Create an Impactful Story World

The first four fiction books I read this year were espionage thrillers, one of the genres I not only prefer to edit but to read. A major reason for that is not necessarily the espionage factor. I’ve been to small Asian provinces, major Middle Eastern metropolises, and out-of-the-way towns across Europe. I’ve traveled by commercial and military aircraft, a few superyachts, public transportation, and even camel. I’ve camped in more jungles and backwoods forests than I ever imagined. What keeps me hooked to so many books in this genre is the versatile use of setting.

From fast-paced thrillers to heart-wrenching family fiction to the most fantastical space adventures, a novel’s story world is the physical manifestation of a character’s past, present, and (sometimes) future. It’s the blank canvas artists itch to fill with the smallest details, even if they’re the only ones who know the meaning behind them.

Photo by Daniele Fasoli on Unsplash

It’s not easy to build a world from scratch. There’s the natural environment, man-made environments, background characters, purpose, and a slew of other options to pick and choose from on the setting menu. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi explain that:

Due to a misconception that readers aren’t interested in the setting and will skip right over the descriptive passage[,] they miss out on all the ways [setting] can shine a light on a character’s mindset and add depth to the story.

Granted, there are locations that come naturally when characters are in a particular type of conflict: arguing on the phone while pacing a cluttered home office, the local park used by a farmer’s market the character regularly frequents, or the traffic jam that happens even in midsized cities. But from the mundane to the surreal, getting your story world right isn’t just for readers to enjoy. It’s for characters to exist in their full authenticity. Here’s a few ways to accomplish that.

Where is the final battle happening?

This is the most confined place of the entire story. It’s where your protagonist will not only confront their external opposition, but they will also have to finally come to terms with their greatest internal weakness. Overcoming that weakness will lead them to victory or defeat. Whichever direction your protagonist goes, that decision needs to happen in the most emotionally tense or physically dangerous environment available in your story’s world.

Even high-octane thrillers come down to a one-on-one confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist (who is not necessarily the villain, but that’s another subject for another blog post). Genre expectations play a big role in where you decide to have this confrontation, but it should also be a natural outcome to the events that have previously taken place.

Where does the initial scene take place?

This is your protagonist in their normal world, before they’re pulled into the external events that will kickstart your novel. This could be as simple as the bedroom they wake up in, going through the motions of a life they’re bored with but have no clue how to escape. It could be the bar they own that’s in danger of foreclosure, stacks of expiring goods and piles of overdue bills covering every surface of their office. It might even be the spaceship they’ve lived on for five years, another day passing on its way to the outer reaches of the solar system.

Your protagonist might be aware of a change coming, might even want that change to come, but they need a starting point that reflects where they’re stuck at, why they’re stuck there, and potential solutions to getting unstuck. A story that starts strong is more likely to hook your reader enough to get to the strong ending you’ve worked so hard to create.

Where does your protagonist’s path take them on the way from Point A to Point B?

Most structure advice focuses on plot and character development. The world these events take place in, though, will develop along with the character, narrowing further until the protagonist faces their “do-or-die” moment. The protagonist’s current world should be one that highlights, amplifies, or exacerbates their greatest weakness. You want your reader to not only understand why your protagonist makes the moves they do, but how those moves are made.

Create or find locations that will have the biggest impact, that will create movement and narrative drive. Allow your protagonist to express their goals, then give readers an understanding of why the world as it is will not be conducive to the protagonist achieving that goal. While their adversary will have their own unique place that reflects their own power and abilities, don’t forget to include specific locations where your protagonist both wins and loses on their journey to the adversary.

Image by Alexa from Pixabay

I have three current works-in-progress in Scrivener, a software app designed for authors to keep their novel organized. The first is set in my home region, the second is still in the early outlining stages, and the third is nothing more than a premise and two experimental scenes. In each of these, I’m still trying to figure out who my characters are as people. Yet now my settings have jumped the priority list as a bolster to that challenge.

I’ve always been a top-down planner. If I don’t know where I’m going, how will I know when I’ve gotten there? Your characters likely wonder the same thing, even if you don’t plan. Their physical and mental spaces affect each step forward—or backward—that they take. Make each step realistic, logical, and purposeful by reflecting on your setting one word at a time.

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