Ninja Writers Academy: Setting Development

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For the next few weeks, we’re going deeper into the basics of story elements during Ninja Writers Academy. Last week we talked about Character. Today, we’re talking about Setting.

Setting is, of course, the place where your story takes place.

You’ll probably have more than one in a novel-length work. Maybe your main character will have a literal ordinary world and special world of the story. (Like Dorothy’s Kansas and Oz or Harry’s muggle world and Hogwarts.) Maybe your antagonist has their own setting.

Even a story that takes place in a limited area probably has more than one actual setting. I’m thinking about the (devastating) book and movie Room. The setting in that story is a character in and of itself. It’s a garden shed where the narrator has lived his whole life. But there’s also a truck and the narrator’s grandmother’s house.

Thinking about where your story takes place can actually give some shape to it. It’s a good way to start thinking about things like pacing and scene.

Today I’d like you to think about all the different settings that your story is going to need. Then develop at least one of them using guided free writing. (You’ll probably want to develop all of them, eventually.)

Here are the questions I use:

  • Is this the ordinary world setting for your hero, or the special world setting, or both?
  • How does the setting uniquely belong to your MC?
  • How did your MC get to this place?
  • Why is this setting important to your MC?
  • Who do they share it with?
  • How do they feel about this setting? Claustraphobic? At home? Calm? Aggressive?
  • Will they end up in this place as their new ordinary world when the story is over?
  • What does the setting look like? Use as many details as you can.
  • What does the setting smell like?
  • What does the setting sound like?
  • Is there a taste or touch sensory experience related to this setting?
  • What role will this setting play in your MC’s story?
  • How would a stranger coming into this space feel? What’s the vibe?

My Turn

Last week, I shared the character work for a new idea.

Here are the settings I think I’ll need for Will “The Face” Sorren’s story:

The overall setting is Las Vegas.

Will lives in a pretty standard Las Vegas McMansion: white stucco, red tile roof, cookie cutter.

He performs in a showroom on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.

His best friend lives in a smaller, more homey home–also in Las Vegas. Maybe a condo?

Will’s grandmother lives in the same mean little Salt Lake City house that she raised him in.

The Showroom at Fitzgerald’s is Will’s ordinary world setting, but it also plays a part in the special world of the story. It’s where he plays as part of an 80s nostalgia show, and it’s his personal hell. He can’t leave, because there isn’t anywhere else for him to play. No one is offering him stadium shows anymore. Staying is killing him. It’s just big enough that when it’s half-filled, it’s particularly pathetic.

Will’s best friend, his band’s bass player, has a different view of the Showroom. It represents stability to him. A steady paycheck. The means to continue to play music instead of getting a day job. His acceptance of their situation makes things worse for Will.

Every night, Will stands on the stage and sings the same songs he’s sung for nearly thirty years. He looks out at the sparse audience an he sees middle-aged women. It used to be that the women (who were once the beautiful girls screaming for The Face) would swoon over him. They aren’t even doing that anymore. Not the way they used to.

The Showroom seats 500 at tables and chairs, not even stadium seating. Cocktail waitresses wander between the tables, bringing drinks and taking Keno bets. There’s a stage in front, a mediocre setup. The whole place smells of stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer. The sound of slot machines and a busy casino filter through between sets.

To the people who come to see Will and the other bands play, the showroom isn’t anything special, but it’s not as pathetic as it feels to Will. It’s a date night or a place for girls night out. Somewhere to go for a little fun while the kids are home with a sitter. They like the nostalgia that irritates Will.

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Develop a Setting. Make a list of settings for your story. Use the questions in this post to guide you as you free write about one of them. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Don’t let yourself get bogged down with perfection on this one.

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Come by Facebook and share your work for feedback.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.


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