When figuring out where to set your story, one of the simplest things to do is pick how far your story extends. Does it take place entirely in one town? Does it span an entire galaxy?

There has been an increasing trend toward larger and larger settings in the last few decades, though that trend may be reversing now. It seems as if, as our perception of our own world increases and our ability to get from place to place becomes easier, we seem to think that the same should be true even in a medieval fantasy setting. Lately, though, I’ve been coming across more and more stories that detail smaller areas, as if authors are realizing that — like with the real world — “flyover country” actually contains some interesting stuff. You can set a lot of stories in one small area. 

The connection of scale to the audience’s ability to imagine travel is actually pretty easy to spot, just by looking at ancient sagas and epics. The medieval French and English had a multitude of stories that took place within an area of just a hundred miles, or a few days’ ride of where the hero starts from. The ancient Greeks and the Norse, on the other hand, had a more vast perception of the world . . . as long as the hero traveled by water. That latter is actually a convention in Norse sagas, as sea travel is considered trivial, but land travel requires a true hero.

Because the perception of the difficulty of travel is defined by the audience at least as much as the story itself, stories have had to take into account then-current expectations. If they find it hard to get around, then stories take place locally. In the modern age, when you can get nearly anywhere with an airport within twenty-four hours, it’s almost an afterthought to describe the trip from DC to Hong Kong.

As I said, though, stories can take place in a very small space. The book I reviewed yesterday, The Accidental Alchemist, takes place not only in Portland, but primarily in a small section of Portland. Another book I’ve reviewed (well, I reviewed the parent series), Don’t Hex with Texas, takes place entirely in a rural Texan town. Another book I’ll be reviewing soon goes from England to the Mediterranean to the Caribbean to Boston in the early 19th century, but it takes place almost entirely on a single sailing ship, and that’s where all the true conflict rests.

Here are some tips to figure out what your scale should be, whether you’re writing epic fantasy, galactic space opera, or small-town mystery.

Determine the minimum distance you need to tell your story. If you’re writing a science fiction story in the vein of Star Trek, where nearly every solar system seems to have a habitable planet, then you don’t have to go far to find stuff. If you’re writing a story, instead, where such planets are rare, then you might need to range further.

Alternatively, you might have a sci-fi setting where a lot of action takes place on artificial habitats. That means you’re not limited to planets, just local resources with which to build stations and ships.

Are you telling a story of a grand war to determine the fate of the world? Then you might be telling something on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, which takes place across a continental-sized map. Alternatively, you might be telling a story on the scale of The Illiad, which takes place in and around a single ancient city; just because it affects the fate of multiple nations doesn’t mean the action can’t happen almost entirely on one single field between the sea and the walls of Troy.

On the other hand, sometimes your setting needs to be a bit larger than it might first appear. The very popular TV show Murder, She Wrote spawned the term “Cabot Cove Syndrome,” because the long-running show (it aired over a 12-year span from 1984 to 1996) kept having so many dead bodies, many of which occurred in the small New England town of Cabot Cove. Sometimes you need to plan ahead and find a reason why all of this can happen. Sometimes you need more room, not less.

Determine how your characters get around. In your sci-fi setting, how fast do your ships travel? A lot of tension can happen just because you’re not moving fast enough. Sometimes ships can go faster, but it becomes less efficient — even if you have the reactionless drives that are pretty much a requirement of most settings, which don’t need as much fuel mass as a rocket. Even then, you could still be limited by efficiency; even if someone comes up with a working warp drive, it will be a long time before we get from Earth to the moon in less than three days, spending most of that time coasting on inertia. On the other hand, if you can travel lightyears in minutes, what are you passing in between? Can you stop along the way? Can you get lost?

In your fantasy setting, what’s the fastest way to travel? A normal horse can travel up to ten or twelve kilometers (seven or eight miles) per hour in good terrain at a trot and not weighed down with much. A ship is much faster, but not everything is on the coast or a navigable river. Terrain can be a big issue, as most people will avoid swamps and mountains if they can (though heroes have a tendency to be foolish, which in turn makes for good stories).

If you’re setting your story in a city, does your character own a car? Does he or she have to deal with public transit or the inability to find a parking space? Are there other limitations, such as no easy bus routes (or no routes at all, in a small town), or is your protagonist limited by age (kids can’t travel very far) or physical ability (limited by wheelchair accessibility)?

Obstacles make for challenges. Anyone who’s ever watched 24 and felt the tension rise as the clock ticks by knows that just sitting in traffic at a stoplight can add stress to a character’s day, if done correctly. If it’s hard to get around, then it changes the size of your setting.

