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The Setting Is Also Not the Story

Not every detail can be addressed in one blog post, so I wanted to write a quick followup to the post: Don't Write the Plot, Write the Story

That post didn't mention setting or world-building, mostly because posts have to be limited in scope so as not to become books in their own right. So let me be clear: regardless of whether you're using the real world as a framework or inventing an entirely new universe, setting is absolutely important! 

The balance of setting with elements like plot and character development varies depending on the genre. A contemporary novel still needs to be grounded in its setting, but a historical novel will likely need to devote more space to establishing the world (creating a fuller picture of the world for those who may not know that history, did not live then, etc.). High Fantasy requires more world-building than Urban Fantasy, and it will almost always need more space on the page to explain the world because you can't expect the reader to have a preexisting framework to rely on if you're inventing a universe from scratch. That balance will also shift based on whether it's the first or fifteenth book in a series.

But no matter how richly developed the world, the setting is also not the story. It is unquestionably an important piece, but it is ultimately the backdrop that facilitates our experience of the story. 

Consider plays. I often remind writers that a novel is not a script—a fiction writer is required to do the work of the director, the actors, the set designer, the costume designer, and even the lighting designer, to an extent. Plays are a very different form of storytelling because so much must be added by each team creating the version they perform. And undoubtedly the interpretations of actors and directors become a critical part of their version of the story.

But a traditional Elizabethan version of Hamlet in full costume, with full sets (etc.) is not a different story than that same company's performance in their street clothes on a bare stage. Theater companies have even done intentionally minimalist performances like this.

Because while the setting (including costumes) enhances the story, and certainly influences our experience of the story, it is ultimately not itself the core story.

On the flip side, Hamlet with a different director's and cast's interpretation may ultimately be a different story. Because as I wrote here, the plot is also not the story.