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.
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 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Characters in Lieu of Settings
Sometimes stories use characters to explore/reveal a setting. These are called archetypal characters, a single character who serves as a prime example of their culture; from their physical abilities, to the clothes they wear, the stories they tell, even their mannerisms give audiences a greater insight into the world they come from.
Lord of the Rings is a great example. Gimli is portrayed as a typical dwarf, and Legolas is a typical elf. The characters themselves are quite simple, easily understood, but they reveal a great deal about dwarves and elves in general. Dwarves are loud, boisterous, and driven by strong emotions. Their culture reflects a plain and direct style, backed by intense focus and determination.
Elves, in contrast, are calm, cautious, and quiet. They believe in paths of least resistance, but when things become dire they are no less passionate, and may surprise others when they suddenly reveal the emotions that have been slowly building underneath their calm exterior.
Another example would be the Belgariad, a series where three characters stand in for three kingdoms, and through the characters audiences learn how one is a land of rowdy barbarians and pirates, the second is a kingdom of shrewd businessmen, spies, and thieves, while the third is a home of stoic warriors, who demonstrate iron discipline over themselves, but only reluctantly follow the orders of others.
Managing Background Information