Tips for Bringing your Setting to Life

 David Farland often teaches writing workshops, and has trained a number of people who went on to become international bestselling authors—people like Brandon Sanderson in fantasy, Brandon Mull in middle-grade fiction, and Stephenie Meyer in young adult fiction.  He’s also the lead judge for one of the world’s most prestigious writing competitions for science fiction and fantasy.

Here’s a lesson on setting.

Years ago, I was reading a book on writing by a teacher from the American Film Institute.  She said near her opening something to the effect of, “Here is a list of the top 50 bestselling movies of all time.  Look it over, and see what elements they have in common.”

I quickly scanned the list, and in a matter of moments found three similarities, but to my astonishment the author followed her list by saying, “See?  They have nothing in common.”  She had failed to observe what was instantly obvious.  The first thing that these films had in common was that they were all set in another time or another place.  By that I mean, whether they were science fiction, fantasy, or historical, they all worked hard to transport their audience out of their chairs.

Transport is just one element of a bestseller, but it’s hugely important.  A list of the bestselling books of all time will reveal that the same is true with novels.  If you’re writing to a contemporary audience and you’re setting your tale in “anywhere America,” you’re making a mistake.  Audiences crave transport.

Yet time and time again as I’m judging stories for the Writers of the Future Contest, I find that all too often, writers fail to transport their reader.

So how do you transport your audience?  Here are ten tips.

1)         Especially at the beginning of a tale, use “resonance” to better tie into your audience’s subconscious.   “Resonators” are often words that identify your piece as belonging to a particular genre, such as fantasy, romance, or horror.   They are part of the secret language that is used within a particular genre to give the writing more power by referring to previous works written in that genre.

For example, in fantasy, if I want to resonate with something like Lord of the Rings, I might start a tale by describing knights or magicians, vast forests or aging fortresses.  In short, I use language or images that the reader associates with other works in the genre.

2)         Give us specifics.  For example, if your hero is wandering through the woods, tell me what kinds of trees he sees.  There is a vast difference between a redwood forest and a grove of palm trees.  You can’t transport an audience by using general terms like “trees,” “crops,” and “people.”

If you’re describing a scene from the point of view of a character, tell me the character’s name at the outset.  For example, never start a story with “He looked out over the sweltering sea.”  Tell me that “Jonah looked out over the sweltering sea.”  I’ve literally seen authors go for pages without telling us the name of a character.

Don’t be afraid to describe something using a brand name.  Instead of an “electronic notebook,” use “an iPad 3.”

The more specific your description, usually the better.  Instead of describing “a wolf,” take some time to give the wolf some character.  If the wolf is very important, describe its color, the sheen of its coat, the way that this particular wolf moves, its sex and mannerisms.

3)         Avoid the use of “to be” verbs in the opening of your tale.  The human mind is geared to notice movement, so you want to bring your scene to life by making it move—even when you’re describe static elements.

In particular, if you describe an inanimate object, try to do it using only active verbs.   It is all right to use metaphors and similes to create motion.  For example, instead of describing a scene by saying, “trees sat on the hill,” try being more specific: “hoary pines guarded the hillside, while an ancient rock brooded at its top.”

4)         Appeal to all of the senses–sight (don’t just describe the colors of things or their shapes, but also their textures), sound, smell, taste, touch (hot/cold/wet/dry/ firmness/softness).

A great rule of thumb is that if you want to bring a thing to life, really get the reader to focus on it, you need to describe it at least three times, preferably using different senses so that you don’t become repetitious.

5)         Create a sense of physical motion in your description.  There are several ways to do this.  For example, you can create physical motion as mentioned in point three.  Instead of having characters stand about, or sit, or lie around, try putting them in motion.

You can’t do this with static elements—say a castle for instance–but you can also have motion nearby.  For example, if I were to continue describing the hill, I might place crows flying up from the pines, or a stiff wind that makes the boughs creak and sway.

6)         Add a sense of temporal motion in your description.  In other words, give your story a sense of history, and a future.  For example, in describing a car you might describe how it has changed over time—from the moment that it was bought new in the showroom, to what it looks like now, to what it might look in another twenty years as it begins to rust out and the colors fade.

7)         Add emotive motion to your description.  We all have certain feelings about places.  For example, a creepy old house may be just as quiet as a cathedral, but each place creates its own emotional overtones.  We need to bring those out in our choice of words and details.

Don’t be afraid to get into your character’s head, and even go so far as using internal dialog.  Describe precisely what your protagonist feels about the place or thing that he is seeing, but pay particular attention to how that emotion changes. For example, if I start a tale by saying, “Jonah had never felt drawn to women who wear blue Jeans.  They struck him as being too masculine, too careless in their attire.  But from the moment that she walked into the diner, it was apparent that no woman had ever filled out a pair of Levis the way that Ruby Hale did.”

8)         Don’t be afraid to try using “negative description.”  Instead of describing what something is, sometimes it is easier to begin by describing what it is not.

For example, who can forget the classic opening of Tolkien’s The Hobbit:  “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

Remember: your setting is not something to be approached haphazardly.  From your setting, your culture evolves, and along with it, all of your characters.   For example, if you set your story in 14th Century France, you’re limiting the kinds of societies, customs, and characters that you can handle.  So you need to consider how each element in your tale relates to all others.

