I have invented a setting I think is kinda cool, but I have no story for it. Now the question is - should I develop a story for this setting or is it bound to be a bad story, because not developed for the reason of the story but to throw light on a setting?

For those interested, it's an Science Fiction setting with aliens arriving in the solar system but first contact is not about war or something but a simple we are here and we don't care much about you and how it would change human society. That in itself doesn't present a story easily.


Well, actually you do have it kind of backwards, but not really in a bad way.

The basic progress for scifi in idealized case is to first come up with the concept. Then come up with the theme, which aspect of your basic concept you want to explore and how. Then think of a story that does that. And develop the setting as normal for the story.

So in theory you kind of did part of it backwards. In practice, you are extremely unlikely to have developed the setting to a degree where it actually is an issue. And even if you have, it is your setting, you can make adjustments as you wish. So don't worry.

Note that as per comment it does not really matter where you start developing the story, in the real world the development a story is always an iterative process and there is no requirement you do "all steps" every iteration. So the actual starting point and the order you do things do not really matter. The idealized case comes from the fact that a science fiction story is as per genre defined by its differences from familiar. Putting concerns related to that first is simply a way to ensure you do not forget and write a otherwise perfectly good story that confuses readers because the differences from the familiar are badly exposed.

In any case, it is absolutely normal to reuse settings for multiple stories, sometimes even by multiple authors. And usually it works just fine because of the sheer improbability of the setting having been so strictly defined it is a real issue. The extreme example of this would be the real world which has been used as a setting by literally countless authors without the fact that the setting was defined before making up the stories really being an issue.

Fundamentally this is because any setting is always much larger than either the part of it visible in the story or the part the reader might have any knowledge of. There should always be enough unknown territory for the needs of any story you wish to tell.

Now just think about the really cool thing about your setting that you'd like to explore or share. Then try to think of circumstances where characters in the setting would explore that aspect. If it really was something cool, there should be a story there.

I probably should mention the one thing you do need to watch for. Sometimes when people have a setting with a concept they like and they have spent lots of effort in developing it, the author gets tempted to show it off to the readers. Since the setting is shown in the context of the story, this naturally results in the story meandering about so that it can show more of the setting.This in turn results in issues with the pacing and internal logic of the story,and in general makes the story weaker and less immersive. This is a real issue with modern scifi and a major reason why I read much less scifi than I used to.

So once you come up with the story make sure you resist the temptation to show off one iota more of your setting than the story actually needs. (Success is optional, just remember to make the effort. It will keep you away from trouble.)

  • I like most of your answer, but I don't like the "should be" in the second paragraph. Science fiction writers can build stories starting from any element: from character, from situation, from setting, from an image, from a memory, from a gee whiz, what if idea, or (as in an exercise Algis Budrys used to assign to his writing students) from random, everyday objects or from three words chosen randomly from the dictionary. – Dale Hartley Emery Jun 14 '15 at 0:18
  • @DaleEmery True, it is a misleading statement. You can see it from the overall context, if you read the entire answer, but I really should be clearer that this is an idealized view not an actual requirement or goal you should try to follow. After all, it is pretty hard to have read the entire answer for context before reading the second paragraph... You are also right that it is probably the "should be" that is the culprit, it does carry the meaning I wanted, but it is usually used for actual requirements. I'll edit it away. Thanks. – Ville Niemi Jun 14 '15 at 13:06
  • @DaleEmery Also added a separate paragraph to try explain the reasoning with the "previously should be" paragraph. Hope it helps. – Ville Niemi Jun 14 '15 at 13:23

If you have a story to tell, it should be possible to tell that story in your setting. If all you have is a setting, you need to find your story first. What you should avoid doing is setting your story in your setting and then not really using that setting to inform the story. If you're telling a story about, say, the politics of the international chess-playing federation, and their upcoming tournament, it would be odd if that was, for no real reason, and with no real connection, happening amidst massive social upheaval. If, however, your story is about a person, who happens to be a chess player, dealing with massive social upheaval, then it would be better.


For a story, you need a character in a setting with a problem. You can start from any of those elements and develop the others. If you have an interesting character in an interesting setting with an interesting problem, it makes absolutely no difference in what order you developed them.

If you have a setting, find a character with a problem in that setting, and you have the beginning of a story.

You might take a character that you developed for some other story, or a character that you think is interesting, but don't have a story for yet. Or make up a random character on the spot. Then plop the character into the middle of your setting and see what happens.

If you don't have a character, the setting might suggest some:

  • Who would necessarily be there?
  • Who might be there?
  • Who wants to be there? Who does not?
  • Who would be the most interesting person in your setting?

Note the specific things that are different between your setting and the real world. For each specific change, ask:

  • Who would be most affected by that change?
  • Who would benefit the most from that change?
  • Who would be most hurt by that change?
  • How would that one change affect the most privileged people in that setting? The least privileged?
  • For whom would that change create problems?

Make a big list of possible answers. Then pick out one or two interesting characters.

Once you have a (candidate) character, develop some kind of relationship between the character and the setting.

  • Plop the character down on an interesting street corner, and ask
    • What does the character see, hear, smell, feel, and taste?
    • What is the character's opinion of each of those things?
  • What problems might this particular character have in this setting?
    • Make a list of ten or so possible problems.
    • Pick out one or two interesting problems, and write them as possible openings.

If you have an interesting character in an interesting setting with an interesting problem, it makes absolutely no difference in what order you developed them.


In this setting, maybe a collection of short stories, each exploring a different facet of these changes, could be an interesting format.

I'm thinking of something like "After the quake" by Haruki Murakami, or "I robot" by Isaac Asimov.


I don't see any problem with that approach. Much of sci fi and fantasy is setting first. What you need, though, is an engaging story to take place in that setting. Something that is interesting independent of where it takes place. Something like love, war, political intrigue, or the problems of teens growing up. What it is is irrelevant and will depend on your personal interests, but it will define your target audience.

You will find such a storyline much in the same way as you find a story to tell that takes place on present day earth: take whatever intrigues you in the area of human interaction -- something that happened to you, some event you witnessed, a terrible fate you read about, a fantasy you have, anything that has the power to stick in your mind and make you chew on it like a dog works a bone -- and build characters and a story from there.

The only difference to a story first approach will be that you need to shape your story so that it facilitates showing the setting. But that is easily done. Asimov told us about robots by having a robot work as a criminal investigator. Meyer tells us about vampires by letting a human fall in love with one. You be creative.

There are a few stories, like Skinner's Walden Two or many of Lem's futurologic short stories, where setting is the protagonist and no relevant story takes place, but these exist on the fringes of the mainstream and sell slow though they might attract a cult following.

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