When writing a story, the setting — or storyworld — should be an expression of the hero.
- If the main character is enslaved, the story world should be enslaving.
- If the character is freed, the storyworld should be freeing.
The storyworld should also exacerbate the main character’s weakness.
What Is A Fictional Storyworld Made Of?
No matter what kind of story you’re writing, spend time creating a rich and detailed story world.
- PERIOD – a story’s place in time
- DURATION – a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours.
- LOCATION – a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
- ARENA – inside that location, there will be an ‘edge’ to your story, kind of like a computer game.
- MANMADE SPACES – buildings, roads, bridges, cities, villages, houses, etc
- NATURAL SETTINGS – deserts, rivers, mountains, islands, forests, beaches, etc
- WEATHER – This might rely on pathetic fallacy, e.g. the character is sad so it is raining. Or sunny weather might make a sad character feel even worse.
- TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – There may or may not be some technology which your plot will rely on. In some genres (especially science fiction) this technology will be central.
- LEVEL OF CONFLICT – the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.
A Big Misconception About Setting
John Truby has said that some writers think that storyworld is only important in myth and fantasy stories. Not anymore. In the past storytelling didn’t care about storyworld that much. That’s because it slows down narrative drive. For a while, dwelling on setting was one of the worst sins you could commit. Whereas describing storyworld offers a 360 degree view, narrative drive is going in one direction at top speed. In this way, the two are direct opposites.
But an interesting storyworld is a vital basis for a successful story. In the last decade, storyworld has become hugely important in every medium. The viewer immerses themselves in the world you have created for them. The audience must want to visit this world again and again.
How do you describe your storyworld without slowing down the story?
- Hang the world on the desire line of the hero.
- Don’t stop and explain the entire world at the beginning of the story. At each step the hero takes to get the goal stop and explain another chunk of the story world.
How To Make A Storyworld Come Alive
The Chocolate War is set in a run-down Catholic boys’ school, an inhospitable place to anyone at the bottom of the pecking order. Cormier personifies the school, turning it into an inhospitable desert landscape, though it’s only a sports field.
The wind rose, kicking puffs of dust from the football field. The field needed seeding. The bleachers also needed attention — they sagged, peeling paint like leprosy on the benches. The shadows of the goalposts sprawled on the field like grotesque crosses.
— The Chocolate War, description of a boys’ Catholic school, Robert Cormier
Cormier makes the school setting come alive by using verbs usually reserved for people (kicking), and by giving the benches a disease only humans can get (leprosy). The word ‘sprawling’ is interesting because it’s so commonly used for things as well as people that we’re used to its metaphorical use by now. Suburbs can now ‘sprawl’ and we don’t consider this an example of personification. Yet ‘sprawl’ suggests the goalposts themselves mean to seem imposing. The goalposts have zero motivation of their own — this is obviously how the character feels about the goalposts. Verbs like sprawl are really useful to writers because of their status as ‘almost metaphors’. Use these and avoid heavy-handedness.
One beautiful thing we can do with any setting is to “seed” it with emotional triggers. These triggers are symbols which are important to the protagonist in some way, influencing what he thinks, feels, and does. … These setting triggers lead to emotional decision-making and the actions that result will change the story’s trajectory.
Create the world that serves your story and make no apologies or justifications for how that world came to be.
John Truby explains that in any fantasy, we have two tracks:
- the fantasy track
- the reality track it represents
Other stories tend to use the institution to represent the city, but fantasy stories tend to invert that and instead find a metaphor for the city. Instead of locking the city down to a regulated organisation, fantasy opens the city up by imagining it as a kind of natural setting, like a mountain or a jungle. One advantage of this technique is that it makes the overwhelming city a single unit, with special traits the audience can recognise. But more important, it hints at the tremendous potential of the city, for both good and bad.
Sometimes the city as ocean metaphor is used. In fantasy stories, the main way to do this is to make the city dwellers literally float. Not only does this give them the power to fly, but also, when characters float, ceilings become floors, nothing is locked down, and people can experience the ultimate freedom that comes from imagining things together. This floating is a metaphor for the potential that is hidden within the mundane city; when you approach the predictable world in a new way, suddenly everything becomes possible. (Non-fantasy movies instead rely on the eye of the camera to convey the city as an ocean, with the camera gliding along gabled rooftops then dipping down below the “ocean’s surface” and into an open window.