Setting: Three Steps to Immerse Readers in Your World
So you have a story idea — an outline, a scene, a character sketch. Fantastic! What’s next? How do you make that brilliant seed on inspiration grow? A book needs three things to be a successful narrative: characters a reader cares about, a setting that feels real, and a believable plot line. We’ll talk about each of these elements in their own posts.
For now, lets discuss setting. Whether you’re a world-builder or not, you can create a real, deep setting with just a few steps.
Step One: Laws of Nature
Every world has laws. In a thriller it could be that it is almost impossible to not leave DNA behind, or the physical limitations of the human body. If your book is set in our world you will need to research these aspects. Fantasy and science fiction worlds have laws too, but these need to be written. Maybe the law is that all creatures or elements have finite energy, and only certain species can manipulate that energy (magic, mana, and element-bending are all examples of this). In science fiction the law might be the speed at which spaceships travel (warp-speed, light speed, worm holes all play into this) and the physics behind interplanetary travel, which would require some research as well.
Once you’ve made your laws you must never break them. Readers notice. You may have heard of “Suspension of Disbelief.” If a world has laws, doesn’t break them, and the entire plot is plausible within those laws, then Suspension of Disbelief remains intact. If some aspect of your plot doesn’t work within your laws, then the plot needs to change. This can add additional hurtles for your characters and that’s always a good thing.
Step Two: Make it Real
Think about all the things you love about your home and the places you’ve visited. It’s not just the history of a place or it’s colors. It’s the way the ground feels under your feet, the way it smells, the sounds around you. If you want a great piece of world-building, (re-)read the first few paragraphs in “An Unexpected Party” in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Include all the senses you can think of, but moreover, include them through your character. Do they secretly revel in the sweet tang of the subway tunnels? Do they miss the sound of wagon wheels on cobbles in the morning?
Our world is a diverse place. We have so many different people, cultures, and biomes. Even if the entire story takes place in a small town, your world should show diversity and richness — the differing opinions of the owners of two general stores and the houses on the main street, versus those in the rural dirt roads. The larger your world is, the more diversity you need to include.
Step Three: You Are a God
I’m sure most of us have heard “God(dess) knows…” when someone refers to something they can’t fathom. You are the creator of your world. You will always know exponentially more about the world than your readers. This means for your readers to know a bit about your setting you need to know (either through brainstorming or research) five times that. A good analogy is that of an iceberg. Your readers see what juts above the surface; you see the entire thing. If you’re worried about how many details to include, ask your beta readers for setting-based feedback. How much you actually share will depend on the demographic you hope to attract and your genre — you don’t need the same scope when writing a cozy mystery or romance as you do when writing a multi-novel epic fantasy or space opera.
Developing your setting can be so much fun and lead to more stories within the same universe. If you keep these three steps in mind your readers will love your world as much as you and keep returning for more.