4 Tips for Choosing the Most Immersive Story Settings

4 Tips for Choosing the Most Immersive SettingsOne of the joys of fiction is its ability to transport us to faraway places. Just by cracking the covers of a book, we can visit the far reaches of Bombay or São Paulo and the imaginative wonders of made-up worlds and galaxies. We plan our story settings meticulously, researching details and creating spectacular backdrops.

In light of all that work and fascination, however, we often lose sight of the fact that story settings are more than scenery. They’re the cohesive grounding, the foundation, of the whole story—and as such they need to be used with sparing care.

Anatomy of Story John TrubyIn his marvelously insightful book The Anatomy of Story, film consultant John Truby points out:

Many writers… mistakenly believe that since you can go anywhere, you should. This is a serious mistake, because if you break the single arena of your story, the drama will literally dissipate. Having too many arenas results in fragmented, inorganic stories.

The most powerful stories are inevitably those that are distilled to the most inherent ingredients by removing extraneous information that detracts from their potent focus.

Introducing too many settings is much like introducing a slew of characters: The reader’s attention fragments, and both the writer and the reader have to spend more time and effort to keep track of details and orient their emotional connection.

4 Important Story Setting Considerations

Following are some tips for distilling your settings to the perfect number:

1. Choose Your Primary Story Settings Wisely

Story settings should never be an arbitrary decision. Instead of throwing your characters into the first locale that pops to mind, consider the needs of your story. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in this setting, so you need to choose a place that will enhance the requirements of your plot.

For Example:

Markus Zusak original conceived of his award-winning Book Thief as set in modern-day Australia before realizing the Death-as-the-narrator premise would find a much more resonant setting in Nazi Germany during World War II.

The Book Thief uses its World War II setting to appropriately set up its plot and themes.

2. Utilize and Explore Your Primary Story Settings

Once you’ve decided upon an interesting primary setting, take advantage of it. If your character is in a prisoner of war camp, a spaceship, a cattle ranch, or a Victorian mansion, then use every nook and cranny to further your story and hold your reader’s attention. Readers would much rather explore one fascinating setting, rather than catch only a glimpse of half a dozen.

For Example:

Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus takes full advantage of his magical setting in an enchanted black-and-white circus. The book is arguably more about its gorgeous setting than it is the plot itself.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

3. Combine Story Settings

Streamline your sub-settings by combining them wherever possible. Instead of sending your protagonist to a restaurant, a pub, and a food fair, try combining them. This accomplishes several things:

  • It eliminates the need to describe a new setting in every scene.
  • It allows readers the satisfaction of returning to a familiar place.
  • It presents deepening layers of possibilities with recurring minor characters.

For Example:

In my critique partner Linda Yezak’s Cat Lady’s Secret, all the characters eat at Clara’s Diner, instead of random restaurants around town, which allows this one setting and its resident characters to be more fully developed.

the cat ladys secret by linda yezak

4. Foreshadow Your Story Settings

Maintaining only the needed number of story settings allows you unprecedented opportunities for foreshadowing. When important scenes occur in familiar settings, it’s that much easier to lay the groundwork in earlier scenes, thus bringing your characters full circle and providing a gratifying sense of closure for readers.

For Example:

James Hilton’s Random Harvest brings its amnesia love story full circle when the protagonist returns to the village setting from the beginning of the movie, where he finally remembers his wife.

Random Harvest uses its story settings to foreshadow its ending.

As one of the most important resources in your possession, settings need to be utilized wisely and frugally, so they can bring their full impact to the story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are the primary story settings in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I think it depends on the story more than anything else. The first thing I immediately thought was that many of the thrillers I’ve read often don’t have a primary setting (the characters being in some form of transit for entire book), and often have many, many different settings. Very different type of story than a detective novel where the MC never leaves his small town while he investigates the crime. There I could see a primary setting and limiting the settings.

    Granted, the settings shouldn’t just mysteriously appear in the story without regard for flow or logic. I have at least ten settings in mine, but each one is transitioned either by the events or the characters themselves. Oddly, one of them came in during the first draft, and I kept taking it out because it didn’t seem important. Eventually, it became the centerpiece of the story itself!

  2. One thing about thrillers and their multiple settings is that they usually have a connecting thread. In the Bourne movies, for example, all the varied settings have a similiar feel. We follow Bourne all over the world, but everywhere we go has a feeling of continuity. Nothing jars.

  3. I like the idea of combining settings.

    I once read settings should be treated like another character, but not to add too many of these characters (settings) or the reader will get confused. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Well put. In many respects, settings *are* characters in their own rights. Nothing wrong with long, rambling novels with dozens of characters and settings, but if you want a tight story, less is more.

  5. The setting overtakes some stories I’ve read to the point where I stop reading. The author gets so involved with the “where” rather than looking after and evolving the “who”.

    It’s finding that balance which is important.

    In the old classics the setting was important and page after page was devoted to the environment. But today’s readers want more brevity. The skill is creating an atmosphere where the reader can do most of the conjuring and still allow themselves to be carried along with the story.

