Jun 6, 2012

Setting Rules Story

Snoopy's world was limited in space, but imagination meant anything could happen!
Click on the picture if you want to get this as a wallpaper
Setting is often a key element in our story. Sometimes it can even be a character in the story like the big old house in Tim Winton's Cloudstreet. But often new writers overlook this and just have the setting as somewhere for stuff to take place.

I have an exercise I do with students when I run creative writing workshops for kids, it helps them to understand how setting can affect our story. I thought I'd share it with you now. Try this exercise with the setting to your WIP, but first use a few of the random ones suggested here as a warm up. We did this exercise in my writing group today and there were some interesting writing prompts from it.

If you're in a group, write these settings down on scraps of paper (add some of your own if you like) and disperse randomly. Otherwise, pick out two or three to work with.

Possible Settings:
  • Pirate ship
  • Prison
  • Australian bush
  • Homeless gathering
  • Skyscraper
  • High school
  • Space
  • Fantasy land
  • Ski lodge
  • Police station
Now you simply write two lists. 

One list is for plot ideas or motivations that can be generated from this setting, e.g. in a Prison, escape, trying to stay good for parole, guard might on their last day because they're quitting for a safer security job, governor or head of the prison might be trying to meet budget cuts or there could be an alien invasion on earth and the prison is the safest place from land attacks. 

The second list is all the threats that setting presents. In the Prison it could be knifing, drugs, vicious guards, attack dogs, lockdown and left without food in your cell (as all the guards have been killed off by the aliens), riots, lack of empathy from outside community, or losing your sanity.

Once you have a few lists, pick a plot idea and at least one threat then write for 10-15 minutes and see what you come up with, you might find yourself with a decent piece of flash fiction or the start of something bigger!

Now you've warmed up properly, pull out your own setting and see if you can find more threats or possibilities that could strengthen your WIP.

I'm currently working on a story where the little sister of Isis is resurrected in New York City 5,000 years later. So my setting is split between Ancient Egypt and New York City. Here's my list for Ancient Egypt:

Plot ideas
  • Mummification
  • Prophecies
  • Secrets and plots
  • Gods
  • Superstitions and religion
  • Afterlife
  • Amulets and protection magic
  • Came race
  • Mummified alive
  • Cobras
  • Assassins
  • Rabid Camel
  • Crocodiles
  • Heat, sun exposure
  • Dehydration
  • Floods (The area by the Nile was not a desert but quite lush back then)
  • Evil Gods
  • Sacrifice
  • Sentenced to death
If you try it out I'd love to see some of your suggestions for plot ideas or dangers for setting.

This post is part of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, challenges are posted once a month, you can sign up to join in here (or click on the picture). Now there's a few hundred participants, so it'll take me a while to get around to everyone, but I'll certainly try before the next challenge!

Realised, I should mention my writing insecurity! Mine is when I've finished that first draft and got all the plot details down, I won't be able to figure out that magic ingredient that adds life and pop to the book, it'll end up a bit bleh. What I do about it is exercises like this one to strengthen different elements of the story.


  1. Hi Charmaine! I'm visiting from IWSG.
    These sound like exciting exercises to stimulate some ideas on setting... I'm definitely going to give them a try-out... thanks for sharing!

  2. Sounds like a good exercise. Rabid Camel? Are you serious? LOL

  3. Charmaine, this is Brilliant (purposely with a capital B). Great post, but how could you forget the scarab beetle?! Everyone loves a good old fashioned scarab beetle chase. And what about an ancient cat wth feline Aids? I love this exercise :-)

  4. This is a really good exercise to help the imagination soar. I'm going to try it.

  5. HI!! I'm making the rounds on IWSG. It's nice to meet you. Great post. Have a SUPER DAY!

  6. Hi Charmaine,

    That's a great exercise and one I plan to use for my next short story.

    I totally understand about your finding that 'magic' ingredient. It's tough to look at your own work objectively but, your 'bleh' could be someone else's 'wow!' :)

    Great IWSG post!