Here is a sample of the opening description from David Farland’s novel Nightingale, which has just come out as an enhanced novel on the iPad, complete with its own illustrations, soundtrack, animations, and author interviews.  Nightingale has won several awards this year, including the International Book Award for best young adult novel of the year, the Southern California Book Festival for best young adult novel of the year, and the Hollywood Book Festival for best book of the year.  Dave says of the opening, “I didn’t try to use all of the tips listed above, just enough to bring the scene to life.  Never make yourself a slave to all good advice”:

 

 

Sommer Bastian had fled her safe house in North Carolina, and now nowhere was safe.

She raced through a thick forest, gasping in the humid air. Sweat drenched her, crawling down her forehead, stinging her eyes. Dogs barked a quarter mile behind, the deep-voices of mastiffs. Her vision reeled from fatigue, and she struggled to make out a path in the shadows.

Fireflies rose from the grass ahead, lugging their burden of light, lanterns in shades of emerald and citrine that pushed back against the gathering night. Eighty thousand stars wheeled through otherwise empty heavens. Without even a sliver of moon or the glow of a remote village, the stars did not shine so much as throb.

She could run no faster. With every stride, Sommer stretched her legs to the full. A mastiff keened, not far back now. It was almost upon her.

Her pursuers were faster than any human, and stronger than she. At nineteen, Sommer was in the prime of her life, but that made no difference. A desperate plan was taking form in her mind.

The dogs were trained to kill. But she knew that even a trained dog can’t attack someone who surrenders. Nature won’t allow it. And when a dog surrenders completely, it does so by offering its throat.

That would be her last resort—to lie on her back and give her throat to these killers, so that she could draw them in close.

She raced for her life. To her right, a buck snorted in the darkness and bounded away, invisible in the night. She hoped that its pounding would attract the dogs, and they did fall silent in confusion, but soon snarled and doubled their speed.

The brush grew thick ahead—blackberries and morning glory crisscrossing the deer trail. She heard dogs lunging behind her; one barked. They were nearly on her.

Sommer’s foot caught on something hard—a tough tree root—and she went sprawling. A dog growled and leapt. Sommer rolled to her back and arched her neck, offering her throat.

Three dogs quickly surrounded her, ominous black shadows that growled and barked, baring their fangs, sharp splinters of white. They were huge, these mastiffs, with spiked collars at their throats, and leather masks over their faces. Their hooded eyes seemed to be empty sockets in their skulls.

They bounded back and forth in their excitement, shadowy dancers, searching for an excuse to kill.

I can still get away, Sommer thought, raising a hand to the air, as if to block her throat. By instinct she extended her sizraels—oblong suction cups that now began to surface near the tip of each thumb and finger. Each finger held one, an oval callus that kept stretching, growing.

Though she wasn’t touching any of the dogs, at ten feet they were close enough for her to attack.

She reached out with her mind, tried to calm herself as she focused, and electricity crackled at the tips of her fingers. Tiny blue lights blossomed and floated in the air near her fingers like dandelion down. The lights were soft and pulsing, no brighter than the static raised when she stroked a silk sheet in the hours before a summer storm.

She entered the mastiffs’ minds and began to search. They were supposed to hold her until the hunters came, maul her if she tried to escape. Their masters had trained the dogs well.

But a dog’s memories were not like human memories, thick and substantial.

Sommer drew all of the memories to the surface—hundreds of hours of training, all bundled into a tangle—and snapped them, as if passing her hand through a spider’s web.

Immediately all three mastiffs began to look around nervously. One lay down at her feet and whimpered, as if afraid she might be angry.

“Good dogs,” Sommer whispered, tears of relief rising to her eyes. “Good!” She rolled to her knees, felt her stomach muscles bunch and quaver. She prepared to run.

“Where do you think you’re going?” a deep voice asked.

There are more dangerous things than mastiffs, Sommer knew. Of all the creatures in the world, the man who spoke now was at the top of the list.

About Rachelle Christensen

I’m a mom of four cute kids—two girls and two boys. I have an amazing husband, three cats, and five chickens. My first novel was awarded Outstanding Book of the Year from the League of Utah Writers and was also a 2010 Whitney Finalist. My second suspense novel, CALLER ID, was released March 2012. I was born and raised in the rural farmlands of southern Idaho and I like to work over my tiny piece of field AKA garden each year. I love reading, running, singing and playing the piano. After graduating from Utah State University, my husband and I moved our family to Utah County. Visit my blog at www.rachellewrites.blogspot.com to learn more about upcoming books.
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3 Responses to Tips for Bringing your Setting to Life

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Useful advice, which I think different writers would implement in different ways, depending on their own personal style, the kind of story they’re trying to write, readers they’re trying to appeal to, etc.

    I also find interesting how different people find different things engaging. As an auditory reader, my attention is drawn to dialogue. I tend to skim over description. Even action doesn’t draw in my attention the way dialogue is. Which, I suppose, is why I have a tendency (or so my editors tell me) to start scenes with a piece of dialogue dangling out there, and then build context from there…

  2. These are excellent points. Thanks for sharing with us Dave!

  3. Mark Penny says:

    Thanks, Rachelle and David. I, for one, have gotten really good at premise (comes with the territory in my first love, science fiction), but I sure need work in other areas, including setting.

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