Setting is one of the most important elements of a story. Besides supporting plot and characterization, it anchors fiction in reality.
The Lord of the Rings takes place in Middle Earth, an imaginary world full of magic and monsters, but Tolkien describes its woods and fields so vividly that the fantastical story becomes believable. In the case of more realistic fictions, the setting does even more to make the story seem true.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about creating settings.
Settings must be consistent
If you introduce details about a setting, stick to those details. Inconsistent settings are a jarring reminder to the readers that the story they’re reading is made up.
Know your setting
As mentioned before, The Lord of the Rings has an amazing setting. Tolkien didn’t just write a story. He created a world. For decades, he worked out every detail of Middle Earth, devising languages, drawing maps, creating numerous cultures and inventing tens of thousands of years of history, including minor touches like legends and genealogies.
You don’t have to be as meticulous as Tolkien, of course, but he sets a fantastic example to follow. Your story may depict only a few scenes within a larger setting, but you should have some idea of what’s going on beyond them. There’s a problem when the storyteller knows no more about the setting than the reader.
Research your setting
I hate research. One of the reasons I enjoy writing fantasy is that I get to make up stuff instead of confirming every background detail. Even for fantasy writers, however, research is important. How tall are oak trees? What does it take to forge a sword? If real-life details aren’t believable, imaginary ones won’t be. For writers of historical or literary fiction, research is even more imperative. Every inaccuracy distracts from the story.
Consider drawing a map
Tolkien was a master of setting, which is why I’m using his work to illustrate so many of my points. (I’m also using him as an example because he is awesome.) I once read somewhere that Tolkien offered this advice to writers: When creating a story, draw a map. It doesn’t have to be an artistic masterpiece. Readers may never see them, yet maps are invaluable because they help writers keep track of details.
For my novel, The Trials of Lance Eliot, I sketched a rough map, which my old man recently transformed into this work of art:
I hope the map will intrigue readers and allow them to visualize the country described in the novel. In the end, however, I created this map for my own benefit. It was important for me to know how long it would take a person to travel between certain locations, and essential to know the relation of towns and landmarks to each other.
Convey more than visual details
When you step onto a farm, what are your first impressions? Yes, you might notice the red barns or the silos glinting in the sunshine, but the first things you notice are probably the smells: fresh earth, manure, grain, wood smoke or other scents. When writers describe scenes using only visual details, they’re giving a picture. However, when writers use all five senses, they’re conveying more than a picture—they’re conveying an experience.
Give impressions, not descriptions
There are writers (like Tolkien) whose long descriptions are interesting enough to be worth reading, but in most cases fewer details are best. In describing a scene, choose the most important and striking details. (The same principle applies to describing characters.) Your reader usually needs impressions, not exhaustive descriptions. Give your readers the significant details, and their imaginations will fill in the blanks.
The analogy is a little clichéd, but if writing a story is like building a house, the setting is the foundation. In a way, every other element of the story depends on it.
Do you have any advice for creating settings for stories? Let us know in the comments!