4 Reasons You Should Outline Your Settings

4 Reasons You Should Outline Your Settings

4 Reasons You Should Outline Your SettingsWhen you think of all the important story elements you need to outline, setting may not be at the top of your list. It might not even be on your list. But it should be. Setting provides the foundation for every other important element in your story—starting  with plot, character, and theme, and progressing right on down to dialogue and narrative tone.

Usually, authors immediately know at least the general setting the story takes place in . . . NYC, Mars, Renaissance Italy, colonial Kenya, the Tetons.

But that’s just the beginning. Your story will never take place “in NYC,” but in very specific and intimate settings within that setting: the ladies’ room at the Met, that one bench in Central Park, that one backseat in that one taxi on the way to that one apartment.

Every single scene you write demands a specific, grounded setting. And every single one of those settings offers you the opportunity to either deepen and strengthen your story—or weaken it.

Worth planning ahead of time, don’t you think?

4 Reasons to Outline Your Settings

In my experience, the two best ways to tap your story’s best possibilities are to:

1. Dreamzone” them up from your subconscious in sessions of intense and vivid visualization.

2. Consciously look beyond the first obvious choices.

Although you can certainly use both approaches while in the outlining stage, you’re more likely to be tapping into the second, via your logical brain. In so doing, concentrate on finding settings that help you take full advantage of the following opportunities.

1. Consciously Choose Awesome Alternatives

Whenever I sit down to outline a new scene, one of my first questions is: “Where is this taking place?” In fact, if ever I find myself stuck on plotting a scene, very often it’s because I haven’t yet asked this question. As long as my setting remains nebulous, my conflict never kicks into high gear.

Same goes for boring or expected settings. If one of my scenes seems flat or cliché, I step back and consider the setting. If I changed things up and put the characters in an unexpected setting, how would that alter the conflict, either explicitly or implicitly?

Consciously outlining your settings gives you the opportunity to look past the obvious choices to find the most interesting niches within your story world. Don’t give readers the usual 20-buck bus tour. Show them the true beating heart of this unique place.

2. Create Thematic Cohesion

Setting offers perhaps the most integral and vivid symbolism of your story’s theme. The backdrop against which your characters’ adventure plays out will always provide a commentary on that adventure. Choose well and that commentary will offer a subtext all its own.

Just as important, when you make conscious choices about your setting’s impact upon your theme, you’re also able to ensure that setting remains consistent and resonant throughout the story. Instead of selecting random settings for random scenes, you can purposefully bring your theme full circle by reusing certain settings at crucial moments in your plot.

Much better to reuse the same setting five times than to introduce five meaningless settings you never revisit.

3. Deepen Your Understanding of Character

Just as setting provides symbolism to your theme, it is also a commentary on your characters. You can use setting to provide visual dramatization of your character’s inner self. But even if you don’t want to take the subtext to quite this degree, your setting will still frame your readers’ perception of your character.

  • Why is this character in this place at this moment?
  • What’s his opinion of this place?
  • Does he want to stay or go?
  • If he’s been here long, how has this place shaped his life and his viewpoint?

Outlining Your Novel Workbook software logo 228 250The more you know about your settings during your outline, the better you will also understand your important characters and their motivations.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook Computer Program Settings

You can brainstorm and track your best setting options in the Outlining Your Novel Workbook software.

4. To Help You Write Faster Drafts

Finally, figuring out how to outline your settings will help you write better and faster in the first draft. When you’ve planned the setting for each scene, you will never have to stop in medias res to try to figure out the best options.

Even better, you can get your most important research questions out of the way right from the start. Realistic settings are the life’s blood of realistic fiction. Bringing to life foreign (or just plain imaginary) places begins with the little details. If you know what details you’ll need before you start the first draft, you can place them at your fingertips when the writing starts in earnest.

As you’re planning the many other important elements of your story, don’t overlook setting. It not only underpins everything in your story, it also gives you the opportunity to take it all to the next level. Plus, it gives you the excuse to mentally visit some very cool places!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What made you choose the setting you ended up with in your current scene? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. This is one of my favorite parts about writing. Spot on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it’s lots of fun! And yet many writers tend to overlook it or take it for granted. I certainly did in the past before I realized how many awesome possibilities I was leaving on the table.

