Setting and World Building | Elements of a Novel – Part 3

Elements of a Novel: Setting and world buildingWelcome to Part Three of the Elements of a Novel Series! Today we’re focusing on setting and world building! (ICYMI, here are the links to Part One: Creating Characters and Part Two: Choosing a Plot Structure.)

This is the last element we’re going to talk about before we start moving through the general structure of a novel. This post is going to look at the role setting and world play in your story, the difference between them, and the specifics of what you might want to consider developing within each.

Let’s get started!

How does Setting and World Building inform your story?

The setting and world play a role in creating the feel and backdrop for your story. For example, books that are set in big cities often feel very different than books that are set in small towns. And books that are set in mystical fantasy lands feel very different than books set in this real and modern world.

World and setting also play a role in what events can and can’t happen in your story. For example, if you set your story in modern Florida, it wouldn’t make sense for a series of snowstorms to occur in your story because snow in that region is pretty rare. However, if you set your book in the Northeast, that would be more believable. Similarly, you couldn’t write a story set in modern times in the modern world with trolls and elves as co-workers for your character because we don’t have trolls and elves in this world. However, with some world building, you can create a new reality for your story to exist in.

Setting

What is setting?

Setting is where your story takes place. You can set your story in a real place that already exists or you can use world building to create a setting. (More on that later.) Setting includes both the time and physical spaces your story takes place in.

What do you need to develop in setting?

Even if you’re not using world building to create a setting from scratch, you’ll likely need to consider and develop several aspects of your setting. The specifics of what you need to develop will be unique to your story, but here are the key elements that will likely be true for everyone.

When your story takes place

When your story takes place is important for both historical and practical purposes. Historically, you need to know what current events are happening at the time of your story. This will help you to create a real and vivid world. If you’re setting your book in the U.S. in the late 1800s, that’s the gilded age. What does that mean for your characters? Practically, the “when” of your story will also dictate the level of technological and social development in your story. This will inform what can and can’t happen to your characters. If you’re setting it in the 1970s, consider the available technology. It would make sense for your characters to get their news from the TV, but if your book were set in the 1930s, the radio would be more common.

Your main character’s home base

Where is your main character’s home base? This includes both the city or town they live in and the building they spend most of their time in. This home base may or may not be your character’s “home.” For example, in the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the home base for the core group of characters was the school’s library. It was the only place in town that had the information the characters needed to access on a regular basis and was safe for the characters to meet discuss the latest supernatural threat. Your characters will likely need their own regular, safe meet up spot. It can be your main character’s actual home, but it doesn’t have to be.

 The places your characters frequent

Home base may be your most used location, but it’s unlikely that your characters will stay cooped up in one place for the entire length of your story. So in addition to your character’s home base, there will be a handful of places your characters will frequent that you will need to create. This can include where they work, go to school, eat, have fun, and visit with friend and family. A good example is Gilmore Girls. In this case, I would say that the Gilmore home is home base, but Lorelai and Rory also regularly spend time at Luke’s Diner, The Inn where Lorelai works, Chilton where Rory goes to school, and Lorelai’s parents’ house, to name a few. Developing key locations will go along way in creating a real and believable setting for your story. You can use some light world building to create these locations like the creators of Gilmore Girls or can use places that exist in real life.

Towns, cities, and countries your characters live in and visit

You also need to develop or research any town/city/country your characters live in and visit. Even if your character isn’t there for that long, you need to be able to give a decent description and feel of the location. It’s also important to give your readers a sense of where they are in the world, so be sure to at least mention where the town/city and country your story is taking place in. It always helps to visit a location if you’re going to write about it, but if you can’t, try using Google Maps. Here’s a post on how I use Google Maps to help with my setting!

Note

If you’re setting your story in a historical time period or a setting you’re unfamiliar with, be sure to do your research! You may not get everything right, but do your best anyway. Glaring inaccuracies can become distractions and take your reader out of the story.

World Building

What is World Building?

World building is when you create the locations and city/towns/countries/worlds your story is set it. Every story will likely need some level of world building, but the extent will depend on where and when your story is set.

What do you need to develop in World Building?

How much you need to develop will depend on how close you want your story to stick to reality. If you’re setting your book in this modern world, you may only need some light world building. If you’re writing a high-fantasy, Lord of the Rings style, you’ll need heavier world building. Below, we’re going to look at the different levels of world building and the rough areas to consider in each level. For a detailed list of elements to develop for fictional and fantasy worlds, check out this post!

Light World Building

Light World Building is for when you’re setting a story in this world, but you don’t want to rely on real places and location. So instead, you create your own. Going back to the Gilmore Girls example, that show is a good instance light world building. The town of Stars Hollow doesn’t really exist, but small towns like it do. Luke’s Diner doesn’t really exist, but diners like it do. Most books, shows, and movies use light world building to create the setting and environment for their characters.

