Writing Tips: Creating And Describing Your Setting

January 9, 2021

In science fiction and fantasy writing, and speculative fiction in general, the setting plays just as important a role as the characters. Whether your location is a real place, an imagined one, or an imagined version of a real place, a good setting can help turn a dull story into an interesting one, and a great story into a masterpiece.

Creating Your Location

Oftentimes, in speculative fiction, your settings will be imagined. Creating a new town, country, or world can be a fun process, but it takes some work. Even if you’re only going for the basics, there are several details you want to cover to ensure that your setting enhances your reader’s immersion in your story.
What impact will your setting have on the story? For a story that takes place entirely in an asteroid mine, for example, you’ll want to think about the physics and technology involved. Those concepts can be realistic, for hard sci-fi, or entirely imagined (although, even imagined physics should still make sense as they relate to the story.) But they would undoubtedly impact your characters in some way. Do they have to spend the whole story in environmental suits, breathing air from tanks? Does the process of mining present some possibility of risk or danger to them? Are there living facilities onsite, or do they have to travel from somewhere else to get there? What happens if there’s an emergency?

Even a generic setting should impact the story somehow. What time of day is it? What’s the weather like? How easy or difficult is it to traverse the terrain? A simple field of wildflowers is very different on a warm, sunny day than during a flood caused by a nighttime rainstorm.

What parts of your setting will be necessary for the story? If your story were to take place in a high-tech, alien city, what aspects of that city would be the most memorable? An old, run-down, human-built colony on Mars will undoubtedly look very different from the grand, towering capitol of an alien empire on some distant world. But both could be the settings of compelling stories, providing possible plot elements or complications that impact your story and its characters. How do they get around the city if they can’t go outside? If your city is enormous, are there landmarks that help them navigate? Is there a transit system, or do your characters use private vehicles? Are there guarded checkpoints your characters need to pass through to get somewhere?

Do Some Homework

I know, I know. But doing your homework is essential. And it can be fun. Inventing an entire location takes time and effort, but that effort can be rewarding when developing your story. That doesn’t mean you have to create a full language from scratch. But it should mean that you’ve thought enough about the details of your setting that they make sense as far as your story is concerned. Research becomes even more critical if your location is a real place. A car chase on the streets of hilly San Francisco would look very different from a car chase on the long, wide highways of Los Angeles.

Creating the best locations all comes down to the details. Climate, geography, and topography are big ones, but the little things matter, too. Does your city have different neighborhoods? Are the streets compacted dirt, cobblestones, or pavement? Is your forested hillside dense with undergrowth? Do the trees tower majestically over the ground below? Are the air and water clean or polluted? Are the neighborhoods full of low, wood and stone buildings packed tightly together, or graceful, interconnected, crystalline domes? It may take some time to determine all of these details, but, once you’ve done so, and gathered them into a document, spreadsheet, or stack of notecards, you’ll have a hand guide you can refer to whenever you need it.

Describing Your Settings

Compelling, vivid descriptions of your settings will help your reader become immersed in them. Some of this will come down to your particular writing style. But the basis of these descriptions is the same, regardless of how you write. You need to share whatever details will best help your readers easily imagine the settings they’re reading about.
Think about the point of view in your story, and use it. If you’re telling a story from a particular characters’ point of view, imagine how they are seeing and interacting with the setting. Include the details that are important to the plot through that character’s lens. Is it a location they’re familiar with, or somewhere they’ve never been before? If it’s the former, think about how you would describe an area you’re familiar with. If it’s the latter, remember when you last visited someplace new, and the details that stood out to you. Maybe it was the colors, or the smell. Perhaps you were struck by how big and empty, or small and crowded it was.

But how much information is enough, and when have you gone too far? Some readers prefer as much detail as possible, and look for nothing less than an encyclopedic, Tolkienesque tome of worldbuilding. That’s an easy way to turn off other readers, though. It’s not my preference, either. My rule of thumb is to share a few, key details, and then let the reader’s imagination do the rest. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own, multi-page Wiki of my story’s settings. But when I’m determining what details to share, I think about how the setting impacts the part of the story I’m writing, how the characters are viewing and feeling about it, and what aspects of it would be the most memorable to them.

Doing that initial homework, and then filtering the results through the lens of your story’s characters, is a time-tested method for building and describing vivid, richly textured locations that make your stories really come alive.