All stories take place in a fictional world, also known as the diegetic world. The diegetic world is every location shown in the story, and every location implied by the story. Part of good storytelling is establishing where the story takes place. The more the diegetic world resembles the world of the reader, the easier it is to establish the world for the reader.
When introducing a location, think of it like a character. Start with a strong first impression, a dominant feature or atmosphere/impression. Then add subtext, something minor but unique about “this place”. If it’s indoors consider the materials, texture, and color of the walls, as well as the presence or absence of furniture, and their condition. If it’s outdoors then what type of location is it? What’s the topography like? Are there any plants or animals? What about manmade structures? And people? What happens here routinely? What people come to this location regularly? What do they do? Decide who needs to be there.
Sam goes for a walk in the park. It’s the middle of the day, the trail is wide and well established. It’s a popular location, so along the way she passes a jogger, two parents pushing strollers as they talk, and an older person walking their dog.
At the moment none of this is relevant to the story, but it helps establish a mood, a safe place full of happy people. If no one was in the park the scene could easily shift from safe to menacing.
Introducing New Locations
Start with a strong scene. Identify the the essential details and use the characters to incorporate them. Create minor conflicts that incorporate details about the setting organically. If the room is full of people, decide if the protagonist likes or dislikes that. Let’s assume they dislike all the people. In that case the people represents a problem or obstacle. The noise could make it hard for the characters to hear someone the protagonist is talking with, or maybe they’re struggling to get through the crowd, or frustrated that they can’t find a seat.
Minor conflicts are a great way to establish setting details and background information. They’re unrelated to the main plot, so they can start and finish abruptly, but they can also offer a small insight about the character while also establishing setting details.
Examples of minor conflicts include clashing personalities, having the same immediate goal as someone else, or experiencing a sudden complication or obstacle on the path towards a long term goal.
The process of managing background information is known as the learning curve, the rate at which new information is introduced to characters. The rate at which new information is being revealed creates the angle of the curve, which can be steep or shallow.
A common convention is to begin with a minimum of information, focusing on the essentials that audiences need to understand the immediate scene. This helps ease the audience into the diegetic world.
Once the main conflict is in full swing the story expands and gradually spreads the information across the first half of the story. At the halfway point new information starts to taper off, and by the three-quarters point very little new information is being revealed. This helps to reinforce the rhythm of a story. In the beginning the story has a simple, narrow scope, then during the middle it expands to encompass more, before narrowing again as the story unites its diverse plot threads into a climax and resolution.
Setting Focused Stories
Some stories are driven by setting. The author creates such a complex and unfamiliar world that the focus of the story becomes the world itself. The plot becomes a vehicle for exploring the diegetic world, often through the eyes of an outsider. Examples include Gulliver’s Travels and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Other stories use archetypal characters. Examples include Lord of the Rings, where most of the characters are a stand in for a specific culture, such as the kingdoms of Gondor, Rohan, Mirkwood elves, and the dwarves.
Writing With Length in Mind