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NaNoWriMo Workshop – Setting

October 19, 2008

Ave, November, scriptori te salutant!

NaNoWriMo is upon us again, and whether you are taking part for the first time, or the tenth time, then October is the prep month for November’s activities.

Over the next week we will be looking at the elements that you have to consider when creating your story.  We won’t tell you how to write your story – these are considerations that only you as author can address – but we will help you to think through the elements of a story as you begin to create your own unique tale.  Today, we’re going to look at setting.

Setting is unavoidable.  All stories take place somewhere, even if that somewhere is ambiguous and undefined – it is still somewhere that must be considered.  Setting can be the driving force of your story (a story “about” a place) or it can be merely the background that the plot takes place in.  I’m going to take you through some very basic points to consider about different types of setting, and the pros and cons of each.


This is the first thing people think of when they think of “setting”.  The actual location that a story takes place in.

Real locations

A real location is somewhere that actually exists, from a building in a city, to a country, to a planet.  Set your story on Mars, and it is still set in a “real” place, as much as if you set it in Manhattan.

Pros – little to no imagination required.  If you don’t know the place well you can research it on the internet.

Cons – can be constraining.  Characters have to obey the geography of the area (for example, if your characters are walking down Broadway in New York, they can only turn down the streets that actually come off Broadway).

Fictional locations

These are places purely of the imagination – other worlds, galaxies, universes, like Narnia or Earthsea.

Pros – the only limit is your imagination.  Your world can be or do anything you want it to.  It might be inconvenient for you if in a real world location there is a mountain in the road – in a fictional location, you can move that mountain anywhere you want!

Cons – world building.  Yes, this can be fun.  But if you create your own world, then you are responsible for moulding a believable reality.  You have to be conscious of every detail.  How many moons does the planet have, how many continents, what are the political structures of the countries like, what is the environment like, what are the histories of the cultures etc.  Things you need not consider for a real location, you have to create from scratch for a fictional world.

Mixed locations

Mixed locations are ones that combine elements from both fictional and real locations.  They can lean more towards the real (Gotham City, a fictional location in a real country), or more towards the fictional (London in Neverwhere, a real city made fantastical).

Pros – you get the best of both worlds.  By setting in a real world, you don’t need to worry about world building, but by fictionalising the exact setting, you are free from constraints of physical reality.

Cons – getting the mixture right can be trial and error.  Make a real location too fantastical, but not enough to count as fictional, and people may get put off.  Make a fictional location not real enough, and people simply won’t believe it is part of the real world, and further attempts to mix them will be jarring.


That’s just a fancy name for when your story takes place.  A great consideration for stories set in real locations, but something worth keeping in mind for fictional locations.

The past

Whether it is five years ago or five hundred years ago, anything that has all ready happened is set in the past.

Pros – the advantage of writing about the past, as with writing about real places, is that it is concrete.  It has happened, it can be researched and verified.  You can make use of events as staging points in your story, perhaps even the major plot points.

Cons – you need to know about the time period you are writing about.  You character cannot drive down a street if cars haven’t been invented and that street hasn’t been built.  Things have to happen in the order they did happen in, and have the outcomes that actually happened (unless you are writing an alternative history story).  Most importantly, your characters cannot have knowledge of events that from their perspective have not happened.  When writing about the past, you have to be careful you get it right, because there are any number of history enthusiasts out there just waiting to tell you when you get it wrong.

The present

I take a fairly relaxed view about the present.  Anything within two or three years of the date you are writing can be construed as “the present” because of how long publishing takes.  From first draft to bookshelf, a book can take two years, so writing in the present can be the past on publication, and the present on publication was the future when written.  So you’ve got a bit of leeway when writing about “the present day”.

Pros – the most obvious is immediacy.  Everyone experiences the present at the same time.  Writing about now can give you a vibrancy and urgency.  It is also familiar, and needs very little research, because we all experience it.

Cons – you hamper the ability to use the omniscient narrator.  If you don’t know the future, neither does the narrator.  And while we’re on the subject of the future, avoid making predictions and assumptions about the future when writing the present.  Your writing will be very dated and distracting if you make the wrong assumptions.  You don’t want to be lumbered with the literary equivalent of a Dewey beats Truman moment.

The future

Possibly one of the most difficult periods to write about, the future is that which has not yet happened – and therein lies the advantage and disadvantage…

Pros – much like writing about fictional locations, the future is a flight of the imagination.  You can make up new countries (who knows if they will come into existence), change the geography of the planet (landslides, earthquakes, even war can change environments), have new types of animals, aliens, robots, anything you’d like.

Cons – the closer to the present your future is, the more conservative you have to be with your flights of fantasy.  I can say with confidence that it is unrealistic to have robots indistinguishable from humans walking around in a story set in 2010.  I can’t make that same statement about a story set in 2100.  If you want to make bold predictions, set your story thousands of years in the future, when it is unlikely you will be proven wrong.  Otherwise, be ready with good grace to have your story appreciated ironically in 2050 (”Ha, they thought we’d be travelling at lightspeed by now, but they still watch television on a physical screen!”).

This is a whistlestop look at only some of the points you have to consider about setting.  I haven’t even touched on issues of environment, politics, arts, culture and science (all things you have to consider when world-building if opting for fictional settings).  But it is enough to get you started when you are thinking about where and when your story is set.

Tomorrow is all about character.

One Comment
  1. October 19, 2008 8:39 am

    Wow! An excellent, comprehensive look at setting, Paul! Thank you for taking the time to write this out.

    Valuable information, indeed!

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