Writing Technique: Creating a Believable Setting

Creating a believable setting can help your readers suspend their disbelief and accept the make-believe elements in your story.

Author Lakin Konieczny (read her blog here) left a great comment on one of my blog posts, explaining how she creates suspension of disbelief by “trying to create a setting and characters that feel so real it seems like they could be your next door neighbor, then I add something supernatural or paranormal that gives it that twist as promised by genre.” Based on this comment, I figured I ought to include a post on setting. (By the way, if you write paranormal, fantasy, or horror, do be sure to check out her blog on writing.)

Imagine this: You meet con artist, John, who claims to be a financial, and he offers to invest your money. He wants to meet you for lunch.

  • Scenario 1: John drives up to meet you in a late model Mercedes Benz. His suit is tailored, his hair is immaculate, and he is sporting a Rolex. His shoes look Italian. You find out that he lives in a posh area of town.
  • Scenario 2: John drives up to meet you in a beat-up Ford Pinto from the 1980’s. He introduces himself as “Johnny.” His hair is a little bit greasy, his shirt is unbuttoned—framing the heavy gold chain around his neck, and some of his chest hair pokes through. His pants are too tight, and he is wearing flip flops. You find out through conversation that he lives on the sleazy side of town.

Which con artist is more believable?

We writers are actually than con artists trying to get people to buy into our stories, and our settings are the clothing our story wears. Your setting needs to be believable or readers will know they are being conned.

When it comes to setting, try thinking more like a movie director. Directors must create an entire stage that looks real on every level. As writers, we need to concentrate on our setting almost the same way a director must focus on his stage. We don’t need to worry about every cup and picture the way an interior decorator for the set might worry about it, but we do need to fill our setting with things that will make it believable for a few reasons.

  • Setting can show character. Even though we’ve been discussing how to write speculative fiction, we can’t neglect the importance of showing character, especially since believable characters help your reader suspend his disbelief. Your character’s neatness, decorative choices, and even the place he or she chooses to live show who he or she is—all without you having to describe it.
  • A real, grounded setting helps the reader suspend disbelief. When the setting feels real, the reader will be more willing to buy into your make-believe world.
  • Establishing a good setting makes the world come alive for your reader. When I read a well-written story, I see the movie of the story actually playing in my head. You want your reader to see more than just a white background in your story’s movie.
  • Shock and awe. Have you ever stepped into an awe-inspiring place that gave you goose bumps? Have you ever been in a place that gave you the creeps? You can create these feelings in your reader simply by establishing an appropriate setting.
  • If you’ve created a different world, you must include setting in order to help your reader feel as though he is a part of that world. If a reader doesn’t see your new world two things happen. First, he is missing out on the magic of the world you see because you haven’t described it to him. Second, he isn’t going to believe in your make-believe elements because the environment doesn’t feel believable in the first place.

How to create a good setting:

  • Include Sensory Details: A few months ago, I wrote a post about using sensory details and description in your writing. (Click here to read it.) I cannot stress how sensory details make your setting feel real.
  • Don’t neglect the surroundings. Don’t just focus on the storefront your character is standing in front of. Make sure to show a bit of the other parts of the street.
  • Remember that people are part of the setting. In movies, they’re called extras. If two characters are meeting in a restaurant, they will be surrounded by patrons and restaurant staff. Don’t forget them.
  • Clothing is important, especially if you are writing a period piece. Make sure to give a few details on clothing. Also, remember clothing’s effect on your characters. For example, if your characters are wearing armor, it’s going to get uncomfortable. Point that out.
  • Weather is important, too. Don’t forget weather, and don’t forget that it changes.

How much detail you use when describing your setting will vary depending on genre:

  • Historical fiction, new fantasy/sci-fi worlds, and steampunk require more description. First, your audience has never been to your world. Second, most readers love these genres because they want the description.
  • Urban fantasy and modern day paranormal might not require as much description when introducing the world. If I say, “Times Square” most of my readers already know what it is. I can give a few sensory details about it, but I don’t have the same difficulties that I face if I am describing a species of tree that doesn’t exist on this planet.
  • Children’s fiction and YA will require a different amount and type of description than adult fiction. Think of the differences in writing style and length of description between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

On that note, just be yourself. While it’s important to stay within genre, don’t give yourself up in order to do so. Your voice is your voice. I write with less emotion than other authors, and I prefer to let my setting and characters’ behavior show how they feel instead telling the reader. Some readers don’t like it and wish I focused more on emotion. Others love it.

What to take from this: Surround your make-believe elements with believable elements by creating a believable setting. Your setting can also 1) aid with character development and 2) add structure to the movie that the reader sees in his head when he reads your work.

Mainstream writers: You can stir up feelings of magic, awe, and fear simply by creating a good setting.

Speculative writers: Describing your setting is non-negotiable. If you feel like your characters are acting in nothing but white space, you probably need to add in a few details.

If you are new to this blog, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.” Thanks for stopping by!

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

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About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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7 Responses to Writing Technique: Creating a Believable Setting

  1. Very insightful! I especially liked your scenarios. If someone looks like the character form Scenario 2, I would expect them to act badly. It’s the character from Scenario 1 that you have to be on guard against.

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  2. Thanks for the mention. I’m short on time right now, but I’ll be back online later to read through your post on setting.

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  3. Very good post. I love your whole section on “Making Make-Believe Believable”, it’s been very helpful and I thank you for that. As I probably have mentioned before, I am a somewhat new writer (been doing it five years) and I’m still learning new things all the time. That’s what’s so great about being a writer, you’re constantly learning new tricks, trying new things, and it NEVER gets old (at least so far for me). I’m looking forward to your next installment of “Making Make-Believe Believable”.

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    • M. B. Weston says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you are enjoying this series. Writing definitely never gets old and I’m still learning new things! Thanks for your setting comment earlier. It helped the series!

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  4. Pingback: Writing: Make Fiction Feel Believable With Sensory Details | M. B. Weston's Official Website

  5. EDG says:

    Great article. You might add that when setting a story in a history, it could be important to drop a sentence or two about how some major event altered the characters. For example, if a person grew up during the Depression, it is hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have been affected in one way or another. Same for the Great Wars. (That’s not to say, your character has to have been a member of the Joads or a war hero at Normandy.) This can naturally add some depth.but a little goes a long way.

    If you ever have a chance to watch “Mad Men” you can see how the writers used such literary devices to add a dimension to the characters in the same way.

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