  6. Indeed. Balance is always the key word in crafting good fiction. Some stories can support a setting that is as large as the characters themselves, but not many.

  7. I think a good way to work on concentrating your settings is to think of them as if they were in a play. Plays are way more limited in “where you can go” and will force you to condense similar settings and focus on the important ones.

    Or you could just say screw it and give your characters a quest plot.

  8. I’ve always encouraged writers to think of their stories as movies, to help them get a better sense of the physical space in which their characters are moving. But, in this instance, a play is even better. Good thought.

    And, yes, obviously this advice doesn’t apply to journey stories. Journey stories find their solidarity in place in the road or the vehicle in which the characters are traveling.

  9. I think this is a very important element. My current project takes place in only two settings–well, three if you include a short jaunt to the beach. But it’s much simpler that way.

  10. You could technically say my current WiP consists of multiple settings in that the MC visits several different portions of the same city, but I’ve found it strange to not have the journey story where the characters go to different portions of the world.

    In that sense though, the city becomes the world and the buildings/city districts become the settings. If that makes any sense.

  11. Great post! Do you think setting varies a bit in hero journeys? Usually the MC is on a quest, which by nature would take them to different settings. Great food for thought.

  12. @Galadriel: Nothing wrong with complexity, but it’s amazing how much depth we can find in simplicity.

    @Matthew: Makes perfect sense. You could ultimately claim that every different room in a house is a different setting. But, obviously, limiting the settings to one or two rooms would be ridiculous for most stories. In some stories, an entire city (or even planet) *is* the setting, and the places within it are just subsettings. It depends how the author presents it.

    @Tara: Yes. Journey stories are an obvious exception. But as I pointed out in a previous comment, journeys usually find a solidarity of setting through other means, either just via the road itself, or through some type of vehicle, e.g. the raft in Huckleberry Finn.

  13. Brilliant! I’ve noticed this in books I’ve read — this feeling of drowning in settings. I often wonder if I have the opposite problem, if I could just break out of that one small town in my head, then maybe my characters could end up somewhere amazing.

  14. Finding one “amazing” setting doesn’t mean you have to explore dozens in search of it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of mixing and matching until you find the right one. I always know when I’ve found the right setting for a story; it just *feels* right.

  15. I like how you provide specific tips in using setting within narrative. Setting is so important in advancing key aspects of a story. Thanks.

  16. Fiction is like an intricate tapestry: pull one string and the whole thing falls apart. And setting is certainly one of the most important strings.

  17. Good point. I’ve kept mine mainly in one town revolving around one mountain on a farm. I’m trying to make the mountain a real part of the story and how it reveals secrets of those around it:)

  18. Sounds like you’re on the right track. Another thing about limited settings is that you have more time and space to devote to development.

  19. Anonymous says:

    My character is on a journey at the moment, and I can already see many ways your post will make this quest more interesting. I’ve been haphazardly describing many random places and the events that occur therein, but I shall bear in mind your tip of “combining settings.” Some scenes I’ve staged across several places could be mashed into one. Thanks for the post.

    -whisper

  20. Journey stories – and scenes – can be tricky, since the journey is integral to the story, but you also don’t want the reader to become disconnected from the world of the story.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I’ve grown to hate most literature journeys… reading them and, I’ve discovered of late, writing them. I dislike how they’re so disconnected from the plot, and I have the misfortune to have my character traveling alone. That minimizes character development, as there is little dialogue and character interaction. 🙂 Any advice?

  22. Anonymous says:

    Ah, sorry, the above post, and this as well, are from whisper.

  23. I’m not a fan of journeys either. They’re very hard to pull off well, for the reasons you mentioned. My best advice would be to avoid them wherever possible, condense them if you must have them, and bring a sense of continuity by giving your character traveling companions who can create conflict and interest.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Thank you very much for your advice, I shall employ it. You are a very kind and helpful lady, Miss Weiland!

    -whisper

  25. My pleasure!

  26. Awesome info! I’ll definitely keep this in mind as I push on into the stories I’m writing 🙂

    Squeaks.

  27. Hope it comes in handy. Happy writing!

  28. I’m guilty of not using enough settings probably! I’m fond of using one room for 10000 words. Hee!~

    My current novel in progress is about isolation setting is narrowed as the novel continues.

  29. Sounds to me like you’re doing a good job manipulating the world of your story to fit the story’s thematic needs.

  30. Wow, thanks for the post.
    In my wip I have two main settings and I have weaved the narrative between the two. I didn’t want to have too many settings and overwhelm the reader.

  31. I can’t see how you can go wrong with just two settings. Sounds like a solid grounding for your story.

  32. Belle L. says:

    Love the picture you used for this week’s post! 😉

  33. Thanks! I thought it was lovely myself.

  34. Interesting… but again, more work 🙁

  35. Thanks for the post here, I better keep this in mind, when I write my next story.

    Weird question, is writing down a list of predetermined settings in the outline (and just stick the settings written down) a good idea or is that a bit too restricting?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I do it. 🙂 Settings are something that can end up being very arbitrary, so I try to get them figured out early on. Saves me time whenever I begin a new scene too: I’m not sitting there ready to roll with the action but hung up on *where* it’s taking place.

