Where is your novel set? It’s a basic question every writer can answer, either with a simple location or a description. It’s set in New York vs. it’s set in an alternative Atlanta where magic and technology battle in waves over which has control. Our setting says a lot about our novels.
Setting and world building are often used interchangeably, but I’ve found it helpful to look at them as two different aspects of my novel.
Setting is the location in which a scene takes place. It contains all the information needed to understand what’s going on in that scene.
World building is where the story exists. It contains all the information needed to understand that world and what happens there.
Small town life conjures up a different set of images than big city life. A space station is a different world from a fire station. This is why we can have two scenes set in a kitchen, but have them feel like completely different scenes. A kitchen is a kitchen is a kitchen, but what happens in each one differs based on the world that kitchen exists in.
(Here's more on using setting to help build your world)
What Matters in a Setting
Settings are targeted, like set dressing on a stage. They’re meant to be used and interacted with to serve a story purpose. They want to show you a kitchen. With this separation in mind, it’s easy to focus on what’s important in a setting.
- What does the point of view character see?
- What is interacted with?
- What details are vital to understanding that setting?
- What matters to the scene goal?
- What matters to the plot?
These are all elements that affect how the characters are going to maneuver through this environment and interact with it. The details chosen for this scene are all things that relate to the pursuit of the scene’s goal and what happens during that pursuit.
If a detail doesn’t affect what’s going on in that scene, it’s usually not needed for the setting.
(Here's more on knowing what details to use in your setting)
What Matters in World Building
Worlds are encompassing, the theater that contains the stage. They provide context for what happens in a scene, but they don’t care about the various types of kitchens. What’s important in our world building takes a wider scope.
- What rules govern the characters?
- What inherent conflicts exist?
- What inherent dangers exist?
- What inherent rewards exist?
- What influences a character in this world?
These are elements that determine how a character is going to interact with the setting—what they’ll do in that kitchen. They shape the characters’ views on where they live and how they’ll act within that world. They determine the types of problems found in that world.
World building details can belong anywhere they affect a character’s choices, motivations, or personal views.
(Here's more on POV and description)
To me, this is the critical difference. Two scenes set in a kitchen bring certain details to mind, such as a table, a sink, a place to store and cook food. One might have a hearth and another a stainless steel range, but they’re both kitchens.
But put one in a world where food is scarce and the other in the royal palace of a beloved ruler, and the characters see and interact with that kitchen in very different ways. What we choose to describe and what details become important change drastically. The world affects the characters and their choices, and that affects how they interact with that kitchen.
Real world writers…this also applies to you. A New York City Police Station is a world with specific rules and inherent conflicts, just like a fantasy world with magic and dragons. The larger world still affects the characters, even if it’s more mundane and grounded in our world.
How You Can Make Setting and World Building Work for You
Looking at both sides of where your story takes places can help you seamlessly blend your setting and world building details. You’ll be able to balance the two better, because you’ll have a stronger sense of what world building details matter to the scene’s setting, and what are plain setting details. You’ll be able to tell the difference between a detail that affects the scene and one that affects how the characters feel about the scene (or something in it).
Try looking at a scene in your current WIP:
List the setting details. How many of them are generic enough to be found in other stories and other places? (This isn’t a criticism, lots of scenes are set in places that can be anywhere). How many are specific to your novel?
List the world building details. How many of them have meaning for or influence over the characters? How many are unique to your novel?
Now, how many of them combine to create a place that could only occur in your novel? How many turn a generic setting detail into something that carries greater meaning in this particular world?
Hopefully, you’ll see a nice mix of details that paint a solid picture of where the scene takes place and why what’s in the scene is important to the story. If not, try adding (or cutting) any details that throw off that balance. If the setting feels too generic, add some world building details that change how readers see those generic details. If it’s heavy on the world building, try adding some generic details that reflect how the world works in this location. Mix and match until the setting feels like a real place existing in a larger world.
Setting is where a scene takes place, but world building is why it had to take place there.
How much world building goes into your setting? And vice versa?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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