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I have a science-fiction setting I have been kicking around for sometime, but I am not sure how to go about fleshing out events or characters that would make for stories within this setting. What are the pitfalls to fleshing out a setting before you dive into specific characters or plots within?

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Do you have an idea of the story you want to tell? Or do you simply have a setting and are looking for something to do with and within that setting? –  Michael Kjörling Oct 21 '13 at 7:27
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5 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Sometimes for me, when growing the setting first, I find it generates new characters, details and interactions that lead to a story organically growing out of the exercise. There are many ways to start putting a story together and very few are right or wrong.

Still…

Pros

  • A cure for writer’s block; if you want to write but don’t know where to begin, building up your world and its history can lead to unexpected inspiration
  • An excellent reference; by writing all your thoughts down, when you start writing you’ll already have a concise reference to aid with the writing, such as names of organisations and places and so on
  • Strong logic; preplanning helps ensure that are no logical flaws in your plot by testing logical connections before you start writing
  • A map! I often draw up a map of my world (more relevant in fantasy but still works well in sci-fi.) These maps are incredibly handy for working out things like distances, time and relationships. For instance, I once built a full political affiliations map for a nation at war, and in the process knew where my characters could safely go, and developed the story by discovering new relationships between warring factions.
  • Cushioning; when we have a lot of prebuilt content in the form of history and setting we know we have stuff we can fall back on if we hit road blocks while writing


Cons

  • Getting bogged down; it’s easy to get bogged down in world/setting development, and lose track of the story itself, I have many worlds lying dormant due to this
  • Getting scared; as a world gets bigger it’s easy to believe you have to cover everything in your story. This can get scary, and can easily lead to you balking from making a start on the story
  • Starting with setting; it’s easy after spending so much time in world creation to want to start your story with a big descriptive piece. Remember that publishers tend to cast aside stories that start with big descriptive pieces (that’s why we use prologues to get a reader stuck in with some initial action)
  • History lessons; being caught up in our world’s history makes us want to share it with our readers, but if we stop to give a history lesson the story stalls and the reader may lose interest.
  • Constricting creativity; this one’s kind of ironic as I said in Pros that this exercise can boost creativity. But too much of it can restrict creativity as it limits what changes you will allow yourself to make once you start writing as you’ve already set things in stone (so to speak)


Conclusion
When it comes down to it, whether developing your world first is a good idea comes down to you, and the way you write. I find it can help, but I often find that if I spend too much time working on world development I never actually write the story. Most of my stories are written by simply jumping in, but conversely; when I do that, I find that I often hit logic flaws that could have been avoided if I’d planned out my setting first.

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Great answer! explicitly answers my question with valuable insight into the pros and cons of the approach I am taking. Thank you. :) –  JBeck Oct 21 '13 at 18:48
    
You're very welcome :) –  CLockeWork Oct 22 '13 at 8:11
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A dramatist once told me that he always imagines the setting first, including rooms and entries and exits. Creating a stage is like a frame of a painting, allowing the writer to be like an artist placing the rest of the characters and dialogue in place. Its a lot more fluid to have the setting in your mind physically, and then you can concretely explain how people get into and out of the scene. The advantage is that its very believable and consistent, like a movie. The usual device is to have 2 people talking to progress the dialogue.

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I fail to see how this answers the question "what are the pros and cons of building the setting before the characters and story?". Perhaps you could extend this answer to clarify how it answers the question; as it stands, in my opinion it's little more than an anecdote. –  Michael Kjörling Oct 21 '13 at 7:29
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This isn't the pros and cons as such, but here's my approach that should help influence your decision.

I always introduce elements of the setting via the actions of my character. You should never stop the story progressing, even to describe.

See this example (excuse the arbitrary nature of it):

The hallways were made from a unique metal alloy only found on the planet Andromeda 6, and as a result, it was one of the most expensive ships in the fleet

This is preferred:

John's steps clanged against the hallway interior, which was clad in Andromeda 6's signature metal alloy; he could easily see why this was one of the most expensive ships in the fleet.

Same information, but the first example stalls the story to explain, whereas the 2nd example explains and sheds light on the setting whilst the story is progressing. Describe around the actions of the scene, don't describe and then act.

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Damon Knight once said that when he has an idea for some science-fictional McGuffin but doesn’t know how to incorporate it into an actual story, he asks himself, “Who would this hurt?”

So if you know enough about your setting to be able to identify a character with a problem peculiar to that setting, then you’re ready to write a story in that setting. Suppose that on your world everyone can be telepathic if they eat a certain rare plant. You can write a story about a tycoon trying to monopolize the supply of that plant, or the travails of a minority group that is non-telepathic because they are allergic to the plant, or... you get the idea. And then as you continue to develop the setting, you can concentrate on those aspects that are necessary to your chosen plot and characters.

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In science fiction, setting typically is more vital to the story than in other genres. By definition, the location in a science fiction story must be a place in which some scientific discovery or concept alters the world so that it looks different than the one in which we live. Because of this, many science fiction authors start writing their stories by creating the setting.

Given this, a lot of science fiction works around the “edges of ideas”; that is, technology and the background setting come onstage. People generally lead different kinds of lives in science fiction stories than they do in our world because the technology and background affects their day-to-day decisions, from the most trivial of our habits to the most profound of cultural shifts.

An example of this in regards to new technology might be a civilization capable of producing a light, flexible and strong type of carbon nanotube on an industrial scale. How would this world be different than ours? On a mundane level, you might never have to buy more than one toothbrush in your life as the bristles are made from this material. Perhaps rather than being disposable, a toothbrush that stays with you throughout your life becomes as significant to people as other objects that follow us through our lives, such as cuff links or a necklace. More profoundly, such a material would allow us to build space elevators, opening us to becoming a spacefaring civilization.

An example of edges of ideas in regards to the background would be if living in a tidally locked planet around an M-class star. On such a world, people only reside in the open air along a narrow strip between the side facing the star and the side facing away. So how does this affect them? Well, there’s no night, just perpetual twilight. How does that affect their biorhythms and their sense of romance (There are no sunsets to watch, after all.). In addition, ground transportation systems mostly run in two directions (north and south), greatly affecting the flow of resources.

From either of these settings, you easily could build characters and a plot. Ask yourself how the science fiction setting you’ve created might symbolize an idea that your characters would differ over. For example, on our tidally locked planet, the civilization may be used to living in its confined strip but one character wants to venture into the cold dark side and explore…something that his colleagues and family find expensive, dangerous and even silly. Going to the planet’s dark side could be a metaphor for some people’s ambitions in our world to explore outer space.

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