Relying on real places can become tedious. They constantly evolve and you may find that some aspect of the real world location just doesn’t fit your story as you need it to. Using light world building to create locations very similar to the ones we have in the real world give you flexibility as a writer, while still grounding your story in a world your reader is used to. I used light world building for my books. If you want more on this, I did a post on how to create a fictional world within our own.

Medium World Building

I consider medium world building to be any story that uses magical, mystical, science fiction, or similar elements in this world. Stories like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Timeless, Superman, etc, all have outlandish fictional elements that had to be created and built to fit into this world. The setting and/or natural laws of these stories are slightly different than our reality, but they’re still set in this world. In this case, it’s important to develop and explain what makes your character’s world different from ours. If there are supernatural or magical elements, those need to be developed in a way that makes sense with the world we live in. These elements and other magical aspects will also need their own history and origin stories. And because you’re still setting the story in this world, it’s important that the elements you’re creating believably work with the laws and circumstances of our world.

Heavy World Building

Heavy World Building is where you have to create a completely different world for your story. This includes whole countries with maps, races, magical elements, etc. This kind of world building is most common in fantasies like Lord of the Rings, Throne of Glass, and Game of Thrones. These stories are not set in this world that we live in and had to be created completely from scratch. There is also a more science fiction aspect to heavy world building that can include any story set in other planets or in outer space, like Firefly. In these cases, the worlds, planets, and systems need to be completely created. They are often removed enough from our world that maps need to be drawn and they’re different enough from the world we live in to need significant development.

Note:

These distinctions are just guidelines, you might fall somewhere in between. For example, I would consider Harry Potter and The Mortal Instruments series to fall between medium and heavy world building. They both have a fictional magic world, but it’s a subset of this world. So a whole new world with maps didn’t need to be created like in a Lord of the Rings style fantasy, but the interworkings and locations of the magical worlds did need to be created from scratch.

I hope this helps you with your setting and world building!

Now it’s your turn: What do you think about when you’re first creating your setting? What about world building? Tell me about it in the comments!

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How to Write Backstory: When & How Much to Reveal

Writing Backstory

Backstory is important because it tells you, the writer, what your characters have been through before you start your story. It also helps to inform how your characters will handle and react to problems when they pop up in your book. In order to write your novel, you need to know everything there is to know about each of your characters. You need to know about their secrets, their experiences, and every major defining moment they’ve had in their lives. You also need to know just as much about the world you’ve created.

Most of these details are fascinating from a character and world building standpoint. They also play a large role in how you as a writer will approach your work. However, most of those details don’t play a direct role in the story. Which means if you share too much backstory with your reader, they’ll likely end up bogged down, overloaded, and lost.

It can be hard to strike a balance between moving your story forward and filling your readers in on what’s happened in the past. Because of that, we need to be selective in what we share and when we share it. To help with that, here are the six guidelines I use when including backstory in my books.

At the start of the book, only reveal the essentials

For me, the beginning is the trickiest part of any book with regard to backstory. You often need a decent amount of backstory to get readers into your novel. They need to know who your character is, what they’re life’s like when we meet them, and what world we’re entering. It may be tempting to get all of this info to your readers as fast as possible, but don’t do it! That’s info dumping and it’s generally something you want to avoid. If you throw too much information at your readers too fast, you’ll create a lot of confusion for them. It also tends to make your book uninteresting because you’re doing an awful lot of telling, which makes it hard for your readers to experience your novel. And if they’re either confused or disinterested, they’re likely to close your book and never return.

Instead, take a minute to consider the absolute essentials a person would need to know to get your story going and understand what’s happening in the opening scene. When in doubt, included even less backstory than you think you may need. Then ask an early reader for feedback. If they’re confused because they don’t have enough info, you can add more backstory to address their specific concerns. In my experience, it can be hard for a reader to tell you what information they don’t need if you’ve given them too much. All they know is that it’s too much and they’re overwhelmed. But if readers are confused because they’re lacking information, they can typically ask more specific guiding questions. This way you can be sure that what you’re including is what’s needed and no more.

Going forward, only reveal info if/when it plays a role

Now that you’ve got your story off the ground, there’s probably plenty more you need or want to convey to the reader. But you still need to be careful not to overwhelm them and not to lead them too far away from your main plot. To help with that, I suggest using the same principle we talked about in the first point; only give your reader what they absolutely need to know when they absolutely need to know it.

For example, let’s say your book has a king in it. And the king has a complicated history with your bad guy. You should avoid telling your reader about this complicated history until their history is relevant to the story. If you think it’s best, you can tell your readers early on that a history between the two exists, but you don’t need to share the specifics until your reader needs it. Or if you want it to be a plot twist, you can keep everything from your reader until the big reveal.

Keep it brief

Generally speaking, the less intrusive you are with backstory, the better it will be for your reader. So when you have to give some info, do your best to weave it into the scene or conversation as briefly and simply as you can.

