Readers need to connect with your characters, get wrapped up in your plot, and live inside your fictional setting every time they sit down and open your book. While fantasy and science fiction writers have to create entirely new places and times to write in (check out the World Building page), mainstream and other genre writers need to create settings that are just as compelling out of the scraps of reality everyone knows already.
What is a Fictional Setting Anyway?
To put it succinctly, setting is the time and place in which your story or part of a story takes place. It is very odd to have only one setting for an entire novel or novella, though short stories can do so. The places and times you choose for each scene in your book affect pretty much everything about it. This usually happens in subtle ways that should seem natural even if they are unnatural.
I’m not making sense, am I? Sorry!
Remember Cinderella? Her story has been written and rewritten thousands of times throughout the ages. So much so, in fact, that the phrase “Cinderella story” has become an idiom to describe any instance in which a person of low standing or status is thrust upward in circumstance or esteem.
Cinderella originally takes place in a historical time in both a large manor house and the prince’s castle for the ball. If Cinderella was instead a downtrodden young woman in an NYC 5th floor walk-up taking care of her heroin-addicted mother and step-sisters until a rich land developer gives some community affairs dinner party, the story would be very similar but also quite different.
The time period changed and the places changed considerably. Those changes affect how the story plays out and how the characters act.
Three Tips to a Fictional Setting Worthy of Love
Tip #1 — Keep it Interesting
Sometimes setting does not seem to matter much. It doesn’t really matter if your modern re-telling of Cinderella happens in New York or Boston. You’d have different details, but one poor apartment or luxurious banquet hall is much like the next.
Even if it’s not important that your fictional setting is specific, you still need to make it interesting if you want the reader to truly sink into your book.
You can explore the possibilities more in fantasy and science fiction, but even realistic fiction must transport readers.
Tip #2 — Keep it Real
Research. Get things right. Some of Cinder-NYC’s readers might live in NYC and will toss your book in the bin if you start talking about quaint pastel cottages instead of towering brownstones in Harlem.
You are allowed to take creative license with stuff. You do not need to have Ella run to the exact corner store on the precise street that currently exists in the real world. This is fiction, not a travelogue. What you make up still has to fit the setting.
Tip #3 — Keep it Emotive
For some stories, more specifically sci-fi and fantasy, the setting is as important as a character. It’s a vital part of how the story works. For others, the setting plays a background role to everything else going on.
That distinction does not mean that everyday places and times should be just slapped on willy-nilly and ignored other than giving the characters a stage to strut about on.
Use the fictional setting to create mood, atmosphere, and fiddle with pacing. Things like weather, lighting, time of day, surrounding security, sound levels, odors can all make a reader feel a certain way about the scene. Readers don’t only love a fictional setting that makes them feel good. They love one that makes them feel a part of the story.