It’s week three in our plotting edition of Planning for Pansters! How ya doin’? This is usually the point at which I incessantly mutter, “I hate plotting, I hate plotting” under my breath––which is why this week’s post is lighter. Today, we’re talking about using setting in plot development.
You might be surprised to learn that using setting in building a plot is one of my favorite aspects of crafting a story. I find planning out my plots difficult but necessary. Using the setting gives me a nice framework.
It’s easy to think of your setting as nothing more than a backdrop for the “more important” elements of the story. But when you view setting as an active participant, shaping characters, theme, and, of course, plot, it becomes so much more useful.
Step #1 – Present, Past, and Future
In Week 1 of this series, I talked about determining which part of your protagonist’s whole story you wanted to tell. That’s essentially what we want to do with our setting, too. Your setting has a story––a past, a present, and a future. Which part of your setting’s saga is going in your novel?
Take a couple minutes to jot down the current state of your setting, what it used to be like, how it got to its present state, and whether or not it will change by the end of the story. We’ll wait.
Got those elements down? Excellent. Now look over them. Are you writing the portion of the whole story you want to tell? If you are, great!
If there’s another part of your setting’s story that’s more interesting, explore that.
And when I say interesting, I don’t mean interesting to other people. I mean interesting to you. This is your story. Don’t worry about what other people are more interested in. If you write what you think others will like, the story won’t be fun to read. But if you write what you love, it’ll be pure reading joy.
Even through the page, isolated in the coziness of our own bedrooms and squashy armchairs, we’re social creatures––we feed on the enjoyment of others.
Okay, so there’s another part of your setting’s story that you’re drawn to. What about it do you find fascinating? Why do you want to tell that particular part of the tale?
Redo this step, jotting down your setting’s (new) current state, how it got there, and how it will change. These reference points are now your setting’s meta-plot outline.
Step #2 – Using the Essential Aspect of Your Setting in Plot Development
So we know which part of our setting’s whole story we want to tell. Now consider the different aspects of your setting. These can be anything from appearance to culture to a political system. Of all the different parts that make up your setting, which aspect is absolutely essential? Which one, purely by its presence, defines the setting?
For example, let’s look at HBO’s Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin created a vast, expansive world for the novels on which the show is based. But there’s a single aspect of that setting that is absolutely essential to the story: the Iron Throne. Without it, the story wouldn’t exist. All the political intrigue, conflicts, wars, characters, plot points––all are shaped by the Iron Throne.
The essential aspect of your setting isn’t always as cut-and-dry as the above example. You might have to do a little digging to discover what part of your setting is essential to the story. You also might discover more than one.
There’s no problem with more than one essential aspect, just don’t let it get out of hand! I’d say three is the absolute max. If you’ve got six essential aspects, then you’re probably adding things that aren’t really essential for the story.
Now think about what your characters want to happen to that aspect. What do they want from it?
In Game of Thrones, most of the major characters want the Iron Throne for themselves or their families. They want the power. The title. The money. The control. They all plan to get the Throne through killing, espionage, and alliances. Therefore, those three acts advance the plot of the story. They are the plot’s basic building blocks.
Your characters’ plans in relation to the essential aspect of the setting will determine your plot building blocks.
Step #3: What Needs to Change?
Okay, we’ve established which part of our setting’s story we want to tell, determined the essential aspect of the setting, and discovered our plot building blocks.
Next, think of your setting’s desired outcome. The desired outcome is not what the characters want. The desired outcome is what you want the setting to look like at the end of the story. Is the corrupt political system gone? Is the threat to society destroyed? Who, if anyone, occupies your story’s Iron Throne?
There will be certain elements of your setting that have to change for your desired outcome to happen. Map them out. Determine what has to happen for those elements to change. What do your characters need to do? Who has the ability or access?
One way to make this step a little easier is to describe how your setting goes from its current state to its future state. Write the process as an entry in a history book. This allows you to be more objective and view the setting’s progression as a linear cause-and-effect.
While considering setting in plot development won’t usually result in a full, point-by-point plot, the exercise is helpful for keeping your story on track. Characters and plots have a tendency to run off and do their own thing. That’s great, but only up to a point. You still have a specific story you want to tell.
Luckily, settings aren’t so fickle. They give you a light to guide your story back on its path.
A Quick Tip for Using Setting in Plot Development
One thing that’s easy to forget when writing is how the setting affects what your characters can and can’t do. For example, if your novel is set in the Middle Ages, your characters won’t be able to get information from distant places quickly. But if they live in the modern world, information travels fast.
Similarly, weather is a factor. Does your setting suffer from frequent storms? Are the characters likely to get snowed in or to go without food because of drought and famine?
Figuring out these aspects is not only necessary for strong worldbuilding, it’s also an easy way to bring unforeseen complications into your plot.
Final Thoughts on Setting in Plot Development
Using your setting is a great way to build out an existing plot that needs some meat on its bones, but it also works as a plot starting point. Setting is particularly useful for dystopian novels, so if that’s what you’re writing, take the time to walk through these steps.
Planning for Pansters will be back next week with some tips on your plot’s ending. In the meantime, check back on Monday for a peek at my favorite writing app of all time!