Setting impacts not only what characters do and experience in a story, but also what the reader experiences.
When writing, it's easy to focus on what a character is seeing. However, looking at the details beyond what someone sees adds dimension. It helps the reader to experience the story using all of their senses. Even contemporary fiction writers need to do a little bit of world building if they want readers to feel immersed.
To build the setting for my current story, I created a workflow that's simple but detailed. It allows me to have enough detail to build an interesting world, but at the same time it encourages me to get down the basics so I can get to writing.
There are a lot of details to think about, so I made a worksheet to keep things simple. You can download my basic world building worksheet here.
As you can see, it's only one page. One side of a page. Here is how my personal worksheet for my own work in progress looks so far:
And below are some helpful guidelines to filling out the worksheet and making your story's setting immersive:
The General Environment
First, think about the time period. Is it in the past, present, or future?
Next, think of location. In a fantasy world, sometimes the location isn't as specific as New York City, but an imaginary city can be located by the sea or nestled between the mountains and a swamp. These kinds of details are important because they can affect the types of food your characters eat, the wildlife they come across, what the weather is like, and other details.
After figuring out the time period and the location, get more detailed.
When I look at the real world that I experience daily, I've noticed that it has the following elements:
Sounds, Sights, Tastes, Smells, and Textures.
So when it comes to my story, I ask myself:
- What would someone expect to see in this world?
- What would they hear?
- What would they taste?
- What would they smell?
- What kind of textures make up this world?
With the current story I'm working on, the first thing I started with was texture. I asked myself, "What textures make up this world?"
For this cyberpunk story, I want organic textures to meet with industrial/sci-fi textures. So as a result, I created a Trello board with images like this:
Different time periods and genres have different textures associated with them. Like when I think of the 18th century, I think of brick, wood, cobblestone, and lace. What textures fit your setting?
Environments within the General Setting
Often in a story, there are multiple settings within the main setting. There is the main character's home, the school they go to, where they work, etc... In each of these environments is a different set of physical experiences in addition to the overall setting.
So for example, when I answered the question, "What would someone in this world expect to hear?" I answered it first with the general setting in mind.
Trains, Scooters/Cycles, Cars, General Traffic, School Bells
Then, I got more specific. In the main character's home you can hear:
Quiet (and yes, I think it's okay to note the absence of sound), Sizzling eggs, Electric devices, The Buzzing sound of the MC using electric tools in the morning.
So it may be necessary to differentiate between the elements of your main setting and the elements of environments within your setting. When thinking about the environments within your setting, focus on places that your character will go to often.
A story isn't just made up of the physical details, but it also has details that are influenced by the main character's or narrator's point of view.
How the main character views their setting can have a huge impact on how to go about writing it. A narrator who loves the place they are will describe it differently from one who hates it.
Also, I like to consider the mood of the story. When thinking about mood, think about your genre. Is it a light romance or a gritty thriller? Mood can determine if there are sunny spring days and light picnics or rainy days and alleyways in your story.
My current work in progress is a cyberpunk fantasy. So a bit light, a bit dark, and a bit mysterious.
First, I started with creating a list of words that fit my setting:
Thematic Words: Hustle garden creatures insects illusions shadows power wind earth water rain growth green flowers urban bright bustling haze mirror manipulation damage tearing storms wood paper duty uniforms creation destruction metal wings ribbons breeze dust watery lake stone leather fish kite petals thorns dirt rust rivets organic hidden forest rustle posters woven fabric translucent floating beauty beast feathers geometric triangles squares circles symmetry
Then I found images to depict the mood of my story:
When picking out pictures that convey mood, you may also find it helpful to learn a little bit about visual symbolism.
So ask yourself, "What is the mood of my story?"
One story I've written that is a fun experiment with mood and setting is the Blue Room Cafe. I recommend that you take a look at an excerpt of it to see how the little details of a setting can set the tone for a story.
Another question to ask is "What cultural rules could impact the story?"
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen runs off of societal rules, etiquette, and expectations. What expectations are there in your world? How do they affect the actions of your characters? Do they try to support the rules or break them?
I hope these questions and mental wanderings will help you create wonderful settings that are full of life for your stories.
Do you have any tricks for creating settings? Share what you do below in the comments!