      • During the space opera(with the theocracy)

        Wouldn’t it be better for the father to be distant from his son and for him to get closer

        Wouldn’t that be a better arc?

        Because how do you make a helicopter father compelling?

  2. Carolyn Egerszegi says

    This week I’ve been working on my setting and what it means in relation to my theme and how I can use it to enhance conflict, so this post comes at the perfect time. Thanks!

  3. I’m well into a Sword and Planet style novel set on Venus. The setting is pretty much the third key character….

  4. I love the way you put this! “Every single scene you write demands a specific, grounded setting. And every single one of those settings offers you the opportunity to either deepen and strengthen your story—or weaken it.” Such good advice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s more or less true for everything in a novel. It’s always a sum of its parts!

  5. #2. Create Thematic Cohesion and #3 Deepen Your Understanding of Character spoke the loudest to me. Nice examination of a much passed over tool.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      IMO, everything comes back to theme–especially character. So it all ties together nicely. 🙂

      • During the space opera(with the theocracy)

        Wouldn’t it be better for the father to be distant from his son and for him to get closer

        Wouldn’t that be a better arc?

        Because how do you make a helicopter father compelling?

  6. Jenni G. says

    Love this! Settings are a huge factor in how much I enjoy a book, and dreaming them up for my own novel has been loads of fun.

    Settings are also the reason why the First Act and the Resolution are usually my favorite parts of a story (excepting the glorious Midpoint, of course). I love the bittersweet experience of contrasting a setting I was introduced to early on with how it appears near the end. It can really highlight how the protagonist has changed over the course of the story. Dramatizing the character’s inner self, like you said. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! I love the framing technique of returning to a changed Normal World in the story’s finale.

  7. John Cryar says

    No matter what I write about I build the world, from a simple room to a planet, first. How can you fully develop a character without knowing intimate details? In my memoir I’m writing I’ve built several prison cells and now I’m world building for a fantasy novel. This building process helps so much that I don’t think about some critical detail until I have one of those ‘Oh yeah’ moments. Thx for your work. Happy trails, John

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We’re defined by our setting as much as we define them. It’s definitely a powerful characterizing tool.

  8. Thank you for this. (Yum. Munchy, crunchy ideas to ponder.) Setting in general tends to be my weakness, though I’ve been working on fixing that these last couple years. My story is a sort of fantasy road trip, so figuring out how to re-use or echo settings has been a challenge. One thing I’m doing is making places like `the fireside of their current camp’ and `the inside of specific tents’ which can carry over.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Learning to write fantasy was a huge step forward for me in also learning how to make the most of settings. You can’t write good fantasy without having solid worldbuilding to help readers suspend disbelief.

  9. Yesterday, I read the part in Outlining your novel about setting and realised that a) the two settings in my story are almost characters themselves and b) Ik didn’t give them any serious thought yet.
    So this post is very timely. Thank you!


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like you get to start asking some very fun questions about your settings now. 🙂

  10. In the novel I’m currently polishing, I’d originally sketched out miniatures of every scene on 6×4 sheets of paper. It was intuitive, as I found I had a set of scenes I could visualize as key nodes in the story, so I made a point of sketching these. It made sense that setting was a key factor in each one, so I made a detailed sketch of that setting from sight, sound, smell, taste (always like the incentive of some food, or it’s a dark terrifying place, the taste of fear), sometimes even some vignettes that open a window into the setting’s history. The result when I wrote the first draft was twofold: clarity when it came to describing the setting and the ability to focus on the story; it was like fitting furniture in place — and in later drafts my editor has often commented on how great the writing is there, gorgeous descriotion, etc (unintentional, I was just fitting things in!). However, it also led to overloaded scenes. I didn’t understand the power of Scrivener or wikis at the time, so needless to say the second draft required chopping out whole pages and moving them to cut scene documents — but still, taking the time to map out the settings left an imprint there in the scenes where I’d extracted, kind of like I just *knew* that place because it was already familiar.

