatever details come to mind, slowly turn in place, jotting down any additional features that reveal themselves. Anywhere that your characters will eventually be visiting should receive some extra attention, so that their descriptions will lead your reader to become curious about this faraway place. A curiosity that will be sated a bit later on when your characters arrive in person.
Life in and near the setting
If you have not already done so, now is an ideal time to consider what daily life is like in and around this place. Is your setting heavily populated, small and cozy, or a veritable wasteland? On that note, what do the people that live here do for work? Where do they get the food and other supplies they need to survive? Do they trade, live off the land, or some combination of both?
Moving on, what do the people here like to do for recreation? Does the place have any nightlife, or is everyone in bed with the setting sun? Along with daily conditions, what are some of the local customs or seasonal events that take place nearby? Are there any major festivals, rituals, or celebrations for your characters to attend? Are outsiders welcome to view these occurrences or are they barred from participation? You won’t be including all of this information in your story of course, but thinking about what it is like to live in or near your important settings will help them to come to life within your imagination.
The natural world
Whether your setting is urban or rural, it is important to include the impact of the natural world. Even big cities are home to countless insects, rats, and dogs, while rustic environments will be filled with a wide variety of plant and animal life. Take a few moments to ponder what lives in and near your environment other than people, as well as the relationships between the locals and the natural world. Climate and weather are core parts of nature as well, and knowing a bit about both regarding your settings will provide you with some nice options for potential sources of conflict as well as ways to change up the atmosphere of your various scenes.
Using setting to establish atmosphere
Before we finish wrapping up this section, I wanted to talk a little bit more about using your settings to reveal and mirror your characters’ moods, as well as foreshadowing. To start with, the vibes that a character receives from a given setting can change dramatically from scene to scene, a transient property of setting I call atmosphere. Changing up the atmosphere allows your setting to provide different emotional experiences to your readers at different times, ratcheting up the level of tension in the narrative here, or taking it down a notch there.
Including different characters in a scene can significantly change the atmosphere of your settings as well. A corner store might be just a place to grab some groceries to most of your cast. But if one of your characters had witnessed a murder take place outside, having them around would add considerable tension and other powerful emotions to the scene.
The same idea applies to the present emotional state of your characters as well. You would describe the same environment very differently if they were relaxing on their day off versus in the midst of dealing with a crisis. Or put another way, you can reveal the mood of your characters through the manner in which they perceive their environments, and there should be harmony between their mental states and what they notice about the world around them.
Utilizing subtext, where the details revealed over the course of a given scene imply a completely different meaning than the one initially presented to the characters, can be an excellent tool for foreshadowing. A classic version of this type of narrative occurs when a character is walking into a trap, where the reader may very well realize the danger while the characters remain blithely ignorant, ratcheting up the tension with every step until the critical moment when the action begins.
In an established setting you can alter the mood (atmosphere) by:
- Letting the weather play a role: A sunny afternoon vs. a coming storm.
- Changing the time of day: The break of dawn vs. the depths of midnight.
- Changing of the seasons: Spring, summer, winter, and fall each evoke unique associations.
- Changing who is present in the environment.
- Changing what a setting means to a character (after a major event).
Using settings as obstacles and sources of conflict
One of the core types of conflict besides person vs. person, is person vs. nature (see the following section on planning your plot for more detail). Part of being a good storyteller includes throwing a wide variety of obstacles and curveballs into the paths of your characters and the environment is a perennial source of potential conflicts. Bad weather, natural disasters, and even simple darkness can all provide powerful sources of tension as well as play a vital role in the plot across your various scenes.
Tips for transitioning between settings
In order for a reader to imagine a scene playing out in their mind’s eye, they have to first know where that scene occurs. Thus, whenever you change up the setting, especially when transitioning to a new scene, it is vital that you let your audience know where they are as quickly as possible (as well as who the PoV character is). It can be incredibly disorienting and immersion breaking when a reader finds out, three pages into a scene, that they are no longer standing in the place they imagined.
Major vs. minor settings
My final thought on this topic involves major vs. minor settings, another distinction that I use in my personal storycrafting process. Just like your characters, some settings will be central to your story, while others will appear only briefly. Like minor characters, minor settings require significantly less development to use effectively. But it still important that the details you do provide to your readers serve your narrative and remain internally consistent if you revisit them later on. This means that you will want to focus on a few carefully-chosen details that really bring out the uniqueness of this place. Examples of minor settings might include: a cave the characters spend a single night in, the living room of a close friend, or a bar where two characters meet only once or twice.
When developing minor settings, ask yourself:
- How can I sum up this place in a few sentences?
- What images do I want to conjure for my readers?
- What emotions or thoughts do I want this setting to evoke?
Don’t overwhelm your reader with too many settings over the course of one story
Just like you don’t want to overload your reader with too many descriptions, or dozens and dozens of main characters, you also won’t want to use too many settings over the course of a story. When considering the total number of settings to include in your novel, remember that less is more. The fewer locations that your characters transition between, the more familiar and comfortable your readers will be with each scene. This doesn’t mean that your story can’t include dozens of major and minor settings, rather that you should only include the ones that serve the needs of your story and leave the rest on the cutting room floor (or better yet, save them for your next exciting tale).
Keep in mind that setting plays a major role in establishing and enhancing plot, pacing, and atmosphere. For each additional location that you are considering including in your novel, ponder what unique elements it adds to your story and whether you could effectively use an existing setting instead.
Many times, the location where a given scene occurs is essential to the action of the narrative, making selecting the ideal setting relatively easy to do. But some of the scenes in your novel are likely less location-dependent, meaning that you have options regarding which setting to choose. For these scenes, consider reusing an existing environment rather than constructing a new minor setting, as it is an easy way to consolidate your narrative. As always, try to remember that every setting should be more than a mere backdrop and even minor settings are important when establishing the mood, adding depth to your world, and complimenting the action occurring around them.
With a bit of practice, you will soon be crafting major and minor settings that possess their own unique ambiance and provide your readers with a healthy balance of immersive images.
Now it’s time to head into the next section and take a deep dive into planning out your plot.