So far in this series, we’ve talked about characters and their story goals. We’ve established a plot sentence or logline summarizing the basics of our stories. In our loglines, we included a short phrase for the story’s setting. Today we’re going to dig deeper into exactly how to construct that world where the action happens.
But wait, you may say. Why does the setting really matter? Isn’t the heart of a story the characters anyway? Ah, you’ve been listening! But I submit to you that in the best novels, the setting is so integral to the story that it’s almost like another character.
How can you tell? If you can pick up the characters and their story goals and plop them down into a new location or time period and nothing changes, then the writer hasn’t done their job. Instead, the story’s world should be so vivid, so fully integrated into the plot and the characters’ identities, that they’re inseparable.
Now that you’re (hopefully) convinced, what are the key elements of a setting? We all learned in school how to identify where a scene takes place, but there’s much more to setting than just physical location. There’s also the surrounding geography or landscape, and the culture, politics, religion, and history of the region. And don’t forget the when of the story–the time period–because as we all know many things change over time. The culture, religion, science, and politics of 17th century New Amsterdam were quite different than those of 21st century Manhattan.
And just as we have been shaped by the world around us, all of these different aspects of setting go into making your characters who they are. They may also have significant effects on your plot and what your characters would and wouldn’t believably do in their social and cultural situations.
I know all of these details sound overwhelming at first, but we’re going to tackle them one topic at a time. The easiest way to keep everything straight is to create a “world bible“–a single Word document (or a notebook section, if you prefer paper) in which you keep all of the information. As you write (especially if you’re writing a series), you’ll probably find you need to check your facts repeatedly to keep your setting consistent. Your world bible will become a fantastic reference document to help keep you on track.
Before you dive into creating a full world bible, you need to determine a few basics. Is your setting based in the real world, is it entirely fictional, or is it a combination of both? No matter which you choose, there will probably be some research involved. Make sure you keep a list of your sources–there’s nothing worse than trying to remember later where you found some scrap of information.
Second, what’s your time period? If it’s a fictional world, is there a comparable time period from our world you can base it on? For example, many epic fantasy worlds are fairly equivalent to medieval Europe in terms of technology and even culture.
Once you have a few basics decided, download my free guide on “How to Create a World Bible” to help get you started. It’s important to remember to work on the scale you need for your story. If one of the questions listed isn’t relevant, don’t waste time on it. You can always add more details later.
As you’re working, if you come up with some cool scene ideas, be sure to jot them down in another document, section of your notebook, or on a blank index card. Save them for when we get to outlining!
For my story, I want to blend fairy tale elements with aspects of real world 17th-century France. I’ll need to do both some research and some creating.
So let’s get to work, and I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks!
Image courtesy of pexels.com. CC0 License.
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