Six impossible things

From setting to story

First, some housekeeping. December 23 is the last day to register for my online worldbuilding workshop at Odyssey, if you are interested. I will be taking next week off for the holidays, so no more blog posts until the new year. Now the question:

I’m having a heck of a time trying to turn my idea into a story. Since the idea is a whole economic system for a utopia, I have the setting. I’m just having trouble figuring out the conflict. Does my idea have to be the driver of my conflict, or is it okay to be more of passenger?

I’m spending a post on this partly because I was so busy last week that I kept not updating the comments, so nobody got a chance to answer Rocky, and partly because it fits right into the “developing the idea” post I was planning to do next anyway.

The short answer for Rocky is, there aren’t any writing rules except “you have to write stuff” and “what you write has to work.” There are emphatically NO rules for the writing process, except “it has to end up with words on paper/pixels” and “whatever you do has to work for you.” So basically, whatever you choose to do with your idea is OK, as long as it gets you writing and whatever you write works on the page…and no, your idea doesn’t have to drive the conflict. Because there’s nothing in “you have to write” and “it has to work” about how you get from an idea to a plot and characters, or whether you have to have a conflict at all. What you need is a story; how you get to one depends on you.

The slightly longer answer is:  As I said last post, all ideas are missing something and need to be developed. If your idea is for a conflict, then obviously you don’t need to develop the conflict (though you may need characters, setting, subplots, theme, etc.). If your idea is for a setting, then you obviously need to develop a plot and characters. How you go about developing them and what you end up with depend on what kind of story you want to write, which in turn depends on what you think will be interesting or fun or challenging or all of the above.

Quite often, settings and situations require more story-development work than characters or plots. This is because characters usually come with some desires or problems that can be developed into a plot (and if they don’t, one can usually tease out said desires and problems without too much difficulty), and plots almost always come with characters (or at least, roles like Hero, Detective, Sidekick, Romantic Interest, Murderer, that make it clear what characters will have to be developed and slotted into place to make the story work). Settings and situations are far more open-ended.

A setting is fundamentally a place. It may have history and backstory and all sorts of cool cultural twists, but at bottom it’s the context in which a story happens. Context is hugely important – a murder mystery set in Rome in 12 B.C.E. is going to be very different from the exact same mystery set in San Francisco after the earthquake and fire in 1906 or the same murder-mystery set on Tau Ceti IV in 2533.

Settings, however, are vast in terms of story possibilities. Think of all the different stories that have been set in London – murder mysteries and police procedurals, spy stories, literary novels, immigrant stories, historical fiction, courtroom drama, romances, thrillers, war stories from pretty much every possible era from Boudica to WWII, myths like the Arthurian legends…every possible type of story there is, except maybe a classic American Western. And all of those story types and genres have also been set in other places and times, from New York to Bombay and from the dawn of history to the far future.

So developing a setting into a story means that you have a lot more choices in terms of potential plots and characters than you usually do if you’re starting from some other direction. (About the only starting place that’s more open-ended is theme, because “I want to write a story about love and death” can fit pretty much any characters, setting, or basic plotline.) Similarly, any given situation can be resolved in multiple different ways, each of which can lead on in several different directions. This is why five different writers can take the exact same situation and come up with five totally different stories (See Five Fates, a 1971 collection that illustrates just this).

This means there are several different ways of developing a setting into a story. You can poke around in your setting, looking for the misfits, the people who aren’t really happy even if things appear Utopian, the ones who walk away from Omelas, and build a plot around one of them solving (or not) their particular problems. You can look at all the different types of fiction and explore how they would have to change if they took place in the context of your setting, the way Western “horse opera” became science fictions “space opera.” You can introduce an outside character from somewhere else who isn’t familiar with your context, and look at the kinds of trouble he/she/it can get into here and how that gets resolved. You can look at whatever your very favorite part of your setting is, and come up with a plot that showcases that bit (say, a murder-mystery plot if your favorite bit is the futuristic police force, or a Cinderella romance or rags-to-riches plot if your favorite bit involves upward social mobility). You can take your favorite characters from other stories, file the serial numbers off, and see how people with those personalities would fare in your setting – what problems they might have, how their needs and wants might be the same or different, what different obstacles they’d face to achieving their new goals, and how they’d have to go about overcoming them in this different environment. You can write the story of some important milestone in the development of your setting – the discovery of anti-gravity or a vaccine that prevents aging, for instance – and the way the consequence of that event brought about your current utopia or near-utopia.

Or you can just look at the setting and ask yourself what would be the coolest and most interesting story that could happen in this place/time/culture/context. Note that this means the one you think would be coolest, not what anyone else would think was cool.


  1. I am struggling to keep my current WIP from becoming nothing more than a travelogue. The setup is a rescue team from Earth encountering the melding of cultures between the crashed scouting vessel and the indigenous population. The development of the native culture is so intriguing to me that it keeps luring me away from plotting engaging events—in a sense, setting wants to take center stage over action. That would be fine as far as it goes, except not that many people want to read a fictional documentary.

    • Heh – don’t underestimate the power of travelogues! Or just HOW many people on YouTube watch videos about people walking around their town or going to a restaurant. Or the popularity of stories like “Around the World in 80 Days”.

      Unless you are the kind of reader bored silly by travelogues and can’t figure out why your story wants to be one. That is a different issue. (Possibly a “lack of goal” issue)

      • Right on target. My characters’ goals do tend to be rather weak.

  2. The idea for the book I want to write after my current WIP started with a setting, which isn’t usual for me – I tend to come up with characters first, or occasionally situations. The setting now has some characters attached, but I don’t have a clear idea of the plot yet, except that it’s probably going to be more about solving a puzzle than dealing with an antagonist (because I need a break from writing fight scenes and politics, neither of which is my strong point, but which were necessary for my current project and the one before it).

  3. You can poke around in your setting, looking for the misfits, the people who aren’t really happy even if things appear Utopian, the ones who walk away from Omelas, and build a plot around one of them solving (or not) their particular problems.

    Interesting! Setting is often my favorite place to start when I’m building a story. I brainstorm by exploring the setting, asking myself questions: who lives here? how do they live? why do they handle it that way? what is the history behind that? and so on. It feels natural and fun.

    But I hadn’t examined my process in sufficient detail and with sufficient detachment to realize that my characters usually are misfits who find something or things about their native culture unsatisfactory. Thanks for provoking my revelation! 😀

    @Rocky Ms. Wrede’s answer is (naturally) much better than mine, but I did post a (belated) answer back on the earlier blog post (before I read the blog post above 😉 ).

  4. Thanks for the whole article reply to my question! I’m just seeing it now.

    I am terrified and amused at myself reading that themes are even more open-ended, because I do tend to think of theme first and know well what a vast task that is. I shall resign myself to suffering for the art!

    Regarding settings, I tend to view them as a collection of relationships, whether it is a relationship of people to their friends and family, to their community, to their geography or climate, to their universe etc. So thematically I want to find what the relationships are saying about the world I create. Turning that into plot points mean something is flawed that needs to be fixed, but when setting is a utopia I’m blinded to what the actual flaw might be. So I’ll probably look for the flaw in people’s relationship to the utopia. Specifically, it’s a young utopia, trying to prove itself, not quite settled in all its forms and functions, a bit precarious because it depends on a condition that has not been met yet, and it has enemies in the oligarchs of the late-stage capitalism that it replaced that want to make sure that condition is never met. So I guess I have a revenge plot! A theme of revenge would fit in with some other things I want to throw in there, so I think I’ve almost figured it out. Thanks for your help.

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