Using Terrain Features in Story

Terrain refers to the horizontal and vertical surfaces of the land. It is often spoken of in terms of elevation, slope and the orientation of particular land features. Depending upon certain circumstances, terrain can affect the flow of water, where bodies of water are located and in what quantity. It can even affect weather and climate.

Suitability for human life is determined by terrain. Picture a large swath of desert and a high rocky crag. How difficult would it be for people to sustain life in such terrains? What people wear, eat and how they construct dwellings is determined by terrain.

Your task is to write a story in a challenging terrain. You might have to do some research first to get ideas about how difficult it would be to live there. Your story can be science fiction or contemporary. It can take place in the past or in the future.

The important thing is to choose a terrain that may not be the most hospitable. Don’t rely on exposition to tell the story: have characters interacting with each other as they navigate survival.

Have fun with this one.

Varied Locations


Generally a story has more than one setting which places the burden on the writer to bring each place alive. One way you can do that is to plan a walkabout with camera or notebook in hand.

You might want to focus on architecture, such as the shapes of buildings, bridges, and archways. Cities generally have a mix of architectural styles since they are developed over periods of time. Downtowns are frequently the oldest part of town. What features do you see there? In San Francisco, you would see a lot of stucco facings and large, carved wooden doors. Around the doors and windows might be whirliques, demons, saints and sinners alike. If you can, walk inside and describe what you see. Marble staircases and floors? Gilded handrails? Wood flashings and trim?

If the buildings have been remodeled or replaced, massive steel and glass structures might have arisen. Step inside, keeping in mind the contrast to the old buildings that used to be there.

Cross over a bridge or two. San Francisco has two important bridges, the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge. The first is an orange structure that connects SF to the Marin side. It traverses what would be a huge cavern if not for the bay waters far below. When you look at it, think about what stories it tells. There have been many jumpers, almost all of whom died. What would bring someone to jump off that bridge? Think of the car accidents that have taken lives. What were the drivers doing when they crossed over the separating lines.

The Bay Bridge is a modern structure with massive steel cables. It is beautiful, but is shrouded in controversy. The cost to build it went way beyond projections. Think of the story to be told about the negotiations that might have taken place. There are bolts that are rusting, causing some to fear driving over the bridge. Not that we want that to happen, but think of the fictional piece that could tell that story.

As you walk up and down the streets, look at the doors. I’m willing to bet that no two are alike. Note the colors. Do they signify anything or did the owner choose by random? Imagine the story if color meant something. Green for an herbalist, yellow for an apothecary. Red for law. Blue for police. What stories come to mind?

If you don’t have time for a walkabout, go on an imaginary one in the setting of your story. Take notes. Make lists. Come up with potential conflicts and events.

Your task is to write a scene in which the environment is crucial to the story. Don’t spend copious amounts of time describing the scene, but allow the elements to slowly come into play.

Have fun with this one.

Story Starters

These will work if you are blocked and can’t think of anything to write.

Choose one of the following settings:

  1. A futuristic house with windows only on the west side of the building.
  2. A barren landscape except for a strange patch of green in a circular pattern.
  3. A store that sells a strange variety of merchandise: costumes, switchblades and blueberry pie.
  4. A remote country town in which everyone knows everyone and there seems to be some kind of secret binding them together.

Now all you have to do is come up with your characters and set things in motion.


Have fun with this one!