Determine where you need to go. Indiana Jones goes all over the world, but in The Temple of Doom he doesn’t start at home. The whole story is an accident of sorts, as he stumbles into a problem and has to solve it. He begins in Shanghai, but crashes in India where he attempts to help some villagers. Unlike the other Indiana Jones movies, he doesn’t travel to any other countries; the story doesn’t require it.

An opposite extreme is Star Trek, where their planet-of-the-week style prevents a lot of recurring story potential. Part of this has to do with the realities of TV before Netflix binges, where they couldn’t count on people seeing every episode in order. With Voyager, it was built right into the premise, a necessary function of the overall story. Enterprise helped a lot, but even then they were trying too hard to play both sides, and ultimately failed. (Well, I think they succeeded in the final season, but by then it was too late. The three-part Vulcan storyline should have happened in the second season.) Deep Space Nine was the best at this, as the space station setting helped encourage a continuing story, and the audience was able to understand where nearly everything was in relation to Bajor and the wormhole.

The best example in television, I think, is Babylon 5. It, too, took place mainly on one station (cue the arguments in the audience as to who stole the idea from whom), but did an even better job about describing culture and filling in details, and it went to far fewer strange places. Almost all the action took place on the station and some ships, followed by Centauri Prime, Earth, Mars, and Minbar. Over the course of five seasons, we went to very few locations; and yet we still had an incredibly rich story.

Fill in the blanks. The Star Wars movies move between planets because the story deals with the fate of much of the galaxy. They have fleets of ships moving from place to place, trade routes to travel, and political entities to deal with. Yet there’s one enduring roll-your-eyes feature, and that’s that the planets always seem uniform. Coruscant is all one big city. Hoth is a single iceball with a breathable atmosphere. The Emperor himself refers to Endor as a “forest moon.”

Similarly, despite my enduring love of Firefly, it’s occasionally very obvious that there are few differences between their planets. Yes, they’re all terraformed, so theoretically they’d all be very similar; and they’re also all technically part of the same nation. But despite showing a lot of hints of cultural variation, there’s a lot of visual similarity. One of the many things I would have wanted to see in a sequel was the exploration of the differences between one planet and the next. You can get some of that with the RPGs and comics, but it’s just not the same.

Mind you, sometimes you don’t want more details. If they don’t serve the story, ax them. They’re taking up useless space. But that doesn’t mean you can’t gain a lot just from small things. Both Indiana Jones and Babylon 5 are, once again, prime examples of this. One of the things I like about the Indiana Jones settings are that they each have small details that reinforce the different cultures, often through the food that shows up in each location, but also through the reactions of each character to new situations. In Babylon 5, how each character describes another culture gives more information about the character’s own culture than anything else — a Centauri’s emphasis on other cultures’ social structure, a Narn’s opinion of other species’ strength and determination, a Minbari’s focus on understanding philosophical details and spirituality.

Contrast that with Star Trek, where you normally just get that stuff told plainly in a staff meeting, leaving most cultures feeling mass-produced unless they regularly show up (basically meaning Klingons and Bajorans). I don’t think it’s an accident that we got the greatest amount of detail about both from Deep Space Nine, where planet-of-the-week stories fell, for the most part, by the wayside.

Don’t think a big world is bad. Let the outside bleed in. One of the things that made me fall in love with the Forgotten Realms setting, long before I knew what an RPG was, was that I would be reading the novels and there would be these tantalizing references to other events in other countries. Secondary characters would chat about news from far-off lands at a party, or trade would be disrupted because of a war. Nothing was happening in a vacuum.

Don’t let your setting get tunnel-vision. Figure out what you need to tell your story, and then ask yourself what else is happening. Just because it doesn’t significantly affect the plot doesn’t mean other details might not come up.

Examples from the modern world include things like gas prices, or the lifting of a trade embargo on Cuba, or the ever-constant unrest in the Middle East. I go places and overhear people talking about Russia and Ukraine, or the EU’s financial crises, or either the US should implement budget cuts. The snowstorms this winter were headline news as travel and trade got disrupted.

Expand out and see what else might be happening. That gives you the sense of a larger world beyond your plot and characters, without detracting from the story you’re trying to tell. Done right, and you’ll actually enhance it.

As in the real world, sometimes travel doesn’t actually help much when it comes to detailing a setting. A tourist who goes to several different nations, but only stays in the touristy spots, may not see the real details about a culture. That can lead to significant misunderstandings, particularly if you assume that what you see is all there is.

In a story, traveling too far when the story doesn’t require it means you skip over a lot of detail. If the audience doesn’t get a sense of how that distance matters, then what’s the point of that distance in the first place?

Conversely, don’t set a story in too small a setting. Figure out the minimum you need, and then let it grow a bit. That gives you room for sequels, as well as giving you a sense of a much larger, living, breathing world beyond just the immediate events of your story.