Question: How do I create an engaging setting and world for my story?



Writers can use many elements and techniques in their storytelling to draw readers in and take them on a memorable journey. A story’s setting and world are just two of these elements that are essential for grounding the reader in time and place and making them feel like they are there, experiencing what your characters are experiencing.

Many writers think that setting and world-building are relevant only to fantasy and science fiction stories, where an elaborate, imaginary environment shapes the plot and circumstances. This couldn’t be further from the truth. All fiction writers, and even memoir writers, need to treat their setting and world as critical elements of the story. A detailed environment not only gives the reader context on the time, place, and surroundings, but improves the reader experience by adding depth to the story.

A story's setting is the time and place, the world is where that setting exists.What is a story’s setting or world?

A story’s setting is the time period and place where a specific scene or sequence of scenes happens. A story’s world includes all of the elements surrounding the setting that drive the plot and pacing of the story. You can think of a setting as the stage, and the world is the theatre encompassing that stage.

The craft of world-building includes not only your story's various settings, but everything that affects your characters’ actions, reactions, and choices such as language, culture, religion, government, technology, and more. The combination of setting and world create a unique environment that can occur only in your novel or memoir. When built well, your world will give your readers context and atmosphere while allowing them to visualize the story, deepening their engagement.

Where and when can a story take place?

Fiction writers have endless options when determining where, when, and how their story will take place, limited only by their imagination. The key to choosing effectively is using the settings and world that will best support the story’s concept, plot, and characters.

The first decision a writer should make is when the story will take place — past, present, or future. If writing a historical novel, you know the story will take place in a past time period. If writing a dystopian novel, these often take place at some point in the future. The decision of when your story takes place will often drive the where. There are three primary places where a fiction story can take place:

A story can take place at any point in time, and on Earth, an alternate Earth, or a non-Earth world1) Earth (the real world)

2) An alternate Earth

3) Not Earth - an entirely different planet or world

A story that takes place on Earth in the 1800s, for example, will require more research than a story that takes place on Earth in present day. The writer will need to use vivid descriptions to create the historic world for the reader, allowing them to envision a time period they may not be familiar with. A story that takes place in the future on an alternate Earth will require more creative development by the writer to allow readers to imagine the world and feel it is believable. When writing memoir, your setting and world are more straight-forward, driven by the real life events and experiences you are writing about.    

Setting and world-building basics

Once you’ve established the time and place for your story, it’s important to think about how these choices will impact your story’s mood, pacing, plot, and characters. A story that takes place in a remote town in Alaska, for example, will have a much different feel than a story that takes place in bustling New York City. The experiences and surroundings of characters in a story set in 1930 will be vastly different from the experiences and surroundings of characters in a story set in 2050. This is where doing some outlining and character development before you start writing can be very helpful.

Your story’s various settings and world will ultimately inform and influence every aspect of your story, and your skills with description will determine your readers’ level of immersion. Writers often hear they need to show readers rather than tell. This technique is critical when shaping your story’s environment. To show a reader means to provide descriptive elements that bring in the various senses, whether that's sight, smell, sound, taste, or touch. Think about what your characters are seeing when they look around them, and what they are hearing or smelling. Maybe the air tastes salty because they are near an ocean? There are books with settings so vivid, they become a character in the story. The key is to evoke emotions in the reader by including these elements, bringing the surroundings to life and making the readers a part of the experience.

When writing about these details, it’s important to weave them in throughout your story, rather than dumping paragraphs of description in at the beginning. Find creative ways to include details in your characters’ internal thoughts, in dialogue, or as a part of the action.

How to build a more complex world

If you are writing a fantasy or science fiction novel and plan to set your story on an alternate Earth or non-Earth planet, you will need to be prepared to develop the various world elements listed in the six categories below. Only a fraction of what you create might work its way into the final narration, but developing all elements will help you identify which ones are most pertinent to your story and characters, and which ones can be weeded out in the final draft.

1. Geography – Landscape, Climate, Regions, Wildlife, Nature

When writing fantasy or science fiction, the writer will need to do more world-building to create a believe environment for its characters and plot.2. People – Races or Species, Language, Social Hierarchy

3. Culture – History, Religion, Customs, Education, Food, Attire, Forms of Entertainment

4. Technology – Artificial Intelligence, Magic Systems, Weaponry

5. Economy – Infrastructure, Currency, Transportation, Occupations, Commerce

6. Politics – Government, Laws, War Systems

When developing a more complex world with numerous moving parts and pieces, it’s important to keep track of all of the details so you can maintain consistency throughout your story or series. One way to do this is by creating a world-building bible. This can be a notebook, binder, or file folder where you can compile and safely store all of the ideas and information you collect in the development process.

No matter the story, the settings and world that surround the characters play a critical role in immersing readers in the story, engaging them emotionally, and taking them on the journey. By doing some planning ahead of writing, you can ensure your chosen time and place support the story’s concept, plot, and characters, and feel confident you are creating an environment your readers will enjoy and look forward to exploring.