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Repeat after me: World building isn’t just for fantasy authors. In fact, it’s for every author, even those writing contemporary settings. I’ve put setting second in my How to Write a Romance Novel blog series because it’s something newer writers often overlook and one of the biggest issues I myself had to work on when I began seriously improving my craft.
Why is setting so important? Because it anchors and orients your reader. And why must the reader be anchored and oriented? Because the whole point of reading fiction is to be swept away into a story, and that requires a place. Where are your characters? Where, in turn, is your reader?
A strong setting avoids a problem known as the “white room,” where your characters are speaking and acting but no setting is described, leaving them to do these things in a nebulous “white room”—the near emptiness your reader’s mind is likely to create as it grasps for imagery that’s missing.
So how does one create a setting? It involves making decisions regarding a variety of considerations.
Before you start thinking about your story’s specific settings, consider the following factors.
Your chosen subgenre impacts every choice you make regarding your romance novel, including setting. Some subgenres require a certain time period: contemporary romances must be set in modern day, and historical romances must be set in a specific period in the past. In addition, sci-fi romance is often set in the future. Other subgenres aren’t as cut and dry when it comes to setting, but they still impact it. For example, if you’re writing a fantasy romance or paranormal romance, your novel’s setting will probably include some element of magic or the supernatural.
Character is something else to consider when creating your setting. What role does your character play in their world? Is he a king, necessitating a kingdom? Is she a detective, meaning she has to work in a law enforcement setting? Maybe your character is a witch in a coven, and the coven needs a meeting place. The possibilities are endless here.
You should consider how much research you’re prepared to do when choosing your setting. Every setting is likely to require some kind of research, but historical settings necessitate a heavy amount of research (if you’re looking to be historically accurate, anyway), as do settings you aren’t familiar with, such as a contemporary city you’ve never been to. If you’d prefer to do as little research as possible, consider a setting you’re already familiar with or a fantasy setting that you have complete control over.
Once you’ve thought about the above, it’s time to plan the specifics of your setting. Actually, your novel will have multiple settings (unless the whole thing takes place in one specific area, but that’s uncommon).
The macro settings make up the wider world of your story. This part is often neglected, but it’s important for your reader to be fully anchored. Consider the following.
Does your story take place on Earth? Or are you writing a sci-fi romance set on another planet? You might even have to go bigger in the latter case and consider in which galaxy your planet is located.
In which part of the planet is your story located? What is the climate and culture like? What about national government and laws?
City or Town
Do your characters live in a big city or a rural town? Are there lots of diverse neighborhoods or just one stoplight? Do the residents enjoy urban solitude or does everyone know everyone?
Examples of micro settings include coffee shops, stores, characters’ homes, street corners, nightclubs, tattoo shops, specific rooms, workplaces, parks, etc. Whether you create brief sketches and leave your reader to fill in specific details or spend a lot of time creating intricate images, these are the settings you will probably feature the most.
Where do your characters live and work? Where do they go for fun? Where do they go because they are obligated? Where do they end up by accident? These are just a few questions to consider when crafting micro settings.
How to Include Setting
I view descriptions of setting the same way I view exposition, which is backstory and other information that might not be relevant to the present story. A fan of succinct writing, I favor brief descriptions of setting and sparse sketches that allow the reader to imagine the setting’s details. This is the experience I prefer as a reader. Sometimes, however, it’s appropriate to include longer, more detailed descriptions of setting, such as in a fantasy or sci-fi romance, where you’re likely to be creating a brand-new world that the reader expects to learn about.
Regardless, I suggest following these rules of thumb:
- Focus on setting details that are relevant to the story’s action in the particular scene you’re writing.
- Mention the macro setting as early as possible in the story so the reader knows where the action is taking place.
- Mention the micro setting as early as possible in a scene in order to anchor the reader in the character’s point of view.
Conclusion and Worksheet
I could write a whole book on setting. It’s an integral part of storytelling, and it connects to almost every element of a novel. It also depends on several factors and can be difficult to pin down. But if you copy and paste the following questions into your favorite word processor or notes app and answer them, you should have a solid foundation for your romance novel’s setting that you can refer to and modify as needed as you write.
Note: You can be as detailed as you’d like as you answer the below questions. Depending on how much planning you like to do before you write, you may want to include descriptions of the settings or key characteristics of them you plan to write about.