The one time I don’t follow this rule: if/when my characters are talking about their histories to each other. Typically, this acts as a way to both convey the necessary information and as a way for my characters to bond. Others may disagree with me, but this is the one time I’ll personally allow a mini-info dump. This is largely because as a reader, I enjoy reading scenes like this. I like seeing characters either purposefully opening up to each other or being put in situations where they have to confess their pasts in a way that makes them really uncomfortable. In fact, I live for it! So, since it’s the kind of thing I like to read, it’s absolutely the kind of thing I’m going to write–whether I “should” do it this way or not.

Though, just a quick note if you’re going to take this approach. It’s still important to keep the conversation and backstory as relevant to the story as possible. In other words, there needs to be a reason Character A is sharing info with Character B, not just because you want them to share.

If you can’t keep it brief, consider a dream or flashback

Sometimes, there’s too much info to share to keep it brief. In these cases, the best trick to avoid a direct info dump is to actually write the scene as it happened for your characters. You can do this with either a dream or a flashback. I’ve used both of these techniques in my books! They work particularly well if your character is traumatized or haunted by something from their past. It’s also helpful if you’re trying to convey the dynamics of an already established relationship. It’s one thing for your character to say “I have a bad relationship with my cousin.” But it’s another thing entirely to show it.

But again, keep your flashbacks and dreams as short and as focused as possible. Your goal is to enhance your story, not take your readers away from it.

And keep in mind…

None of these tips apply to the first draft. That’s one thing I can’t stress enough on this blog. The first draft should be a hot mess of whatever you need to write to get your story written. If this means you need to spend an entire first chapter writing nothing but info dumping backstory, then do it! That’s part of getting to know your story and your characters. You can go back and fix the info dump in revision.

I hope this helps you work your backstory into your novel!

Now it’s your turn: How much backstory do you usually reveal? Tell me about it in the comments!

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How to Use Google Maps to Help Your Setting: Writing Tips

How Google Maps can Help Your SettingWriting a book can be pretty tricky on the best of days, but if you’re writing a book that takes you to a setting you’ve either never been or haven’t been for a while, it can become infinitely harder. As nice as it would be to visit all your settings, that often costs time and money, which you might not be able to sacrifice. That’s where Google Maps comes in! Google Maps can be ridiculously helpful in refining your setting so you don’t feel like you’re going into a location completely blind. Does it replace actually visiting? No. But when that’s just not an option, Google Maps is a solid alternative.

Here are six ways Google Maps can help you and your setting:

1) Visit a place you’ve never been

The world is a big place and your characters may have a need to travel it more vastly than you have. If your characters need to go to a place that you haven’t visited, hop online and take a look around. Most locations have photos and a 3D street view that puts you as much in the location as possible. In fact, Google Maps helped me write my spy books like this. As a spy, my character had to visit locations all around the world–most of which I’d never been. It let me get a feel for the color of the buildings, the building to grass ratio, and other geographic details.

2) Refresh your memory about a place you’ve visited

Sometimes, even if you have visited a location, there might be details about it you forget. Using the same 3D street view tool from the first point, you’ll be able to walk around the location and (if you have an address) revisit specific landmarks. So, if it’s been a long time and you just want to make sure you’re getting the details right, Google Maps can give you a quick refresher.

3) Point to a place your character visits

If you’ve never been to a location, it might be hard to put your character in a specific building or open area and describe it effectively. This is another awesome job for Google Maps! You can use the street view to browse a location and find a building or park or whatever you need for your story. I often won’t use an exact location and call it out in my books, but I will base a location in my books off of what I’ve found on Google Maps.

Keep in mind, if you’re writing fiction, your locations don’t have to be 100% accurate and real, it just has to be believable–even if your book takes place in this modern world. There can be a location that exists in the world of your story, but not in the real world. Google Maps will help you to 1) know the location you have in mind is possible and 2) make sure that location fits into the country/city/town like you want it to.

4) Track your character’s journey

Similarly, you can track your character’s journey to not only visit a location but also to get travel times. If you’ve never been to a country, it can be hard to estimate how long it might take you to get from point A to point B. Google Maps can help give you distances for you to estimate your character’s travel. After all, you wouldn’t want to say your character will make it point B in time for dinner if that’s completely unrealistic.

5) Inspiration for a fictional place you’re creating

If you’re creating a fictional world from scratch, Google Maps can give you some real-world information to pull from. For example, if you know that you’re creating a desert-like world, but have never been to a desert, you can visit a wide variety of real-life desert locations on Google Maps to help create a world that is both unique and believable at the same time.

6) Discover aspects of a location you hadn’t considered

Even if you know the perfect location for your story, there are some questions you might not think to ask unless you take a look around. For example, if you’ve got your character driving a getaway car away from a certain location, you may find that the roads are too narrow for some crazy action-packed stunt you had in mind. If your idea of a ‘road’ is big and wide, it may not have occurred to you that the roads in your story’s location would be way too small to pull off your stunt. Even if you know a lot about your location via research and other sources, there are probably plenty of things to take in just by walking the Google Maps streets.

I hope this helps you use google maps to create an awesome setting!

Now it’s your turn: Have you used Google maps in the past to help your setting? How did it help? Or do you have new ideas about how you can use it in the future? Tell me about it in the comments!

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