Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Creating Settings Readers Can't Forget (And You Can't Mess Up)

What ho, loyal readers! Rachel back again from the word mines where I have been slaving under dragons (very nice ones, but dragons nonetheless) to talk about...settings!

{Insert Cool Stuff Here}
Settings are one of those writing necessities that too often gets overlooked. If you've done any writing research, you've already read dozens of articles about crafting characters and worldbuilding and plotting. But while these elements are all very important, surprisingly little ink, digital or otherwise, is spent on how to craft and imagine the actual physical space your characters, world, and plot inhabit.

This is especially weird when you consider how important set design is to other story telling mediums. Theatre, movies, television, and video games all have professionals who've made careers out of set design. Likewise, comics--both American and manga--spend an enormous amount of time on backgrounds.

In all of these, what the space where the action takes place looks (and sounds) like is clearly a huge part of the experience of the story. So why do we as authors, who have the entire reader imagination at our disposal, who spend months to years perfecting our characters and plots, so often delegate our setting to cliches like "dark forest" or "big stone castle"?

The obvious answer here is that, unlike all the things I mentioned above, writing is not a visual medium. Other than our covers and the very occasional illustrated edition, we don't deal in pictures. Quite the opposite. Saying accurately what something looks like is one of the hardest things to do in writing. "A picture is worth 1000 words" can be a literal statement when you're writing a book, and who wants to waste that kind of narrative space on what's basically a long, info-dumpy description? No one, which is why one of the most common pieces of writing advice I see in Fantasy circles is "don't stop to describe the scenery."

Make no mistake, this is good advice! We've all read (and most likely put down) books that stop the action completely to spend 5 paragraphs describing a castle on a bluff or the crowds in a city market. These are both setting-establishing elements that a movie director could establish in one camera pan, but would take us writers pages of tension-breaking description text to achieve the same effect, which is why you don't see them much in good fiction. They simply take way too long to do.

At the same time, though, creating an interesting, memorable, atmospheric world is a huge part of writing memorable fiction, especially in genre. However interesting your characters, plot, and world are, if you set them in a very generic Fantasy setting that relies on cliches to fill in your backgrounds, you are setting yourself up to be at least partially forgettable.

So how do you strike a balance? How do you create and then describe a setting that's unique enough to be memorable without spending a thousand extra words and killing your tension in the process?

It's a tricky balance, but there are definitely a few best practices I've learned over the years to make it easier. So, without further ado, let's talk about...

Writing Wednesday: Creating Settings Readers Can't Forget (And You Can't Mess Up)

"Sci-fi City" by JadrienC on DeviantArt
Unless you have a very strong image of a place or scene in your head already (or you're actively writing one right now), chances are you haven't given much thought to your settings yet. To be clear, I'm not talking about World Building. I've gone over that whole other kettle of fish in detail already. This post is all about actual, physical location. The places where your characters live and your action takes place.

If we were working on movies or video games or any of the visual mediums, we would call this set design, and it would be a huge freaking deal. How many movies have you watched where just looking at the set was enough to create strong expectations of what was coming before any characters spoke or any plot had been laid down?

Hobbiton, I'm looking at you.
Oh yeah, that's powerful mojo. Of course, we writers don't have these visual elements to work with, but that's no excuse not to have creative and interesting locations. We are still storytellers and entertainers. It is our job to be as interesting as possible, and creating really cool settings is a huge part of that, so let's talk about how to do it.

The Foolproof Guide to Settings #1: Matching Your Emotions

Before we get into any descriptions, the first thing you have to understand about setting is that it's all about feels. Just as important places in your life (your home, your favorite mountain, the rainy bus stop where your first love dumped you) make you feel emotions in the real world just by looking at them, a good setting should have a strong emotional resonance with the scene taking place inside it.

Going back to my all time favorite example-I-can-reasonably-assume-everyone's-seen, let's take a look at the Mos Eisley cantina scene from Star Wars: A New Hope.

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
This is a perfect example of setting fitting emotion. In this scene, Ben Kenobi and Luke are looking for a smuggler in a bar to get them off planet. It's a dangerous, tense scene that needs to feel sleazy and exciting, like you're doing something illegal, which of course the characters are. Consequently, the set design reflects this, giving us a smokey alien bar full of unsavory characters. Truly, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. At the same time, though, there's a levity to the Mos Eisley cantina, a feeling of dangerous fun enhanced by the band and the fact that, while half of the unnamed alien characters we see are brooding, just as many are laughing and drinking and having a good time. It's dark, but the bar is well lit and cheery, and the earth tone colors are warm and inviting, especially in contrast to the stark, clinical black and white of the Empire.

