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Is Your Setting Pulling Its Weight? Part 1: Location

Setting is an underrated tool when it comes to crafting your story.

When it comes to fantasy, the setting and worldbuilding is often my clients' favorite part. In that case, it’s a matter of focusing on the right worldbuilding.

For my clients who deal in Realism, it can be easy to forget that they also have to do worldbuilding! For them, it’s actually the same: a matter of focusing on the right worldbuilding.

So what constitutes the "right" worldbuilding? In this two-part series, I'm going to walk you through the two most impactful elements for designing a great setting.

In Part 1, we're going to discuss the location of your story and identifying and highlighting details that improve the story.

Step 1: Narrow down your environment.

What is the specific arena that your story takes place in? Have you narrowed your environment down to a specific area (whether that's a city, small town, a single house, or place of work)?

The first thing you want to do is focus where your story takes place. Even if you're dealing in epic fantasy, zeroing in on the different locations that this one book will feature will help reign in your worldbuilding, plus enable you to create maximum impact with the locations you do cover in your story. If you’re dealing in Crime, what city or town does your story take place in? It's worth asking yourself why this story takes place in this particular location as well. What is it about this setting that is conducive to the events of your story, or the events of your story happening in this particular way? Does the story just happen to take place here, or does the setting itself tie into the story? (Hint: your setting will have maximum impact if it actually affects the story itself) Try creating obstacles and/or affordances that your setting can provide to your protagonist's pursuits.

Step 2: Develop the details

Develop the details that make this location unique, and consider your protagonist's opinions on those details. This will be a part of what makes your setting immersive and memorable as well as enable you to develop your protagonist/POV character. For example, the majority of J.K. Rowling's (writing as Robert Galbraith) first two Strike novels take place in London. Rowling fills out lush details about what life is uniquely like in London: the different neighborhoods, how secondary characters perceive the different neighborhoods (more on that in Part 2), the different accents that proliferate the city, and we get all of that through our main characters' perspectives so that we not only get the details, we get an opinion on those details (for example, at the beginning of The Silkworm, Strike is amused by the posh Culpepper calling a waiter in a common pub "mate"). In order to get even more specific in each book and not end up awash in the potential for endless miscellany in a city like London, the crimes center in specific industries. This enables Rowling to maintain the vibrant setting of London itself while giving specificity to the crime story through the sub-settings of each crime. Another one of my favorite examples of creating a memorable setting is Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects. Flynn not only creates the both rich and unsettling environment of Wind Gap, a small town made of "money and trash," but the protagonist has a very specific relationship to Wind Gap, so we get to see the town through her disenchanted eyes, which also serves to add to the tension that the town itself brings to an already unsettling story. How do your protagonist's identities, history, and perspectives shape their opinion of the environment and the people in it?

In Part 2, we'll take a closer look at developing the inhabitants of your setting to create an even richer, more layered environment.

This week, take a look at the physical setting of your story. Ask yourself:

  • Where does your story take place and why there?

  • What details make your setting distinct?

  • How does the setting help or hinder your protagonist?

  • How does your protagonist feel about or experience the setting(s) of your story?

Leave a comment below and let me know: what do you find the most difficult about developing your physical setting?

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