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Spectacular Settings

2 February 2015

From author Dave Farland:

When I’m looking at a story, one of the simple things I look at is setting. There are so many aspects to setting, so let’s just look at a few:

1) Is your milieu intriguing? Many authors will set a story in the most blasé of places. Often, the story is set “somewhere in the USA”. While for certain types of stories this may be completely appropriate, in most cases it’s not. It’s as if the writer has suffered brain death and couldn’t bother to come up with a real milieu. In most cases, it helps if you choose a particular place to set your story, and a particular date.

2) Is the world fully created? If you’re using a real-world setting, then “creating” that world is a matter of capturing it—learning its history, culture, and future. It’s not enough just to research a setting, you have to know it, get it into your bones. This usually means that you must travel to that setting and spend some time there. You can’t just blow through Amarillo, Texas and expect to really know the place.

In a science fiction tale, if you want to set your story on a planet, then creating a setting might require you to decide what kind of star system your planet is set in, along with the planet’s composition, rotation, axial tilt, number of moons, type of atmosphere, and so on. You may have to think about how to create alien life-forms, and develop their life-cycles, and perhaps create their histories, languages, and societies. Just getting those kinds of details takes some concentration.

If you’re creating a fantasy world, then you may have to look even further—into creating the flora and fauna of your world, along with cultures and subculture, the magic systems and economic systems, societies, languages, histories, religions, and so on.

So I look at how robust your setting is. I consider how fully developed it is. I ask myself, “Has this author put enough thought into the setting to create the illusion that this is a real place?”

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15 Comments to “Spectacular Settings”

  1. If you have a friend who you want to send on a fool’s errand, spending years trapped inside a literary prison of their own making, this is the advice to give them.

    Here’s my maxim:
    Setting exists to fuel story.

    Every bit of work you do beyond what’s necessary to create character and conflict is ultimately a roadblock to completing your book. It’s a hurdle you’ll need to jump over before you can turn your concept into entertainment, and eventually you’ll end up simply chasing your own tale.

    • If I had to choose between your way and David Farland’s, I would choose his every time. The object of the exercise is not merely ‘completing your book’: it is writing a book that will interest readers, in large enough numbers to compensate the writer adequately for the time spent. You don’t get quality by cutting out essential elements of the writing process in the interest of faster production.

      Most readers prefer stories with settings that are interesting in their own right, even exotic, to stories that have just enough indications of place to make the plot go. If you want the data to back this up, take a look at the whole corpus of world literature that has survived the test of time and is still read by quantities of people. Even the Iliad was set in an exotic setting, in far-away Troy in the long-ago Bronze Age; it wasn’t a story about squabbling neighbours on the equivalent of Privet Drive in suburban Attica.

      Setting sells.

      • The Illiad wasn’t really set in an exotic setting. It was just “somewhere in the Mediterranean”. It seems exotic to us in modern times.

        And “somewhere in the USA” can appear exotic to people who live in foreign countries with vastly different cultures.

        I think most people want enough world-building where the setting seems real and they can’t see through holes in the scenery.

        • The Illiad wasn’t really set in an exotic setting. It was just “somewhere in the Mediterranean”. It seems exotic to us in modern times.

          The Iliad was set in Ilion, an extremely famous Bronze Age city – so famous that it was known by reputation to everyone in the Greek-speaking world centuries after its destruction, even though it was not itself a Greek city. It was, in short, at least as exotic to the Greeks as (say) mediaeval Baghdad or Renaissance Florence are to us.

          And “somewhere in the USA” can appear exotic to people who live in foreign countries with vastly different cultures.

          That’s nice. This advice is being aimed at people who are writing primarily for the American market. And even foreigners (trust me: I are one) don’t find anything interesting or exotic about ‘somewhere in the USA’. If we want that, we can get a bellyful of it on exported American television. Whereas stories about specific places, Amarillo or San Francisco or Fargo or Fayetteville, can be very interesting indeed.

      • it is writing a book that will interest readers, in large enough numbers to compensate the writer adequately for the time spent. You don’t get quality by cutting out essential elements of the writing process in the interest of faster production.

        I’d argue that story and character are the most singularly essential parts of storytelling.

        Note that I’m not saying don’t do any work on building setting. You need to know your world well enough to understand how your character is going to interact with it. And if you’re creating a political drama or a war-story, then you’ll need quite a bit.

        What you don’t need is a great deal more than what exists outside of what’s relevant to your characters. Yes, make the world bigger than the page, but don’t make it a lot bigger. Not because you’ll be wasting time, but because you’ll be setting a trap—for yourself (the deadliest predator!).

        What readers mainly care about is what’s happening to your characters at the moment they’re reading about in the story.

