Writing Exercises: "Writing Great Settings"


Let's take a break from reorganizing our writing schedules and discuss actual writing craft. Setting is always important to story-telling so let's focus on that a little.

Think for a moment about any story/movie/television show that really interested you. Think about scenes that left your heart racing or tears streaming down your cheeks. Obviously the characters themselves, like a cast in a movie or play, deliver much of the emotion of a scene and connect to the audience but have you ever considered what scene would be like without the backdrop? Without the awesome scores that come from the film or stage? Would we get the same impact of various scenes we get from the film Titanic? I know, Titanic was a long time ago, but its safer to assume everyone's seen the movie.

Would it have hit you as hard to see Rose lose Jack without the knowledge that they were clinging to a floating door in the middle of the Atlantic, surrounded by frozen passengers dotting the surface around them? The point is setting adds context to a scene to help pack that emotional punch you need. It also establishes a level of trust for your readers when introducing them to the world you're creating, but we'll get to that later.

Setting is exceedingly important to a story. It's so important that a fabricated backdrop simply won't do when writing. We'll go through the various reasons why setting is so important and how you can get into the realm of world building.

So to begin, let's tackle the basics of world building that every writer definitely needs to be aware of:

The Five Senses

So let's name the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch (and psychic abilities is the sixth if you're so willing--only reference you'll get out of me Shyamalan). As I'm sure you know, it is crucial for your setting to be authentic. Authenticity is crucial for presenting a setting your readers can accept as real (and yes, you have to really start getting into the mindset that your worlds are real because they are).

It doesn't matter if your story takes place in 1920's Manhattan, a fantasy world on a completely different planet or even the planet Jupiter, give your readers the stench of leaky sewers, the breezy winter of a tiny forest village or the strange glowing fungus the atmosphere of Jupiter litters on rooftops. Give your readers authenticity, regardless of whether that may come with a need for suspension of belief. Utilize the five senses and be as cleverly descriptive as you can. Reference how your favorite books/movies/television shows utilized setting and try it for yourself.

Significant Detail: Less is More

On the subject of detail, let's talk about why "less is more." You can have this conversation with any media example but for now I'll reference one of my favorite television shows, Mr. Robot. There's an enormous psychological aspect to the main character's way of narrating the show that involves, spoiler alert: "breaking the 4th wall" by internally monologuing directly to the viewers of the show. Throughout the show we see exactly what the main characters sees, (to avoid spoilers I will simply run a scenario that does not occur in the show) for example, a car accident.

We see exactly what the main character sees, and hear a tiny bit more detail via internal monologue, but arguably there are thousands of things the main character could say about the experience we simply do not see or hear. His heavy breathing may suggest his heart is pounding in his chest and adrenaline is pumping through his veins, but did he think the car had been aiming directly for him?

Through inner monologue he comments on how delusion is clouding his perception to the point of almost walking into a car accident. He does not comment however on the fact that a character he has invented in his head, from earlier in the show, has just stepped out of one of the cars. This suggests to the audience that perhaps the car crash has not even occurred because the driver is a delusion, but our main character is completely oblivious. Meanwhile, people are still passing by on sidewalks, oblivious to the two vehicles that seemingly collided.

With setting, the last thing you want to do is write an essay because its grueling, boring and involves "telling rather than showing." Yes, there is that age old expression of "show don't tell." You hear this line over and over for a reason. Naturally readers have to suspend their belief regardless of how much help you provide.

If you look back at the scenario written out above, you notice that as a result of various details being placed (like the delusion of the driver and everything the main character is not saying), suspense is created.

It is less a matter of keeping information from your reader because the last thing you want to do is confuse them, and more providing your reader well-chosen details that enable them to make those ever suspenseful connections on their own. That's largely part of the success of the narrative in Mr. Robot, often the thrill of the show comes with what the main character doesn't see and the audience does and then vice-versa. This is a bit trickier to do in narrative, but a great challenge once a writer has a solid understanding of how to utilize setting.

Creating and Mirroring Your Characters' Mood and Point of View

Disclaimer: avoid the cliché of it raining when characters are sad and the sun shining brightly when they're happy if you can. Please do everything in your power to avoid this. Anyway, let's run another fun scenario to get this point across.

Meet Sue, she utterly despises the beach. She hates that children piss in the ocean, that sand gets in literally everything, she always gets sunburned and she just hates how much it makes her sweat.

Good, now think of how many thousands of dollars go into advertising for vacation packages, the descriptions of beautiful sunsets, sand in your toes and gorgeous blue water, etc. Now imagine Sue works at a travel agency creating brochures and since its summer, she has to make brochures for summer packages exclusively pertaining to beach resorts. How much of a disaster is this going to be do you think?

