Site icon S L Hollister, author

Setting and World Building

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Do you find yourself looking for books set in certain places? Or do you read the blurb of a book and choose it over another because of where the story takes place? Setting and world building can be as important as the character. Often, the setting or world becomes another character in the story.

In Mortal Engines, the worlds were different with their own personalities and quirks. Each one was distinct from the other and played a large part of what the characters go through to reach their goals and change.

In The Hunger Games we leave poor, rural District 12 to go to the Capitol, which is like leaving reality and going down Alice’s rabbit hole. These two distinct settings play a part in showcasing our characters and establishing who they are. Katniss is who she is because she is from District 12. Her character would react differently had she been for any other place. During the games, the world or setting changes and the players have to adapt to survive. This changing world is as much a character as the players themselves.  

As readers, we love to be immersed in a story-world and feel as if we are a part of it. Whether we are traveling back in time or soaring through the galaxies, when a writer paints a vivid picture of their world, we forget we are reading, as everything comes alive, we become actors on the stage playing out in our heads the story as it unfolds.

There are authors whose work is so detailed as to even describe the cracks in the china cup from which their character is drinking. They wax poetic upon each nuance and detail until the world is exactly as they see it leaving no room for error on the part of the reader.

Then there are the few who give so little information it feels as if the characters are acting on a white stage or within the darkness of a deep cavern. Though either would have some sensory stimulation, too often writers who do this fail to take into account the characters’ reaction to the nothingness.

When an author gets it right and finds that balance, in my opinion, is when they give just enough description that the reader can use their imagination to fill in the rest of the details. If I describe blue silk drapes the color of the sky. Many colors come to mind. Is it the pale blue of a summer sky, or the vibrant blue of spring, perhaps it’s the navy blue of midnight or the almost purple of sunset? Depending on our own moods or the tone of the story where our minds might take us with this description. While the curtains might not be important to the story and their color doesn’t matter, if it is tied to a character’s memories or emotions, then it becomes more so. The blue silk drapes were the color of a sunny sky in spring, reminding her of his eyes. She should have the curtains removed. The simple change in the description gives you more details about the character as well as describing the room. What does it really matter what color the curtains are? If it’s not important to the story, the description serves little purpose.

Setting and world building are the stage where your story plays out. Star Wars would be a totally different story if set in the old west yet there have been critics who have described it as thus. When George Lucas first began designing the scene for the movie, they used what they knew and set it outer space. What does a trading post look like? Or a marketplace?

In one of my stories, I have a setting, a local café. In rural eastern North Carolina this café’s atmosphere, clientele and even the language spoken, or accents differs greatly from one set in the western part of the state. How different would it be from a café in New York City or even upstate New York? How about a Parisian café? While cafes worldwide might be similar, they all serve food, have tables and seats, someone to serve, but what makes this café different? While I could just say it’s a café, I added a few layers of interest. It used to be the old train depot. It’s been in the family for fifty years. It’s a local hangout. While these things don’t tell you how the café looks, it gives you a feeling of why it’s important.

How important are the details? Well, if someone is thrown from the second story balcony and you’ve never mentioned a balcony, that can take your reader out of the story. A simple description of the character wondering at the view from the second story balcony, could at least establish it as fact. If the main character had reason to be up there and look out, maybe that would add to the mystery or suspense. They were seen on the balcony just minutes before the victim was tossed over the side. Now they’re a suspect.

As writers we have to remember that the importance of the setting and description, is how it affects the characters and the plot of the story. If we mention a gun over the mantle, then that gun must be important at some point in the story.

Happy world building and keep on reading.

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