  11. Saja bo storm says

    Location, Location, Location! Realtor’s proclaim. That should be a writer’s mantra as well. Paris, France on New Years Eve is the setting for my new story. One of the main protagonists is a financial consultant who decides to quit his job, leave his fiancée (with her approval) and follow his passion for cooking. She returns the engagement ring so he can sign up for a culinary adventure at Le Cordon Bleu.
    But Katie, I don’t want to showcase a Paris that my readers already know or perceive so I guess I’ll be researching and outlining in the hopes of stumbling across something spectacular. And my budget isn’t allowing a visit to Paris right now. Especially since it didn’t cost me anything to visit the planet Ora. (smile).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, this is kinda why I migrated to fantasy. So much easier to make up your own details to fill in your research gaps. 😉

  12. Max Woldhek says

    My first two books (and the next two I have planned after that) take place in a Fantasy setting on another world, so writing down the world-building is kinda essential. I need to flesh it out more, but for now I’ve got notes on stuff like – checks document – monastic orders, sexuality, important supernatural entities, how the military is structured, geography, cities, tattoos, historical persons, etc.

    I’m also looking for artists on Deviantart who do commissions, so I can get pictures of characters, landscapes, animals etc from my setting for inspiration and to put on my eventual website if the stars ever come right (fhtagn!) and I manage to get published.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Fantasy is great for prompting deeper introspection into settings. It kinda goes with the territory!

  13. Being my first attempt at a full length novel and also basing the MC on myself, I found it easier to set it in my hometown, even if I never name it in the book.

    For specific scenes, there’s often real life locations I can visualize and describe. Even for totally made up settings, such as the hospital where the current scene takes place, I’m studying the layout in my mind. Where’s the reception desk, waiting room, ER, patient rooms, nurses stations, etc? I want to have these locked down so when I’m writing I don’t have to stop and worry that I’ve made a logical error related to location.

    This piece has made me think of how I can select these real and fictional locations to be symbolically linked to the story. If the couple is sitting in a parked care in the parking lot of an abandoned elementary school, what kind of vibe does that give? Can it touch on the story? Because they were in a place they weren’t supposed to be, doing something they weren’t supposed to, as they left I had a police car follow them down the street for awhile to create anxiety in the characters, helping them realize that their business was risky.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve only written two books (A Man Called Outlaw and Storming) that were set in places familiar to me. I’ve always said I like to write fiction that takes me to faraway places, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed writing about the familiar, particularly in Storming, which is set in my hometown.

  14. This only kind of relates to setting, and you don’t have to cover it if you don’t like, but have you ever considered a post on coming up with fantasy slang and expressions? It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about recently, as common expressions have so much to do with place and if you’re inventing your place, you can have a bit of fun with it- but at the same time, to really fit the world, the expressions have to have a lot of thought behind them. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If I ever perfect a system, I’ll post on it. But for now, I just kinda bumble along. :p

  15. For my first two books, I chose settings with which I was familiar and which I could visit easily and inexpensively for necessary research. It helped that they were upscale, glitzy locations, like Palm Beach and the Main Line of Philadelphia. For my current thriller, I start in New York City in a neighborhood I know well, and then move to the North Fork of Long Island with a variety of settings there: the Sound, Peconic Bay, the vineyards and marinas, and deserted little beaches. I chose the North Fork because it is less well known than the Hamptons, and because I am eager to explore it further. I love researching locations/settings, and visualizing my characters in precise settings.

  16. Hello Paradise,

    Outlining my settings never really crossed my mind! Makes sense though. Not sure I’ve been doing it, but I’ve written down characteristics, Capitol cities, maps etc. But on a deeper level I should use them to deepen character, use it to how his inner feelings. Great points!

    May the force be with you

  17. I’ve outlined my three major settings and many of their smaller parts. I have maps and historical scenes/details. I’ve written so much (too much?) and a lot has foundational bearing on my pseudo-fantasy epic, but I have two questions:

    1. Where do I unload this info in the story?
    2. How do I know how much is enough or too much?

    I don’t want to cure the reader’s insomnia.


    PS — I enjoyed the Scrivener seminar, thanks for that, too.

  18. Dear K.M.
    I loved your article very much. I began a comment but then I realized that I had so many things to say. Since using your blog to say that much would have been inappropriate, I decided to create my own blog. Please, take it as a comment :-). Thank you for sharing your thoughts. They have been refreshing.
    Best Regards,

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