All of these setting details--the colors, the smoke, what people in the background are doing--work together to create a setting that feels not just real, but completely appropriate to the action taking place within it. This is exactly the sort of raucous, dirty, dangerous alien dive bar you'd expect Han Solo to be hanging out in...even before you know who Han Solo is. Further more, the setting is perfectly matched to the emotions of the scene. It feels dangerous and exciting, but in a very earthy, human, personal way, all of which matches the dangerous and exciting, but still very human tension of the meeting Han Solo, who's fresh off killing someone who screwed him over, and the result is one of the most iconic scenes in modern fiction.

This harmonization of the emotions of setting and action is the very first thing I shoot for when I try to imagine my setting. Obviously, most of your big setting decisions will be made by your plot. If your characters get thrown in prison, guess what! Your setting is a prison. But what kind of prison is up to you to decide. There's a huge difference between being locked in a sterile cell and being thrown into a slimy oubliette filled with bones.

Hoggle: Oh don't act so smart. You don't even know what an oubliette is.
Sarah: Do you?
Hoggle: Yes. It's a place you put people... to forget about 'em!

These are the choices that are up to you as an author. But while it might be tempting to simply not bother wasting words describing the details of a prison you're never planning to come back to, these details are, in fact, hugely important to the emotional tone of the scene. Prisons are usually places of despair, anxiety, and fear, but each of those emotions can take on infinite variety of forms. The trick is to choose the flavor that complements and plays off the emotions of the characters and actions.

For example, if you have a character who is thrown into prison to be forgotten and they feel they deserve to be forgotten, don't just put them in a generic dark cell. Lock them in a hole. Put them at the back of a long hallway where not even the memory of sunlight can reach. Fill the bottom of the cell with cold bone dust. Have the guards have to come down a set of very inconvenient stars to bring them food, and then have them not bother. Fill the corners with webs even the spiders have forgotten about. Use the setting to reflect your reasons for putting that character in prison to begin with, and with a few lines of description, you will have an incredibly creative, memorable scene that enhances the emotions of the story into something that feels cinematic without a single picture.

But Rachel, how do I come up with all that stuff?! I'm not, um, visually inclined...

If you have a tough time visualizing your settings, you are most definitely NOT alone. I'm not visual at all, and I constantly have to remind myself to describe what things look like. But while characters are usually pretty easy (height, eye color, hair, clothing, skin, noticeable scars, standout features, etc.), describing settings can get...let's say onerous at times. I just don't care about the architecture of castles or what kind of trees might be in a forest. I care about the action! 

But while the action of a scene is definitely more important than what kind of trees are in the background, the background is still important. Even if writers don't know all the details, we generally have some kind of vague idea of what stuff looks like. The reader, by contrast, has nothing. They know only what we tell them, and if we don't describe a setting, they have nothing to work with. And if they have nothing to work with, it's very very easy for them to get lost in the action, and a lost reader is very soon a lost reader, as in someone who doesn't finish your book.

Thankfully, this is a very easy problem to avoid, which brings us to...

The Foolproof Guide to Settings #2: Painting a Simple, but Evocative, Picture

"Within the Forest" by Qinni on Deviant Art - beautiful, simple, powerful

As we've already covered, there's only so much information you can get out about a setting without stopping the action to do an info dump description (NEVER GOOD). To combat this, I've learned to keep my descriptions simple and functional. You want your readers to have a clear image of where characters are and what the world looks like without describing every leaf and stick on the ground. 
At the same time, though, you still want your setting to be unique and, as we talked about above, emotionally matched to the scene.

To achieve all of this in as few words as possible, I generally focus on describing four things: spatial location, tactile experienceemotional experience, and cool factor.

Spatial location is the who, how, and where. It describes where characters and important items are in relation to each other. For example, if I have two people talking on a cliff, I will take time to describe how they're standing (face to face w/ the cliff in the background, both looking out over the cliff, standing with their backs to the cliff, etc.) and where (right on the edge, back a safe distance, and so forth). 

These sort of practical descriptions can be done very quickly, but they must be done and done clearly because these are the words that tell reader where to position characters when they visualize the scene in their head. 

Marci and Julius stood side by side at the edge of the cliff.

If there's not a lot of action in the scene, you can get away with being vague. But if positioning is important (someone's going to get stabbed, a character is moving into position to steal something, etc.) then expect to spend more words on it. That said, you don't have to be fancy with this stuff. In fact, it's better if spatial location descriptions are brief and very clear, It's like stage blocking. You want your reader to know where people are without noticing that you're telling them. The characters should just move naturally through the scene to where they need to be without breaking the narrative tension by making huge deal about it. 

Personally, I like to do this while showing emotion through movement. My characters stomp angrily across rooms and take terrified steps back toward windows or move in close to whisper while their hands inch toward their swords. This kind of description lets me tell the readers where characters are moving without actually saying "so-and-so moved to this part of the room." They're just moving as they naturally would in this situation. 

