Getting from Setting to Plot

Let’s say you’re one of those people who specializes in worldbuilding. You’ve got a grand world laid out, some combination of metaphysics and cultures and maps and history and… whatever, really. If you’re lucky, you’ve got a few characters, or at least an idea what kind of archetypes are going to be wandering around. But that’s not a story, and you know it. How do you get from the setting to the plot? I’d start by asking yourself one or more of the following questions.

  • What conflicts or challenges are inherent in the setting? For this, you can play with just about any of the standard conflict archetypes, anything from the inevitable clash between hereditary enemy cultures to the difficulties of living as an [insert member of a non-privileged class here] in [insert location here]. How about natural disasters? Discoveries that would shake the society to the core? Speaking of which….
  • What mysteries are there waiting to be unveiled? If the setting comes with serious questions, presumably there are characters who would be just as interested as you and/or your audience in finding out the answers, and if you can get that, you can start giving them obstacles to overcome in order to work through to find the answers. And of course, if the answer is contrary to common knowledge or threatens one of the local belief systems, life gets interesting.
  • What’s the most that one person can do to screw things up? In most cases, the one person is the Big Bad and stopping them is the plot, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Take the recent San Diego power outage: the blackout of an entire region makes for a lot of storyworthy challenges, but dramatically opposing the one worker from Yuma whose actions inadvertently led to the lights going out really isn’t one of them.
  • Speaking of which, what kinds of ways might people want to rock the boat? Where there’s a status quo, there are people who are going to want it to change. Where people want things to change, they will find ways to try to force them to change.
  • Conversely, what’s the smallest kind of story you can tell and still be interesting? Just because science fiction and fantasy have a nigh-on-addiction to the kinds of people who shake the world at its foundations, fulfill Great Destinies and Great Prophecies, invent something that changes the way people look at/interact with the world forever, so on and so forth, doesn’t mean that you have to write them that big. There are plenty of literary or other forms of fiction that never step outside the city; why do we worldbuilders insist on traipsing right the way across the setting?

These aren’t the only questions you can ask, but they make a good start.


  1. Michael says:

    Thank you for that :) I still have the world I created back in my ZBB days (Atragam) that I’ve never done anything with. Actually, in the case of Atragam the story came first, but it was one of my juvenile efforts and I wouldn’t want to work with that story any more. The world ended up taking on an existence of its own and most of the work I did on it was for its own sake, but still…. I always wanted to find a story in there that was worth telling, and I never did. I hope I’ll go back to that at some point.

    (It’s ironic because I think in general I’m a worldbuilding-last kind of writer; my best stories seem to come out of other people’s worlds, and for the story that Madness is currently playing around in the world of, one reason I was really glad to invite you in is that it made me sit down and do a lot of the worldbuilding I was finding it hard to get around to.)

  2. Shinali says:

    I also do a ton of worldbuilding and I can sometimes see a plot in it and sometimes not. Lately I’ve been on the village level, though the part I’m struggling with right now is more like village level diplomatic relations so making the setting clear in that plot is tricky especially with my jargon issue.

  3. Ravyn says:

    Michael: I know what you mean about working better in other people’s worlds; the easy part’s out of the way. I suppose that’s why I’ve been doing practically no writing lately; I refuse to write in a world that isn’t my own, since I want to publish without having to dodge copyright issues, but there’s so much I need to work on that I can never seem to get any individual world to the point where I could write in it. I think I came to that realization after realizing that my most impressive and in-depth piece of storywork–otherwise known as my primary game–would get me sued if I tried to make money off it, or even publish it really.

    Shinali: I’d say just work outward. Diplomatic relations are mostly, from what I’ve seen, a long string of “What do I want? What can you do that messes with what I want? How worried am I that you’re going to do it? What do you have that I want? How could I get you to give it to me?” Lather, rinse, repeat. Essentially, view each side as a nebulous character at the same time as you view their component characters as characters–if that makes any sense.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. KJD-IMC » Links of the Week: September 26, 2011
  2. Getting from Character To Plot: An Introduction | Exchange of Realities
  3. Seven Questions to Ask When Getting Plot from Character | Exchange of Realities
  4. Links of the Week: October 3, 2011 | KJD-IMC - KJDavies "In My Campaign" Articles

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