I’ve been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto V lately. It’s addicting and it gives me what I love: setting. The setting is overdone and most of the places and organizations they put in you will never see, because quite honestly you’re not looking that hard.
Some examples would be the TV shows. They have four cartoons, numerous “reality” shows, and countless commercials on TV and radio. There is a political race that you’ll never participate in, but the candidates have TV and radio ads, along with fully realized websites where you can even take part in a little survey. There are several cults which you can completely ignore or get involved with. In fact, I had two characters join different cults. It costs a lot of money, you do a lot of illegal things, and in the end you basically paid for a story line you’d otherwise not see. Except for one of the cults where you kill everyone and run with the money. Details.
Add to it there are at least a thousand buildings, each with its own little back story and detail. There is a delivery company called “Go Postal” with the motto of “We aim not to lose it.” You wouldn’t know that unless you ended up in front of their HQ in a back alley and took the time to read the sign next to the building. A downtown bank has a beautiful waterfall set up, which you wouldn’t see unless you stopped in front of the bank and decided to walk up the stairs in front of it. Billboards are fully realized ads, there are radio personalities, construction is all over the place because cities are generally either expanding or dying, and there are hundreds of other little things that I’ve probably never even realized.
What inspired me about GTA V is they created a setting that is so detailed that most players won’t even realize it. Most players will run around, shooting people and stealing cars, without stopping to enjoy the signage or the little setting hints that show how much effort Rockstar put into a game known mostly for extremely sexual and violent themes. The developer is also the most brilliant setting creators I’ve ever seen, and writers can learn a lot from the setting. As for the rest of how to write, they have a few shining moments, but their setting truly feels flawless.
However, one might ask why create a setting that is so detailed that the average reader will not know half of what you conjured? The only people who will really know all about your world are the ones who ask you the questions in person. Otherwise, they’d have no idea. So why do it?
A setting with partially created details is very obvious. Just like a character that’s an extra, or a side quest that was thrown in for word count. You can spot the kingdom that lacks a defined culture. You can see the city that only seems to have a half dozen locations and the rest was forgotten. You know because there aren’t those little hints. You never hear a reference to some obscure haunted house a side character visited when he was sixteen on a dare. Perhaps we’ll never see the haunted house or learn if there really were ghosts. What we learned was there’s more to the world than we immediately see and this side character has bravado. Or he ran away like a little girl.
Another example would be in science fiction, talk about the different strange and flashy signs that are all over. There are neon displays that are drawing the characters in, so why not have it draw in the readers as well? Talk about the weird candy store with the bright pink lights that has a strange cartoon octopus as its logo. Then later have a dialogue at one of their candy stores, or have a character eat one of their candy bars.
Create some behind the scenes information for your setting. Give glimpses of it. Maybe a TV personality that shows up from time to time. Perhaps some car company that’s infamous for shoddy parts, but the characters just keep buying from them. While the reader might never know why the parts are so bad, you have a little side story as to where they’re made, the mentality of the CEO, or just some guy who was paid to put in bad parts by another company. A recall on the radio could become an inside joke with you and your readers because you took the time to put care into your setting.
Take a story you have. Make up two or three setting points that your reader will only see in the peripheral. Use your imagination as to what, and just insert it from time to time. Little hints. Get the reader realizing that there’s something deeper here, and give enough to lure them, but you don’t have to spoil it all. A quirk in the world, so to speak. It will keep them enticed, discussing, curious, and entertained.