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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Story Fundamentals, Part the Second: Setting (by Arielle K Harris)

Story Fundamentals, Part the Second: Setting
Arielle K Harris  

So you don’t want your writing to be crap, and you’re here for advice.  You now know, either by reading my last article Story Fundamentals, Part the First: Style or by using your own acute observational skills, that style is a thing and as essential to writing as your pen and paper, or your fingertips and your word processor.  What I failed to mention in that article is that style doesn’t necessarily need to be a conscious choice or decision you make, just a sense of self-awareness.  If you try to consciously adopt a particular style it may quickly backfire on you and become forced and contrived if not done perfectly right.

The same goes for the next element of storytelling I’ll discuss, which is setting.  A poorly contrived setting is as easy to see through as that of style, but even worse is a story that omits setting details altogether and relies on vagueness, minimalism, and hopes that the reader fills in the blanks.  A story written like this doesn’t really have a setting, it has a set.  Not the good kind of set like for a high-end movie or HBO series, more like a middle-school production of As You Like it where the Forest of Arden is constructed out of toilet paper tubes.  You know how much I love to quote Ursula Le Guin, well I’m going to do it again:

“It is a fake plainness.  It is not really simple, but flat.  It is not really clear, but inexact.  Its directness is specious.  Its sensory clues – extremely important in imaginative writing – are vague and generalised; the rocks, the wind, the trees are not there, are not felt; the scenery is cardboard, or plastic.”

You can clearly see the fakeness in a setting made of cardboard, and with that awareness no reader will be able to immerse themselves into your story.  A setting must be fully realized, solid, and instantly felt and seen through your words.

I’m a fantasy writer so I worldbuild my settings.  This is my favorite part of the writing process; it’s like traveling but free, inside your own head, and you always know the language.  Building an entire world out of nothing can be daunting but I actually find it less of an undertaking than setting a story in the real world.  Real world stories require intense research, especially if the location is not where you live, or have lived, and if you get it wrong then critics can easily point to flaws in your assumptions.  Worlds you make up are entirely under your control so you can’t make up a street that shouldn’t exist.  If you’ve written it then it does exist.

However worldbuilding requires utmost consistency, maybe you wrote that street into existence on page 25 but by page 60 your characters are running around and that street no longer leads to where it used to, unintentionally (there are times when, of course, this may happen intentionally).  Or the path through your forest is supposed to be going east but several scenes later your questing hero drags herself forward, nearly reaching her destination, but is now facing into the sunset (unless of course you’ve already made it clear that your world has a sun which sets in the east).

The best way I’ve found to ensure internal consistency in worldbuilding is with maps (this could easily be true in real world settings too, and the maps are already drawn for you).  There’s no better way to make sure you know your way through your world than to put it down on paper and refer to it frequently.  Your map doesn’t need to be particularly attractive or artistic if it’s just a writing resource for your own personal use, it just needs to show you the geographical space your characters are moving around in so you can see directions, limitations, and distances.

What do you mean that this isn’t a good map, it has a compass and everything!

The above was my working map for the first part of Bestial, and I have to admit it was not my best effort at cartography.  It did the job, though, I was able to orient myself appropriately when my characters moved between these three locations.  Sometimes it’s really as simple as that!

There is of course something to be said for a more detailed map that covers more geographical area, but that’s only necessary when your story takes place throughout a larger region.  If your entire story takes place in one city it’s unlikely you’ll need to know the geography of a whole continent.

That's a bit better.

This one was a map I drafted for an older, unfinished novel and it looks a bit more like one might expect of a fantasy map – it even has simplistically-named mountain ranges à la Mount Doom.  I did intend this one to be added into the book which is why it’s all pretty and stuff and not on a post-it note.  This novel was going to take place across the whole of this landmass so I needed to know a lot more than the orientation of three locations.  I intended to do a second map just of the capital city of Cobault as well, giving myself street map with which to orient myself and inform my narrative, so that I wouldn’t get lost in my imaginary metropolis where a lot of the action would happen.

When in doubt always worldbuild in more detail that you might actually need.  Even if you don’t think you’ll ever refer to the types of vegetation that grows on your world’s hills, or the region’s primary exports (which is invariably determined by its geography), or the relative position of the sun when your characters start questing, you should know it.  The more you know about your world the more fluent you are in its details.  Those details are what makes a setting fully realized, believable, and lacking in cardboard.  For a great worldbuilding resource have a look at Patricia C. Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions which are incredibly detailed and pretty damn comprehensive.

One issue I’ll discuss in terms of those beautiful details, however, is the horror that is the infodump.  You know infodump, it comes at the beginning of many stories, often labelled as a Prologue (I’m looking at you, Anne McCaffrey, the first mother of dragons, may you rest in peace), and what follows is an expositional orgy, sometimes as much as ten pages of it.  You might feel like there’s a lot about your world that needs explaining but infodump is a surefire way to bore the pants off your reader.

So your world has two moons and an unusual tidal pattern because of it.  Don’t tell me “On the fifth planet from the star K4-B lies a planet with two moons and an unusual tidal pattern.”  Tell me something like:

“J’ruk looked up quickly to orient himself, seeing the second moon Hoj rising towards its sister Ko.  He readied his fishing gear on the sand, grateful for the exposed length of sandbar and the brilliance of the sky.  This would be a good night to go derssi-fishing as the lithe and elusive cephalopods would only found in the tidal pools on this, the lowest tide of the cycle.”

Make the details embellishments to your story and, further to that, have them drive your story onward.  If the tides hadn’t been that low J’ruk wouldn’t have been out there that night, leading to whatever exciting action is bound to happen next.  If there hadn’t been two moons then this incredibly low tide wouldn’t have occurred.  It’s all connected, or at least it should be.

A good setting is more than just a backdrop to your story, it should be part and parcel of it.  Your story shouldn’t be able to exist without it.  Could Lord of the Rings have happened anywhere other than Middle Earth?  No, certainly not.  Throughout the writing of your story the setting will influence your character’s decisions, motives, history, and even their moods (I dare you to try to stay cheerful on a long, difficult journey in the rain).  It will determine limiting factors in battle and define whole civilizations.  It will tell you what foods are eaten, what fabrics are worn, and what professions people have.  Only once you understand your setting and have created your world in its entirety are you able to tell the story taking place in it.

But first you’ll need to know your characters, so stay tuned for the next installment of Story Fundamentals!


Arielle K Harris is the author of the novel Bestial as well as the ridiculous steampunk time travel drama short story The Adventurous Time Adventures of Doctor When. She is responsible for one very opinionated toddler as well as a writer, poet, falconer, knitter of many half-finished scarves, drinker of tea, enthusiast for wine and sometimes has been known to have wild birds in her spare room.

She can be found online at her own website: www.ariellekharris.com as well as on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/ariellekharris/ and her published work can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/author/ariellekharris



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