Remember: no one in fiction moves for no reason. If someone's getting closer to another character, they have a reason to do so. If you show that reasoning in their thoughts or description, then you'll always have something interesting to hide the boring details of your character blocking/spatial location descriptions behind.

Tactile experience is the physical reality of a setting--what characters are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and so forth. When writing books talk about describing a setting, this is usually what they're referring to, which is ironic because I think physicality is actually one of the easiest and least important bits of information readers need to experience a scene in their heads.

The key here is to focus on info filling rather than info dumping. You never want to stop the action and go down a senses checklist. Instead, have your character experience the tactile reality of the setting as they move through it. For example 

Marci and Julius stood side by side at the edge of the sea cliff, their shoulders hunched against the cold, salty spray that blasted up from the crashing waves below.

There's a lot of description here, but it is all shown through the lens of the characters, which makes it interesting. No one cares about sea spray by itself, but when it hits people, it becomes interesting. Because of this, I always tie my tactile experience descriptions to characters. If a room is cold, I don't say "the room was cold," I have someone shiver because the room is cold. This is why I call this step "tactile experience." Because it is the experience, not the thing itself, that makes the detail interesting and important.

(On a side note, this is also why weather report openings are almost universally decried as a Bad Idea. Even the most dramatic weather is only mildly interesting unless it's happening over someone's head. A giant snow storm can keep my attention for a sentence or so, but a giant snow storm bearing down on a frantic character trying desperately to escape it is an entire novel.)

Emotional experience works hand in hand with tactile experience, but where tactile focuses on the physical feel of things, emotional experience is all about the other sort of feels. 

Every scene in good fiction has an emotion it evokes, and as we mentioned at the top, the emotional experience of the setting should resonate with that. You can do this directly (a lonely person standing forlorn on a street corner in the cold, dark rain) or ironically (a lonely person standing forlorn in the bright sun in the middle of a busy festival), but the connection needs to be clear. Otherwise, the setting will add nothing, or worse, detract from the emotional drama going down inside it.

But it's not always easy to figure out how a setting feels, or how to describe that emotion once you do pin it down. Personally, my trick is to steal from the visual arts and lean on colors and light to convey emotion.

Marci and Julius stood side by side at the edge of the cliff, staring out at the point where the dark gray water met the even darker sky.

See how lonely, cold, and dreadful that feels? We have no context for why these two characters are on a cliff, but just thorough the use of color and lighting in the setting description, I've made things feel oppressively bleak.

You can do this same trick with every sense, not just color and light. For example...

Marci and Julius stood side by side at the edge of the cliff, letting the warm sea wind blow between hands that were almost, but not quite, close enough to touch.

Isn't that sweet?! And all of it done by warm air and physical closeness. This is an example of how spatial location and tactile experience all contribute to emotion. You want the place itself to have a feel that is separate, but complementary, the emotions of the characters moving through it AND appropriate to its location in the story.

That last bit is super important. Whatever else is going on, if you're going to have a doom fortress, it should feel dreadful, even when it's the setting of a happy reunion. You can fudge this, though. Having the sun break through the normally oppressive dark clouds is a classic trick to temporarily change the mood of a setting to match the action. But these kind of heavy handed stage tricks should be used sparing since they can get really cheesy really quick.

The final element of crafting a really good setting is cool factor. You can have a perfectly functional setting if you have good spatial location, tactical experience, and emotional experience, but you won't have something that's really memorable unless you use your imagination to come up with something that makes your dark forest/dungeon/space ship/whatever cool and unique. 

Fantasy is full of  magical forests. And then there's Nausicaa's forest, whose every setting is beautiful, magical, and incredibly unique.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this, and for me, the real secret to a good cool factor is surprise. You never want to use the first thing that pops into your head because chances are it's the first thing that pops into everyone's head, which makes it expected. Instead, try to think of a setting that your readers won't expect. For example...

Marci and Julius stood side by side at the edge of the cliff, staring down at the fathomless dark until the blackness itself began to move and twist like it was turning to stare back.

Wow, that went sideways, didn't it?! 

Now, obviously you can't pull this kind of stunt willy nilly. Sometimes a sea cliff is just a sea cliff, but you get the idea. Whenever you're planning your setting, the key to making it cool is to subvert, overreach, or otherwise avoid the expected. There are thousands of Fantasy prisons, what makes yours unique and cool? What makes your dark forest different? Why is your space port uniquely memorable over all the hundreds of ports I've read about as a SciFi fan?

These are not easy questions to answer. There's no trick here, not shortcut to being creative. You just have to think about it and use your unique vision as a creator to come up with something awesome. That said, just the fact that you are taking the time to think about these things for your setting--that you're not just being lazy and making due with "dark forest" or "dank alley"--will oftentimes automatically put your book ahead of the test.

