So often setting is overlooked by writers, when in fact it’s a wonderful colour to add to your storytelling palette.
Environment shapes character, informs plot and adds mood to your story. From the moral and religious background of your characters, to changing morals and weather, all of these form a crucible to forge out your narrative.
Here are three ways to use setting in your novel.
S E T T I N G (Image source)
The setting consists of these elements, which you ought to describe through the course of the story. It is up to you, however, to decide how necessary it is to do so and why.
- Which element is more important right now? Why? The most common answer is because it plays an impact on the story, so you should give it a higher priority in that particular moment. Overall we should get a feeling however brief of each or most of them.
- Why are settings important at all? Because the story is happening somewhere. Even if it’s happening in a void or in the middle of a nothingness, you could describe it. It helps making your story more memorable and your writing more vivid.
- How much should you describe? Again, there isn’t a rule. It is up to you. You’d not spend a page describing a room that plays no interesting or important part in the story, would you? If you do it, you’ll make the readers believe it is more important than it actually is, or bore them out. During the first draft you can spend as much as you want pointing out details of the environment and the space but know that during revision, they could and will get cut out if they’re not relevant whatsoever.
- The relationship between world-building and the settings: they’re directly related. If you’re creating a new world you’ll have to work through a lot of describing, and that has to do with—you guessed it—the environment. The space, time and temperature. All of these have to do with the world you’re creating if they’re different from what we normally see or if they’re not.
- Let’s say it, describing things is oftentimes quite fun and a great way to practice vocabulary and your use of metaphors and similes to show and not tell in a powerful way.
The following links provide great advice on both settings and world building and I recommend checking them out.
- Common Setting Failures
- The Senses and World Building
- Fantasy World Building Questions
- Tips on Revealing Setting
- The Rules of Quick and Dirty World Building
- The Description Pyramid
- Physical Descriptions Put Readers Into Place
- Location, Location, Location
- Creating Your Own World
For some literal “worldbuilding.”
- Dramatic religious shifts in <50 years
- Arbitrary returns to Roman/Greek systems
- Worlds with one continent
- Arbitrary homophobia
- Heterogeneous technologically-limited rural areas
- Worlds with one religion/method of worship
- Skin color as the only means of differentiation
- Earth-based morality
- Arbitrary caste systems
- Cities founded in areas with no water
- Agriculture in areas with no water
- Everyone having the same weather all the time
- Technology not being consistent
- Swift changes in political ideology
- Every state having the same political structure
- Lack of trade
- Everyone having Western Abrahamic views on gender/sexuality
- American and European animals living in the same place
- Lack of biodiversity
- Death rites being the same everywhere
- Burying people in marshy swampland prone to flooding
- Access to the same food everywhere
- Agriculture that doesn’t match the climate
- Foods that exist because of genetic modification existing in nature (i.e. bananas)
- Everything being based in middle ages -> Victorian-era Western culture/technology level
- Magic having no effect on technological development
- Religions irrelevant to the land they are based in
- Indigenous skin-color unrelated to climate
- Climate unrelated to geographic location
- Homogenous port/trade cities
- Access to technology by lower class
- States with no human rights laws
- Immediate rebuilding after wars
- Long periods of time with absolute peace
- Lack of international organizations
- Western-based organizational structures
- Western-based human rights ideas
- Clean streets with no sewage system
- Clean water with no sewage system
- Science that makes no sense
- Governments hated by everybody
- Governments with one political party/ideology
- Lack of communication between states
- Lack of immigration
think about these things when you’re making a fictional place; even a developed city has its roots in how easy it was to settle in the first place!
- this site has additional info, diagrams, worksheets, and models, as well as information on things like coasts, volcanoes, and populations
- look at real life sources for climates. Consider the way that your continent(s) lay in relation to their equator, and the weather and types of flora and fauna and peoples that adapted to it.
- think about pangea. If you have multiple continents, do they fit together like a jigsaw?
- when in doubt, look at the natural world around you and think about what would change if something was drastically different. Look at the reactions between parts of our world and change them.
- play civilization games and think about the things that go into making decisions there
confessionsofalitgeek asked: Do you have any articles about writing fantasy races? I’m trying to come up with societies for them but also making their appearances more unique so I don’t just have regular Lord of the Rings type characters.
Not so long ago I wrote a little article thing to help people think about how to describe buildings. It’s not a magical formula or anything like that, but the idea was to present some questions/concepts that might get you thinking about different ways to describe buildings.
In general, writing super long paragraphs about the scenery isn’t the best way to show setting. I’m not saying it’s impossible to do or that you absolutely shouldn’t do it, but I would suggest trying to balance your description with dialogue segments or little bits of telling to avoid information dumps.
However, expanding your vocabulary and practising your craft by writing the scenes you want to write is never a bad thing and I don’t want to discourage you from trying out this idea you have.
When you’re describing something, it helps if you understand what each part is called. Description can get very dull, very quickly if you’re re-using the same words. The main parts of a building that come straight to mind are: the bricks, the windows and the door but there are so many other components and details.
Here are some references that could be a good starting point to get you thinking about those things:
- House Anatomy
- Anatomy of a House
- Building Terms
- Construction Glossary
- Words That Describe Buildings or Rooms or Parts of Buildings
You don’t need to know all of these words and terms, but they can be good reference points to avoid description disasters.
Focusing on Detail
9/10 people reading your story will already know what a standard house or high-rise looks like, so you need to show them what is so important about the structure you’re describing, i.e. what makes it different.
The best place to get this kind of inspiration from is the world around you! Whether it’s looking at the different houses/structures in your own town, or using the internet to get some interesting photographs, you’ll soon see what kind of details you need to focus on when describing your own buildings to give your description more of an edge.
In the article I mentioned at the beginning, I put a whole bunch of links to inspiration blogs at the very bottom which you’re welcome to skip to and check out.
Anyway this answer is starting to look like a shameless, flashing neon arrow at one of my dumb articles and that’s really not my intention, I’m just way too lazy to repeat myself.
- Making Scenery Come Alive
- The Importance of Description
- "Show, don’t tell" Tips & Masterlist
- Writing Advice: Make Your Description Interesting
- Description Resource
- Ask A Published Author: How Do I Balance Dialogue, Action and Description?
- Don’t Be A Dickens. Use Detail Effectively.
- When does the setting matter?
I hope this helps. Happy writing…!
We love stories that take us to alien planets and let us explore whole new environments. But not every alien planet is totally realistic, especially given how much we’ve learned about exoplanets lately. So we asked six experts to tell us the biggest mistakes they see in fictional habitable worlds — and here’s what they told us.
Interesting read for any budding sci-fi writers out there.
If you ever need information or first-hand experiences for writing about countries you’ve never been to before, World Wide Writing might be just what you’re looking for. Find people from those countries willing to share their knowledge about their culture and language, and offer yourself as help too!
What is cultural appropriation?
It’s difficult to talk about appropriation because it is deeply tied to racial representation in fiction, and I can’t speak of one without the other. A common definition is: the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. The culture that borrows and appropriates is usually dominant over the one that is borrowed from. Examples include high-class Europeans having foreign art objects, and people who get hanzi tattoos with grammar mistakes or just because they “look cool”. But it extends to far more than that. It is the attitude that suggests non-white cultures are to be shared, delighted in, and open to all to use as influences or create characters. It is blackface, yellowface, redface, brownface, that rob minorities of the right to express their stories, the way they want, and reduces them to a footnote. It is what leads certain writers to say “but everyone has the right to a story!”