  36. You had me at John Truby. You know I’m a fan of his book and master class.

    Another interesting thing I found about setting in fiction is its role those phenomenal best sellers (e.g., Harry Potter and the like). The big sellers tend to feature limited and expertly detailed settings. Not always–but often. So naturally, detailed settings are my writing weakness… lol Working on that, though.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah, yes, Truby rocks. Agree about immersive settings. When you’re lucky enough to have a setting that becomes a character in its own right, good things happen.

  37. I’ve tended to favour real world settings that I am familiar with and can readily access in order to build them up in the story and give them nuance.

    Recently, I posted about an exciting and somewhat accidental discovery I made with VR and an app that allows me to virtually visit any place I want. It has totally revolutionized my approach to setting and has allowed me to be more ambitious with what I bring to setting.

    These tips of yours K.M. feed perfectly into the methodology I’ve adopted.

    Thank you!

  38. Tom Youngjohn says:

    Good idea. I almost let the opportunity “explore” the setting slip past me. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a surprisingly easy thing to let slip past–and the story can be transformed when we catch it!

  39. The settings I have in mind thus far are the home of my female lead ( particularly the dining and living room and the upstairs artist loft, also the male lead’s home ( but only the yard leading to the beach) . The story takes place on the shore. The setting for many scenes is the pavilion on the boardwalk ( where concerts are held and where fireworks are watched). Also, I am including a seafood restaurant for date night.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Even just knowing that little about your setting, it sounds fabulous! It’s interesting (and exotic to most of us), with a nice use of reasonably unusual architecture (loft, beach yard, pavilion).

  40. M.L. Bull says:

    Great, helpful post! I need to plan out the settings for my standalone novel ‘With You Forever’. I know what the main settings will be, just need to outline them. I must admit though, it’s not exactly my favorite thing of writing because it can be time-consuming, especially for fictional places that don’t really exist. That’s how my “Words by Heart Saga” series is, in a fictional city. I’ll just have to try to make it fun, I guess. lol :p

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m just getting to this phase in my outline for Dreambreaker as well. I’m really excited, since there are so many options for great settings in fantasy.

  41. Chris Boje says:

    Hi. I have three very clear settings for my novel; the problem is, I’m terrified I’m spreading myself too thin. Let me try and explain:
    My protagonist is a 12 year old boy living in an extremely poor and rundown London neighbourhood during World War II. He has been adopted by a low-life couple. who have only taken him in to train him as a thief so they can avoid work and live a hedonistic life. They verbally abuse and threaten him, continually instilling in him the idea that he is worthless, which he comes to believe. SO, this first setting is to show the protagonist’s daily routine, that is hideous, but that is all he knows.
    Things come to a head, where he finally refuses to rob from an old neighbour that has shown him kindness, so the couple decide they no longer have any use for him and they set him up. He is caught stealing by the police, tipped off by our scumbag layabouts.
    Setting two: His capture coincides with the evacuation of children from London to the countryside at the start of the war. But, because of his dodgy background, he is not placed with a loving family, but is sent to an orphanage/borstal in the countryside that has been set up to house all the urchins considered to be too violent, ‘retarded’, or in any other way so socially unacceptable that no ‘normal’ family should be expected to put up with them. This setting is necessary – at least in my head it is! – because, although he chooses to keep his own company (life is cruel and unfair, so the only way to survive is to look after number one), over time, he is forced to socialise and co-habit with three other ‘misfits’ of the orphanage, in order to formulate a plan of escape from this fraudulent institution – it is run by two vile sisters who treat the children harshly and who are only interested in stashing away the subsidies provided by the government. My protagonist joins forces reluctantly, but it is really one of his deepest desires. Anyway, they escape – I won’t bother to elaborate.
    Setting 3: Chased through the streets by workers at the orphanage, the ‘fellowship’ desperately seek refuge. They find a street drain that takes them to the basement of an upper class boys’ school (think Eton) where they find they can exist through the protagonist’s thieving talents. They make a home underground. However, there comes a juncture where the boy is forced to steal a uniform and act as if he belongs at the school, which is of course unnerving for him because he lacks education and an understanding of the culture. However, they overcome a number of challenges and even begin to enjoy their new life, when they stumble onto documents that reveal that the boys’ favourite teacher is really a Nazi spy in disguise, sent on a fact-finding mission that will aid Hitler in his invasion of England. Only our gang know about it, and they cannot tell anyone else, or they will reveal their own false identities. They must bring down the spy in order to evade being sent back to the orphanage, but also to save England.

    Oh God, I’m sorry! I hadn’t intended to write a lengthy synopsis..it just seemed the best way of showing the importance of the settings.

    Can I have three settings? Should I try to merge the London setting with the orphanage?

    Help, please! I feel completely lost.

    Many thanks for any comment
    Chris

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First of all: your story sounds awesome! Lovely premise.

      Second: three settings are very reasonable, and all of these seem pertinent to the story.

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