I know that that might sound weird. No, I'm not giving my landscape a consciousness à la Spirit, but you can't deny that some of the best books and novels have settings that feel real. Not just because you can picture the landscape, but because you understand the in's and out's of how it works, of how different people within that world interact with their surroundings.
I explained it to my students like this:
It doesn't matter if your story takes place on a different planet or entirely in the confines of someone's bedroom, each of the physical places (or nonphysical if you're exploring a different realm of consciousness) has a reason for being, a history, a system of maintenance, a set of rules and expectations, and a meaning specific to each individual who either passes through or sees it from the outside.
We interact with our surroundings so naturally that we often don't care to notice the cause-effect relationships that create our experiences with each space we move into. I have a very different relationship with my guest bathroom than I do my ensuite. I have a very different relationship with my grandmother's house than I do my sister's. I have a very different relationship with my teaching partner's classroom than her student's do. And I have a very different relationship with New York City than someone who has lived and worked their all their life. And I imagine that I have a very different relationship with a Klingon ship than I have sitting in my own house.
You get the idea.
So now I'm going to ask that you identify the spaces occupied by your main characters and make some notes about what these spaces mean.
I gave my students these questions to use as a starting point. If you have other ones, add them to your own list, and maybe even send me a message about what could be added.
Obviously we could scrutinize every little detail and go on forever making a "History Of" encyclopedia, and I guess if that helps you, go for it, but it's okay to leave some room for discovery. You can fill in some of this information as you learn more about these environments from your character's experiences.
- Where is your story set?
- When is your story set?
- How long does your story take (hours, days, weeks, months, years?)
- Where do most people in this setting live?
- How do most people in this setting live?
- What kind of terrain or landscape make up this setting?
- What kind of landmarks, buildings, or structures are important to the people in this setting?
- How long have the current inhabitants lived in this setting?
- Have other people/societies/or elements of nature lived here before?
- What are the benefits of living in this place or in this society?
- What are the struggles of living in this place or in this society?
- What does this society value?
- What is this society working towards (Peace? War? Exploration? Profits? Technology? Nature?)
- What keeps this society running the way it is?
- What threatens this society?
- How do most people living in this society feel about living here?
- How do most people living outside of this society feel about living outside of it?
- What are the expectations of people living in this society?
- What happens to people who do not meet these expectations?
- Are there more than one setting important to your story? If so, go back through the questions 4-19 for each of those.
Happy plotting! And don't forget to tweet me #Step3Complete when you've made your World Building section in your plotting journal!