By Our Powers Combined...

I know all of this feels like a lot to do for every single setting, but it really isn't. All of these thousands of words are just a fancy way of saying that the picture you paint in your readers' minds needs to be both practically useful--telling them where people are and what things feel like--and emotionally moving--having its own feeling appropriate to the scene and its own "oh wow" element that makes it memorable. 

Just like a movie director has to plan her color pallet, actor blocking, and set design that will make her scene work, you as a writer have to carefully craft every element of your reader's experience, because without pictures, that experience is entirely in your hands. If you don't do this, if you're not careful and meticulous in constructing the setting your scenes play out in, your book will come off as amateur threatre rather than a big Hollywood production, and that's not what you want. You want your book to suck people in, to envelope them in an experience they'll never forget (and will tell other people about), and the only way to get that is to give it to them. 

One of my favorite sayings is that writers are gods in their own books, and nowhere is this more true than in setting creation. We are literally waving our fingers and creating new places, and that kind of power requires thought, consideration, and responsibility. So if you're writing a book, or thinking about it, take a moment and make sure you're not being lazy with your settings. Don't over describe, but don't rely on stereotype to do your work for you, either.  Instead, focus on how a good setting with proper emotional resonance can elevate your scenes into something greater than the sum of their parts. 

If you're a visual person, try to picture your settings in your head like you're watching a movie before you jump into writing the scene. 

If you're NOT a visual person (as I am not), then you might have to build yourself some tools to help you imagine your setting. For reference, here are the ones I use.

Rachel's Setting Creation Cheat Sheet

  • Use questions to figure out the basics. Every setting you need is going to have some kind of context from the plot (a battlefield, a prison, etc). If you have no idea where to start, take this known context and start asking questions. Is this setting outside? If so, what's the weather like? If it's inside, is it in a building? What kind of building? What was this place originally intended for? Who moves through it? Is it cold? Hot? Is it generally pleasant to be in, or is it harsh? Even if you're terrible at visualizing, thinking up and answering these questions will often give you the details you need to create a unique and realistic feeling location without having to imagine it out of whole cloth (something I find very hard to do. Give me a blank slate and I go blank, but ask me questions and I'll answer them all day!)
  • Search for visual inspiration online. A picture really is worth 1000 words. When I'm feeling uninspired, I'll go browse concept art on or DeviantArt. It's really hard to find art of my exact setting, so I look for pictures that match the feeling I'm going for rather than any specific details. Once I find an image that speaks to me, I grab my favorite parts and start working them into my own setting.
  • Draw a blocking map. If you have a complicated scene that requires a lot of movement or if you're having a really hard time keeping track of where characters are in your head, a map is a huge help. It doesn't have to be fancy, I use dots and stick figures. You just need something to keep track of how characters move around and where things are in a scene. This will keep you from having people teleport or do impossible things like reaching across 20 foot long rooms to grab something.
  • Use senses to spice up lackluster locations. If I have a dull setting and I can't think of any other way to make it not dull (for example, characters are having a clandestine meeting in a hallway. How do you make a hallway cool and interesting?!), I focus on my senses. I will describe the thickness of the carpet or the softness of the light, whatever it takes to make the scene feel real and immediate without having to describe the blank walls or closed doors more than the once it takes to establish that we are in a hallway. Obviously, you don't want to do this too much--the action and dialogue in a scene like this is always WAY more interesting than the setting--but you do want to keep working subtle hints in to keep the scene as an image in the reader's mind rather than two talking heads.
These are by no means the only tricks, but you get the idea. Not being a visual person is no excuse for cheating your readers out of extraordinary settings. You just have to be more creative with your methods than writers who can picture everything clearly in their heads, and that's okay. All writers have their strengths and weaknesses. The winners are the ones who learn to work around their shortfalls to deliver a great, inventive story on all levels, even the ones they're not naturally talented in.

And with that, we come to the end. Thank you so much for reading my post! I hope you found it useful, or at least enjoyable. As Trav mentioned last week, we're moving to a one post a week format so I can catch up on writing work (oh god, there's so much). But have no fear! Rachel's giant walls'o'writing advice will continue. I'll be back in two weeks with another. Until then, enjoy the business post Trav's putting together and feel free to read the enormous backlog of writing posts

Thank you as always for reading, and I wish you happy writing!



Emma said...

This is something I've always struggled with, so I found this post incredibly helpful - thank you!

Bill Cokas said...

Very useful advice! Worth putting a post-it on my monitor: "Do settings the way Rachel said" when I'm working way through a draft.

Rachel Aaron said...

So glad you've found it helpful!! Thank you for reading!

Kessie said...

Ah, this combined with the post about telling a story with your description, I think I can do it now. :-)

Denae Christine said...

I can do this. It's just all about the feels. Both kinds of feels.