  7. Hi there. Just popping by from IWSG and a new follower of your blog! Thanks for the exercise.

  8. Hi! Thanks for stopping by my writer's blog and for your comments related to the IWSG. My stepson and his girlfriend are currently enjoying living in Perth. :) Cheers!

  9. As someone who often has trouble with setting, thank you! This is such a fabulous idea, I'll definitely be using it.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  10. I'm always so impressed with how much and the quality of what you share. I decided to check out the insecure writers group. Unfortunately I can relate to almost anything with the word insecure in it. I think I'll participate. But I'm even insecure about joining. Hah.

  11. Lol, bless you for forgetting to mention your insecurity!

    Love the writing exercise, I will be trying that out sometime!

  12. Great advice! Thanks for sharing this valuable information with us. Writers know setting is important, but most of us tend to remember just how important it is to the story. Take care!

  13. I'm always worried about the 'bleh' too! Great idea.

  14. This is all really fantastic advice!

  15. That's an awesome exercise! I love brainstorming activities!! :)

  16. I love your exercise ideas... I;m going to try this out with a new story I've started in a new world... :)

  17. Hey Charmaine, awesome. Setting is so underrated. Some of these exercises look familiar, lol! I'm looking forward to getting around to doing a fantasy setting. Was on my agenda today but I'm so far behind in my blogging I doubt I'll get it done until the weekend.

    Great to see you at IWSG.


  18. That's awesome advise! Great meeting you. The IWSG is a great group to share your progress or release you from your present insecurities, having new members just invigorates it.

    Gina from Diary of a Writer in Progress

  19. This sounds like a great exercise; I will definitely have to try it out! :)

  20. Yes, I agree and like the style you use. I hope your students appreciate all that you are teaching them.


  21. Hi Charmaine. Great writing exercise. Thank you for sharing.

  22. Catching up on your posts:

    Loved the writing exercise ideas!

    I have cut down on my blogging time. It got too much for me, and interfered with my writing time.

  23. Thanks for sharing these exercises, they seem perfect to help get the creative juices flowing. And I totally love the wallpaper picture, couldn't have come upon it at a better time as I've been looking for a new wallpaper and I totally love Snoopy! Thanks for sharing it. :)

  24. I tried an exercise like this before, it really works! Cheerio!

  25. That's a really good exercise. Bet the kids enjoy it.
    Welcome to the IWSG!

  26. I think I'll try that exercise the next time I look at one of my chapters and think it's a bit bleh. Happens quite a lot, actually.

    Glad you joined the IWSG.

  27. Love your ideas & can't wait to try them out:) Welcome to the group! I'm a new follower:):)

  28. Fantastic post. My mind is whirling with ideas about settings and their dangers.

  29. Setting was the hardest part for me, because I have travelled and experienced so little that I had to limit my stories to 'Generic High School, Anytown USA' Once I got serious about my WIP I bit the bullet and based it in my hometown (with a different name) http://pedestrianwriter.blogspot.com/2012/04/easter-recap-dont-worry-theres-bunny.html

    Still not sure what purpose the setting will serve, since I got so used to writing stories that could take place anywhere. These are great exercises though, I'll definitely use them when I'm ready to give it more thought. Thanks for finding me through the IWSG!

  30. That's a great exercise! Your story sounds fascinating. I love stories with Egyptian history and mythology. Best of luck in sprucing it up. :)

  31. Stopping in from IWSG to say hello and that you have a new follower :) Great post!

  32. Setting is one of my weaknesses. This sounds like a really good exercise I am going to have to try it. Thanks!

    new follower here :)


  33. That's an excellent idea for practicing setting. Thanks! And I sympathize with you on your insecurity. I can zoom through a first draft, but then how to get the revisions working to help the story pop. It's tough.

  34. Those are some great ideas above!!! Welcome to the IWSG. :))) Look forward to visiting you here.