The thing about setting is that it's all about who's holding the camera. The magic of having a story with multiple points of view is that you can really sell a trusting relationship with your readers. Say you have two characters travelling together and they end up at a swamp. One character hates nature and is irritated that they're up to their ankles in mud and just can't stand seeing the vermin (insects, little squirrels, dealer's choice). The other is already formulating a plan to hunt snakes, squirrels, etc. for food, and mutely they like the change of temperature, or whatever. The point being, between just those two characters, your readers are receiving two very different perceptions. That bright and sunny, happy day can be an irritation for another character.

Descriptions and Action: How Long is Too Long?

Here's one piece of advice I know I need to take for myself. I love to word vomit my descriptions, so I'll be learning here too. There's nothing inherently wrong with longer descriptions because we all as writers simply have different paces. Some of us are contemplative, some of us are action-oriented, some of us snappy and focused more on the thrill. None of these are incorrect by any means, but all could benefit from refining their pacing. Its ok if you're the writer who starts a story in the middle of an action-packed scene, or dialog or with the description of a setting. Do what fits your style, but keep it relevant to the scene and what is happening at your starting point.

Choose wisely when crafting your tapestry of description, action and dialog. The last thing you want to do is write something people will read the prologue/first chapter of and put back on the shelf because there had been simply too much dialog without description or too much action without dialog, etc.

As Greaney says, "Write and redraft your settings so that they're relevant, vivid and sensual. Make them not only a mirror, but be part of what happens in your story."

Setting: Getting the Details Right

Let's apply this to fiction first: every detail needs to be well researched, it doesn't matter if your writing high-fantasy or sci-fi, the laws of physics (among other things) will still apply in some way to what you're writing. Geography, landscapes, weather, etc. need to be thoroughly researched.

Take George R. Martin's Game of Thrones. The landscapes and weather work similarly to the real world only, in this world, Westeros only every experiences summer followed by winter. There's no fall or spring. Its kept simple and requires little suspension of belief. Mountains and other landscapes still work the same with slight extravagant detail but it is still kept simple. The culture of the houses (Stark, Lannister, Bolton, etc) are all based upon real world cultures, which adds to the excitement of the clashes we experience in the story. Yet again however, these details are kept simple and require little suspension of belief.

Applying this to non-fiction: the journalist's truth is crucial. Yes, people will remember events differently but a memoir is about the writer's truth, not anyone else's. Therein lies the challenge of fact checking because it is still your fact checking. Regardless of accuracy, its up to you to be as authentic to your story as you can be. Some things will have to be fictionalized while others will not, regardless setting should still contribute to the story in whatever way it can. Fictionalizing setting should be backed mostly by the motivation of filling in the gaps the writer simply cannot remember.

Avoiding Clichés or Condescending

Here's the tricky advice every writer hears at one point: "write what you know." Research bridges the gap on things you don't know for the sake of cementing your authenticity, but that's not the slight issue I take with this expression. My slight issue with this piece of advice is that it can somewhat limit a writer's confidence in exploring what they don't know. Say you lived all your life in a one-story home in the suburbs somewhere in Florida and you're writing about a secret agent. Sure it could be interesting if your secret agent lived in the suburbs (makes a good comedy) but what if you want said secret agent to get out of the suburbs for a while? Say to London? You've never been to London in your life...so does said secret agent just not go to London?

You do your research, still have never been but have a better idea of locations. Does that mean you are forbidden from choosing it as a setting? Accuracy is important (and by the way if you've never been to London get a ticket, it's beautiful) but not knowing the implied "first-hand" shouldn't forbid you from reaching the "know" in order to write a more exciting setting.

If that sentence was too confusing, what I mean is the expression "write what you know" comes off to me as being limited to only writing on topics you have knowledge of first-hand. Don't let yourself be limited and research what you don't know.

A little on characters: don't put yourself in the story unless you're writing a memoir. Its true that no matter how much I avoid it, like many other writers, my characters do absorb some of my traits as they continually come to life. None of them however, are me. I never intentionally insert any aspects of my own person in my writing and my characters definitely do not make decisions I would make in day to day life. This is especially true because my characters live in a post-apocalyptic world where they could die any day whereas I have recently gotten a job at a book store. I can't exactly play social worker and insert myself in the story because I have no idea how to fend off the constant threat of death, but they do.

This is definitely the mentality you need to get into when avoiding the clichés of inserting your immeadiet self or world into the story. You're not limited by any pretentious rules and free to play with your toolbox as needed.

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