If you want to write memorable stories, they need to feel real. Some of the best literature and non-fiction writing makes the reader feel like they’re right there in the scene. This kind of immersion can be hard to master, but careful world building and taking time to describe your setting ahead of time can help.
This is part 2 of a 6-part blog series based on writing workshops called Chasing Your Tale: Building Your Writer’s Toolkit offered through the SheHive. “The SheHive exists to facilitate connection and growth for women seeking to live a life on the other side of should.” You can find out more about the workshop and sign up to attend here.
“As a reader, I don’t just want descriptions of food, clothing, and places. I want to understand the world to its core, through the eyes of those who live in it.”Sabaa Tahir, Author of An Ember in the Ashes
What is Setting?
Most every writer knows the general definition of setting: the time and place where your story happens. But crafting a setting is far more than stamping a page: New York, 1972. Careful attention to setting helps to convey:
Take, for example, DC Comics’ Metropolis (home of Superman) and Gotham City (home of Batman). At different times in the comics’ evolution, both cities have been based on New York City. But the feeling you get from Metropolis – a bright shiny beacon of progress and safety – is far different from the grim and gritty streets of Gotham City. That’s intentional. The stories of Superman and Batman require different settings. By focusing on different parts of the New York experience, the comic writers were able to convey entirely different stories, even when focusing on the same place and time.
Setting Can Depict Change
Another key way that your setting can further your story is by showing how things change. The change of seasons, the collection of dust on a bookshelf or table, relocation from one home to another – changes to the setting of your story can convey the passage of time, or changes in your character’s behavior or outlook. These subtle clues can make it easier for the reader to believe shifts in language, attitude, or actions that may happen throughout your story.
Worldbuilding: Changing Your Reader’s Assumptions
When you hear the term “world-building” you probably think of speculative fiction first. Science fiction and fantasy writers are famous for crafting strange new worlds for their readers to explore. But the idea behind worldbuilding applies to a much broader slice of writing. World building challenges a reader’s assumptions and asks them to envision a world unlike their own.
World building challenges a reader’s assumptions and asks them to envision a world unlike their own.
No one comes to a story with an empty mind. The reader always makes assumptions about the setting. Whatever is not described gets filled in by the reader’s imagination. Most often, those assumptions will be based on the reader’s own life experience. If you, as the author, do not challenge those assumptions – by defining your world – then you give the reader control over it.
This idea came up recently in a writer’s forum on social media. A member asked about whether their fellow writers made a point to include diverse races in their stories. The answers fell into two camps:
- Trying to respectfully represent diverse characters through conscious inclusion of race
- Ignoring the race of the characters and letting the readers figure it out.
By leaving the characters’ race up to the readers’ imagination, the writers in the second camp were giving readers power over their world and increasing the chances that the readers’ assumptions would either be homogenous or stereotypical.
Setting the Rules for Your World
Whether you are telling an epic fantasy or a personal memoir, there are rules about your world that the reader needs to understand for the story to work. This may be:
- How magic or advanced technology works
- The limits placed on characters (real or self-imposed)
- The status quo of everyday life
Far too many writers get an idea for a prodigal mage or an everyday hero and just start writing, without taking time to define the rules of their world. But unlimited power is boring. If you don’t create a structure within which the characters must operate, then how will you know when or how you are breaking out of them?
The 5 Whys Method
The last blog post reviewed the 5 Ideas Method for brainstorming. It involved asking yourself the same question 5 times and writing down the answers until you find one you like. This time, the question is “Why”. Take an assumption you have about the world or your character – “she can’t tell anyone her secret”. Then ask yourself why – “because it is illegal.” Then ask yourself why again. Dig down through 5 layers of why to develop clear rules for the world your characters will live in. You’ll be surprised what secrets those answers hold.
Describing the Scene
Once you have painted your world with a broad brush by establishing the rules, it is time to switch to a fine point and fill in the details for your scene’s settings. Try to be as detailed and realistic to your world’s setting as you can. If you are basing your story in a real place, go for a visit. If you can’t get there, use Google Street View to take a virtual walk down the street and build the details you see into the story. Try to use all your senses, not just your eyes. Describe the sights, smells, and sounds of the place:
- What is the lighting like?
- Is there an aroma in the air?
- What background noises can you hear?
- Are there foods or drinks to taste?
- What is the texture of the furniture?
Using Setting to Explore Character
This level of detail allows you to explore your world as your characters see them, and to get a glimpse into their lives. Not every character will care about the same details. An artist may focus more on the colors while an engineer notices the architecture. Exploring the same location through two characters’ eyes can demonstrate differences in their personalities and help you get deeper into their points of view.
If you are writing about a character’s home or bedroom, the details of that setting can reveal traits about the character themselves:
- Are they neat or messy?
- What scent do they prefer?
- Are there any collections on display?
- What are they hiding in their drawers or closet?
Take your time and explore your character’s bedroom. Even if the scene doesn’t make the final edit, the secrets you learn nosing through their drawers will be worth the effort.
Setting and worldbuilding are important parts of every narrative story – from sci-fi to memoir. Take the time to define your world and fill your scenes with the details of real life. It will help your readers feel like they are there, and may just give your characters more life.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a writer, owner of Your Law Geek, and facilitator of Chasing Your Tale: Building Your Writer’s Toolkit hosted by the SheHive in Ferndale, Michigan. If you need help developing your next idea, sign up for her next workshop or contact Lisa directly here.