Monday, January 09, 2023

The Difference Between Setting and World Building

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your novel’s world will change the look and feel of every setting in that world.

Where is your novel set? It’s a basic question every writer can answer, either with a simple location or a description. For example, it’s set in New York vs. it’s set in an alternative Atlanta where magic and technology battle in waves over which one has control.

But look closer at those answers. One is a location, the other is a world.

“New York” can exist in any novel set in a big city. It gives readers a general sense of where the story takes place and what it looks like, but there’s a huge difference between New York in 1763 and New York in 2023.

“Alternative Atlanta” gives you a world that suggests far more than a basic setting for a story. Magic and technology, battling for control, which naturally leads to imagining the kind of people who live here and the problems they might face. It even says what genre this is. (For the curious, this is the world of Kate Daniels in Ilona Andrews’ urban fantasy series

Setting and world building are often used interchangeably, but it's helpful to look at them as two different aspects of a novel.

Setting is the location in which a scene (or book) 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 why what happens there matters to the characters in that world.

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 worlds. Sure, a kitchen is a kitchen is a kitchen, but what happens in each one differs based on the world that kitchen exists in.

A space station kitchen might have rules and procedures for securing objects in case of a sudden gravity loss so they don’t puncture the hull. A fire station kitchen might have racks of easily accessible pots and pans to stash and store quickly in case the fire fighters need to leave in a hurry.
The world of the novel contains all the settings of the novel. And those settings are affected by how the world works.

(Here's more with Get Out of the Kitchen: Using Setting to Help Build Your World)

What Matters in a Setting

Setting is all about putting readers into a location and making it clear where they are.

Settings are targeted, like set dressing on a stage. They’re meant to be used and interacted with to serve a story purpose. Setting shows you a kitchen, and what is normal for a kitchen in that story’s world.

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?
  • What matters to the character?
These are all elements that affect how the characters are going to maneuver through this environment. 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. How the character feels about details in the setting helps show who the character is and how they feel about the world they live in.

If a detail doesn’t affect what’s going on in that scene, or help readers better understand the world or character, it’s usually not needed.

(Here's more with The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

What Matters in World Building

Worlds are all about creating a living and breathing culture that readers can lose themselves in.

Worlds are encompassing; the theater that contains the stage. They provide context for what happens in a scene, and show you how and why kitchens in this world are designed and used in their own unique way. What’s important in world building takes a wider scope.
  • What helps show aspects of the world and/or culture?
  • What rules govern the characters?
  • What inherent conflicts exist?
  • What inherent dangers exist?
  • What inherent rewards exist?
  • What influences a character in this world?
  • What has shaped the lives and beliefs of the characters in this world?
World building details are elements that determine how a character is going to interact with the setting—what they’ll do/say/think 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 are found anywhere, and they affect a character’s choices, motivations, or personal views.

(Here's more with Want Better Descriptions? Describe What Readers Won't Assume)

Setting is where a scene takes place, but world building is why it had to take place there.

This is the critical difference between setting and world building.

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 you 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. Your setting exists inside your story’s world, whatever that world may be.

A New York City Police Station is a world with specific rules and inherent conflicts, just like a fantasy world that has magic and dragons. The larger world still affects the characters, even if it’s more mundane and grounded in our world.

If you fail to create an immersive and realistic police station world, you’ll lose your reader, same as a fantasy writer who creates a weak and implausible fantasy realm.

(Here’s more with 3 Ways to Connect Your World to Your Story)

How You Can Make Your Setting and World Building Work for You

Look at both your settings and your world to seamlessly blend how you describe your story’s environments. You’ll be able to better balance the two sides, because you’ll have a stronger sense of what world building details matter to the setting, and what are generic setting details. You’ll know the difference between a detail that affects the scene and one that affects how the characters feel about the scene (or something in it).

Look 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, as lots of scenes are set in places that can be anywhere, and that’s okay. How many details are specific to your novel?

List the world building details. How many details have meaning for, or influence over, the characters? How many are unique to your novel?

How many of them combine to create a place that could only occur in your novel? These are the details that matter to your novel and story. They likely even turn a generic setting detail into something that carries greater meaning in this particular world.

Hopefully, you’ll see a mix of general and unique 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-specific details that change how readers see those generic details.
  • If it’s heavy on the world building, try adding some setting-specific details that reflect how the world works in this location. If it’s too specific and a little confusing, try adding a few general details to help readers put the unusual details into content.
Mix and match until the setting feels like a real place existing in a larger world.

Layer your settings and world building to create a rich story world with depth.

Not only will thinking of both sides of your story’s world flesh out that world, it’ll make it easier to plot and craft strong characters. You’ll have a better understanding of how the world works, what types of problems could occur in that world, and how the characters have been affected by that world. This also leads to knowing how generic settings (like kitchens) would be different, or would be used differently, in that world.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and list out the details in a random scene in your novel to see which ones are for the setting and which ones are the world. How might you strengthen that scene? If you aren’t sure what scene to use, use the opening scene, as a lot of setting and world building description in found there.

How much world building goes into your setting? And vice versa?

*Originally published January,2016. Last update January 2023.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I try hard not to write about any setting that I have not personally seen, slept in, drank water from, and so forth.

    1. I do make an exception for dying where my characters died, but I'm perfectly willing to sleep there.

      PS, Most of my characters lived and breathed (really), so i can't cheat.

  2. I tend to view the setting of each scene as an additional character in the mix. Bits of visual blended with the internal musings of the flesh and bone characters that sort of double as the setting's dialog. A big oak tree that a has odors and sounds that talk to the characters.
    World building is in the background, a footing for the setting but not dominating.

    1. I love that. I've met plenty of writers who use the "setting as character" before, but that's the first time I've heard the use of sensory details as dialogue. Great way to look at it.

  3. All this makes good sense to me. Thanks for an excellent article, Janice. I suppose that I do a little world building even when not on my sci-fi forays though I tend to set things in the natural world, but then the remote natural world where if you step in a rabbit hole, so far from salvation a twisted or broken ankle can mean your death. Anyway again thank you for a wonderful article.

    1. You're most welcome. Ooo, sounds like fun settings. That adds a ton of inherent conflict and stakes.

  4. if i wrote about characters going back in time to kill a dinosaur, that would be a setting, right?

    1. The premise and plot is them going back in time to kill a dinosaur, but the setting would be "a land and time when dinosaurs existed." More specifically, it would be whatever place that is, such as "what will one day be Montana" or the like.