Create a Vivid Setting

One of the first problems a writer must contend with is setting. Where there is a story, there must also be somewhere for it to take place. Setting is a much-overlooked part of the storytelling process–my feeling is that you should regard setting not as an external element to your story, but as another character. In many ways, it is!

The setting is integral to the story. You can’t separate the two and still have a complete work. Your setting adds dimension to your story, giving it realism. It can also tell the readers things about your characters without “telling” them–imagine the difference in our impressions if we had met Lando Calrissian in the bubbling swamps of Dagobah and Yoda in Cloud City! Especially in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, when we praise a novel as being “vivid” or “detailed” or even “realistic”, what we are usually praising is the depiction of setting. When you write in this sort of genre, you have to build your setting from the ground up. In fact, setting is one of the major reasons why these novels tend to be so lengthy–the fantasy author can’t make the assumptions about setting that the mainstream fiction author can. The fantasy author must construct a whole new world for their setting; from the ground up.

So setting is important. We want the most vivid depiction of setting possible without boring our readers. What are some of the ways we can make a setting more vivid?

  • Your setting should be planned during the story planning–not tacked on at the end. If you plan the setting as part of the story from the beginning, it will show. From your very first glimmer of an idea, you have some conception of where it must occur. Develop that along with the rest of the work, and you’re one step ahead.
  • What requirements does your story place on its environment? Does your story require a setting near water? In the city? Way out in the country? Is this a cold climate? Tropical? What time of year is it? What sort of people and animals might your characters encounter? What kind of social change is going on? What sort of issues are important to your characters?
  • You’ll need a whole extra set of questions to develop a fantasy setting. What sort of magic is standard here? What sort of governing body is there? What kind of currency do they use? How do they dress? What patterns of speech might they use? How technologically advanced are they?
  • Don’t neglect the passage of time in your storytelling. Everything your characters do will take time, and it is up to you to provide a realistic sense of the time passing while they do it. Don’t forget that even the hardiest heroes need to sleep! A common beginners’ mistake is a story that reads like one long day, or heroes who never stop to sleep. This kind of pace will exhaust your readers too! Let your characters progress through time naturally, and keep a timeline so you can see what happened when, and make sure your days are broken up realistically.
  • What about weather? The weather in your character’s world will change. Depending on the season, you may have rain, or snow, or blistering heat. If you don’t provide a sense of the weather–and the greater context of season–the reader is left with a sense of unreality about this place. It wouldn’t hurt to note the weather on your timeline, so that you can make sure your seasons progress as they should.
  • Draw a map. Especially in fantasy story-telling, a map will often show you things about your world or give you plot ideas that you would not have found otherwise. It also makes sure you have a clear idea of the layout of your setting, and keeps your directions and sense of space constant.

Looking for a deeper dive into setting? I’ve used this course to help in developing entire worlds from nothing.

And if you want to go even deeper, you can’t beat these:

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