Setting the Stage 107-01

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.

Learning Curve

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.

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Writing With Length in Mind

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14 thoughts on “Setting the Stage 107-01

    • The concept of a diegetic world is very useful. Many stories take place within an enclosed locale, but sometimes it’s good to consider the world that continues beyond those borders.

      • Agreed. That was one of the toughest aspects of my world-building I faced when writing my story. I wanted the reader to know about all of the other things in the world, but that did not always fit in with the diegetic world of my characters. The characters don’t necessarily know what lies beyond the borders of their own country, even if I do!

      • Definitely! I tried to establish the larger world through peripheral characters that the protagonists encounter, giving little hints of different regions, cultures, etc.

  1. Pingback: Revealing Meaning Through Conflict 106-04 | Write Thoughts

  2. Settings are always tricky because you have to balance description with pace. So as one considers the above points (which are fantastic pieces of advice), try to lay them out in beats. What I used to do is write my discover draft. Then I did the “description” draft. Then I’d have to weave those block of descriptions through the scene. It worked, but I found the process slowed my productivity. Now, what I do is develop locations exactly how I do characters (well..not EXACTLY, but similarly). So I already have those blocks of descriptions ready to lace in. By thinking about it before I start my discovery draft, I find it easier to flow form one subject to another. This allows you to better blend the world with the pace of the novel.

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