7 Tips to Adding a Unique Set Piece to a City

It might appear easy to add a quirk to your city.  Some people think they can just slap one on as they move along.  That can work at times, but there are moments where you have to think about what you’re doing.  After all, this set piece is supposed to catch the eye and become a symbol for the location.  There’s a lot more depending on it working out than one would initially believe.

  1. Consider what the point of this quirk will be.  Is it something used for transportation or an entertainment area?  Maybe it’s a natural part of the region, which was there before the city.  It could be ruins.  In those last two cases, you’re looking at the set piece demonstrating a sense of history and time.  No matter what, you need a reason for a city to have this.  If it’s there simply to make the audience go ‘ooooh’ then it has a high risk of falling flat.
  2. One source of inspiration can be the environment that the city is in.  For example, a place that is in arctic conditions may have something that keeps the place warm.  If you are looking at the environment then it is usually in a way that the locals have either defeated or utilized it.  This can be a big ‘man vs nature’ victory and show off the ingenuity of the people.  If this is a natural creation then it could be an oasis in the middle of a harsh landscape.
  3. Another factor to consider is the level of tech and/or magic.  If this set piece needs to be created, you need it to match the tech and magic of the area.  They can’t be using elevators and teleporters when everything up until now has been medieval.  Not unless you establish that this city is an isolated location of technological advancement, but that brings in other challenges.  One way around this is to have the set piece be from ‘lost arts’ or something, but that means nobody can explain it or truly fix it if it breaks.
  4. Sure . . . Go with some type of citywide tube system.  People don’t seem to have gotten bored of that yet.
  5. A great way to explore this set piece is to have at least one character be unfamiliar with it.  That way, you have someone asking questions and possibly getting into trouble with the set piece.  This helps in two ways.  First, you can explain things to the audience in a more natural way than a blunt info dump.  Second, you force yourself to flush the set piece out and get a better idea of its purpose.  This allows you to have it be more than quirky background and can help you remember to have it be used throughout the course of the adventure.
  6. Not every unique set piece needs to be a huge construct.  Sometimes, it can be a local creature or weather event.  There could be sturdy bubbles that can be jumped on and used a variety of ways like Sabaody in ‘One Piece’.  You can have hairy tapirs like in Curse of the Dark Wind.  This things still need a purpose and to be shown a few times, but they’re certainly not stationary such as towers, tube systems, and griffin aeries.
  7. Nothing wrong with the set piece being small of size and large of scale.  We tend to think of these things as eye-catchingly gigantic.  Towers, arenas, mountains, waterfalls, and the list goes on.  Yet, you don’t need it to be big in order for it to achieve the same sense of awe and uniqueness.  Perhaps it is a single shrine that is incredibly important to the city.  This is harder to pull off because large things come with built in ‘wow’ factors, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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10 Responses to 7 Tips to Adding a Unique Set Piece to a City

  1. L. Marie says:

    Thank you for this post. Such great tips. When I read tip 2, I immediately thought of season 1 of Airbender and the icy regions of the water tribes, particularly the northern water tribe episodes where Team Avatar traveled the canals of the capital city. Tip 5 reminded me of another great city—Ba Sing Se, a huge, sprawling city like Beijing. Team Avatar toured it upon arrival. Tip 6 reminded me of a conversation I had with someone who had been to Portugal and who described a walking tour that took her through two towns. Tip 7 reminded me of the Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios. There is so much to think about in planning a city, so thank you for these tips. This post makes me wish I had studied city planning! 😊


    • Airbender definitely created a lot of unique areas. Makes sense since they were working the elemental theme. I wonder if city planning knowledge would become a hindrance to fantasy writing. Put you too much into reality.

      Liked by 1 person

      • L. Marie says:

        I meant in terms of the basic needs of a city–transportation, housing districts, that sort of thing. But magic could play into it still. I can’t help thinking of an Airbender episode where Aang, Sokka, and Katara went to Omashu.
        Aang used airbending to ride the cart on the transportation system used to move freight around the city. Someone had to plan that transportation system despite the fact that Aang had an illegal use for it. 😊


  2. All great tips for adding interest to a story. I got a kick out of your point four.


  3. I find that whenever I introduce an element to a landscape, I end up using it later in the story. Even if, when I first write it, I don’t know what it will be for.

    But I suppose if one is more planning-oriented, you can do that in reverse. For instance, if you know you’re going to have a chase through city streets in horse-drawn chariots, you would consider that need of your story as you lay out the town. You’d put in streets wide enough for the chariots, and add a few choke points for narrow escapes, or branching streets where the racers might try to evade pursuit.


  4. I like this tip, and noticed it occurs a lot in speculative fiction. I don’t watch a lot of anime, but I see it in Marvel things like Knowwhere.


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