Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Setting First: Coming up with a setting that feels real

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

The setting of your story is where and when the story takes place. It can be just as important as a main character. Let's take a look at some memorable settings.

Think of stories in real places like Preston, Idaho in Napoleon Dynamite; "the Burg" of Trenton, New Jersey in Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels; Astoria, Oregon in the movie The Goonies; Forks, Washington in Twilight; and even a futuristic Chicago in Divergent.

How about fictional cities that feel real like Molching, Germany in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief; Metropolis in SupermanThe Simpson's Springfield; and Hill Valley, California in the Back to the Future movies.

Or speculative settings like Neil Gaiman's London Below in Neverwhere; Brandon Mull's Fablehaven; Tolkien's Lord of the Rings; Dr. Suess's Whoville; L. Frank Baum's Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz; J. K. Rowlings Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and Hogsmeade in Harry Potter.

These are all places that, if we love the books, we can picture in our minds. We've been there in our imaginations and on the page, and we know what it feels like.

A well-developed setting will enthrall readers while an underdeveloped one can cause your novel to feel like something is missing. If you're unsure where you want to place your story, here are some ideas to help you decide.

Choose a place you know well. 
Set the story in your hometown or in a place you once lived. Maybe in a town where a close family member lives. A place you went on vacation. Picking a place you know well will make things a lot easier.

Choose a unique place.
A summer camp, a marina, a dentist's office, a boat, a mall, an airport... Lots of stories have multiple settings within a single town. But you could set an entire story in one place. Take Night at the Museum for example. I've been to the Natural History Museum in New York City. I saw nothing come to life! But I'd love to go back there again and see what, if anything, they used in the movie. What a great idea for a setting!

Choose a unique environment.
A metropolitan city, a desert, the arctic, a foreign country, the moon! Pick a place that is totally different. A place few people have been and know anything about. It could make it all the more fascinating to the reader, and your main character, too.

Make up a town.
Like we saw above, sometimes it can be easier (and a lot more fun) to create your own town like Gotham City or Bedford Falls. If you do this, you don't have to research nearly as much. You don't have to get your town facts straight because you're making them all up. It can be quite a load off.

Add a speculative twist to a real town.
If you're writing something speculative like contemporary or urban fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, post apocalyptic, time travel, or dystopian, you can use places on earth but change them in some way. Brandon Sanderson did this with both Newcago, a futuristic all-steel version of Chicago in his book Steelheart, and with the United Isles, an alternate 1908 in his book The Rithmatist. I did this with the ski resort town of Crested Butte, Colorado in my Safe Lands series.

It's no secret that I'm a setting-first (storyworld-first) author. I like to get all that worldbuilding out of the way before I start writing so that when I sit down to write, I know a ton about the place in which my story happens. I know how this place looks, feels, smells. I know what a day-in-the-life of my character looks like. I have plenty of elements to help me as I write. But even more than that, I want my setting to feel real. Alive. I want it to feel like another character. I think of it like the sum of one big equation that adds up to equal one amazing setting. Something like:

time (year) + place (size, type, location) + atmosphere (social, cultural, political environment) + set design and costume (architecture and fashions) + technology (transportation, electronics, etc) + characters + scene locations + dialogue = setting.

Let's use the movie It's a Wonderful Life as an example.

1908-ish to 1945 + small town in upstate New York + honest, hardworking folk + quaint 1940's main street, 1940s fashion + old cars, bicycles, trains, walking + Ma and Pa Bailey, Uncle Billy, Annie the maid, Bert the cop, Ernie the cab driver, Violet Bick, Mary Hatch, Mary's mother, Sam Wainwright, Mr. Gower, Mr. Potter, Clarence, etc + Building and Loan, high school with pool under gym floor, the drugstore, main street, the old Granville house, etc + "Why, it was only last year you were seventeen." "Why don't you kiss her instead of talking her to death?" "Hot dog!" = Bedford Falls

And this movie is a great example of how important each ingredient is, because when George gets to see what the world is like without him, we see the setting of Bedford Falls change to that of Pottersville! And Pottersville isn't nearly as wonderful as Bedford Falls. It's a different setting, though some of the elements I mentioned above like the fashions, architecture, transportation didn't change. The atmosphere became different. If you change one element in your setting, you could change your whole world!

Need more help?
Still having trouble brainstorming a unique setting? You might think of your setting as a character. Characters need a backstory, an opposition/threat, and growth/change. Can you give your setting one or all of those elements? It might not work for every story, but it could. Let's look at them one at a time.

It's good to know the history of your setting. Just enough so that the reader thinks you know it all. Take Bedford Falls again. We saw the history of George growing up in that town. So when it became Pottersville, we knew how different it was. We saw the impact this one man had on the history of his town. Ask yourself if there is some important history in your setting. Perhaps a character once worked for a bank but no longer does. And now there is trouble at the bank and a police officer comes asking questions. Or maybe the middle school closed down because of budget cuts and now your character's little brother is going to be at the same junior-senior high school she's at. Take some time to think about the characters in your story, their pasts, and include the setting in that. It will deepen both your characters and your plot.

An Opposition/Threat
Adding an opposition or threat can up the stakes and increase the tension in your novel. Ask yourself who or what is against something in your setting? Perhaps the new principal wants to tear down the old workshop building at school to build a new gymnasium for the all-star basketball team. Perhaps a rumor about your character got so big that parents withdrew their kids from your character's dance studio and now it might close. Whatever the opposition or threat, it should be tied in with the setting + either the plot, the characters, or both.

Perhaps the plot will put your setting through a major change. Think of Middle Earth in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books. By the end, the setting had changed quite a bit. The Shire is different. The Elves are gone. The world will never be the same. There was a cost. When there is a cost, things change. Does something need to change in your setting? Maybe it changes because of the actions of your characters. Maybe it changes as a result of the opposition or threat.

Weave Them Together
Let your characters clash with your setting. Make setting part of your plot. Create obstacles for characters to face that involve the setting. Or perhaps your characters need to work together with your setting to save the day. Think of interesting ways you can weave all these elements together to make your setting more interesting and unforgettable.

These were just a few ways you can use characterization techniques to make your setting feel like a real living place. How do you make your settings come to life? If you're having trouble with your setting, pick one idea from this post today and apply it to your world. How do you like the change? Share in the comments.


  1. Your equation is really neat. I may have to write it down for future reference. :) Thanks for the post, Mrs. Williamson!

  2. Thanks for this post! It was very helpful and gives me something more to work with, since I often struggle with making my setting interesting. Also, I love that you used It's a Wonderful Life as an example!

    1. I love that movie so much. I think it's my favorite movie of all time. <3

  3. Love the post! I'm going to have one of my POVs revisit the city he grew up in, and I haven't thought too much about him revisiting old locations. It would add a lot of emotion on top of meeting old friends!

  4. You're so good at this stuff! I love how you explain things.