        I see far too many cases of what I call “RPG disease”: huge backstories so complex that it either stops books from ever being completed, or turns them into boring chores where the writer feels compelled to “show us their homework.

        To give one example: Star Trek, although drama-driven, often ran aground on its own techno-babble, while Star Wars crafted a loose reality that allows for endless storytelling. There are virtues to both, but there are risks as well, and only one universe was able to effectively survive not only 40 years, but a terrible prequel. The other was forced to reboot in order to shed the terrible burden of its own history.

        • And yet Star Trek has millions of devoted fans that love the show across various iterations with different characters BECAUSE of the setting. So I’m having trouble seeing how that’s a problem. Personally, I’m not a Trekkie and I’m not a huge fan of the setting (though I do enjoy TOS and DS9). But who am I to say that all those people who love it are wrong? As long as a work has an audience who enjoys it, it’s doing things right, in my opinion.

        • You had me right up to the point where you dissed Star Trek. Fail. And just so you know, Star Wars lost me when it rebooted itself with those horrid prequel movies.

          But, hey. Opinions. Everybody has one.

        • There’s building a world and there’s shoving your homework down your readers’ throats. The trick is to find the happy medium.
          Jean Auel did incredible research for her Clan of the Cave Bear series, but every now and then you’d run into a massive info dump. I’ve read the series a few times now and I always skip four or five pages at a time when she starts into a detailed description of the grasslands or some freezing cold peri-glacial region. Love the stories but when the research shows up for it’s own sake, I skip ahead.

          • But you gave Star Trek as an example and I’m saying that’s crap, because millions of fans love it. You may not like it, but that just means you don’t like it, not that it’s bad.

  2. Dennis McAllister


    Straight from DWS:
    4…Make it up and move on.

    Yup, I said that. It’s fiction, so if you don’t know something, pretend like you do, pretend like your character knows exactly what they are talking about, write it so it feels real (verisimilitude), and move on. 99% of your readers won’t notice and those that do notice aren’t really your readers.

    • ‘Straight from DWS’ is no guarantee of truth, accuracy, or good sense. He has been known to fail on all three counts.

      In this case, doing your research and knowing what you are talking about (rather than just pretending) is how you create verisimilitude. For some kinds of stories, verisimilitude doesn’t matter – for instance, Platt & Truant’s Unicorn Western. But you cannot blithely assume that all readers will have such low standards in this particular respect, or that the ones who have higher standards ‘aren’t really your readers’.

      If you are writing historical fiction, this is exactly the wrong thing to do, because 99% of your readers will notice, and they will be angry with you for not knowing your own subject matter and then trying to sell it to people who do.

      If you are writing hard science fiction, you had better get the science right – and the science is what determines the nature of the setting. Again, if you get it wrong, hard SF readers will despise you for being ignorant. (Larry Niven, one of the hardest SF writers on record, made an error in calculating the orbital mechanics for the eponymous setting of his novel Ringworld. At a con soon after its publication, he was mobbed by angry SF geeks chanting, ‘The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!’ He actually had to write a sequel just to explain how the Ringworld stayed put in its orbit.)

      If you are writing crime or detective stories, you had better get the details of the crime right: make sure that the murder weapon can do what you say it does, that the cause of death is sufficient to cause death, that the clues discovered by the detective are actually discoverable clues and would lead to the correct suspect if this were an actual case. Again, your readers are savvy to these things and expect you to play the game by the known and established rules.

      If you are writing epic fantasy, there isn’t quite as much to get right, per se – but you had better do enough work on your setting to make it rich, vivid, and interesting. A very large percentage of fantasy readers read for the imaginative experience of putting themselves into exotic and magical worlds, and they are not happy if you serve them a few vague stage instructions – ‘Exterior Fantasyland, Day’; ‘Interior, Mock-Mediaeval Castle’.

      DWS’s advice only applies if you are writing in a genre where none of the readers have those kinds of expectations. If you blithely dismiss all the readers that do have such expectations, you have to dismiss some of the biggest and most profitable segments of the market.

      You might as well tell a restaurateur that he doesn’t have to worry about good cooking, because 99% of his customers can’t tell the difference between filet mignon and a Big Mac. Well, that might be true of his customers; but if it is, he is running a very bad restaurant, and he won’t last long by catering specifically to people who have no taste.

      • Hey, Tom, not a fan, huh? (grin)

        Just to be clear on my comment taken out of context. It was to advise writers when they have exhausted all decent research options. I believe in getting details right and agree with Dave Farland completely on this. For example, I am writing a western time travel series and even though it would be easy to make up old western places, I have gone out of my way to make sure every detail of the old west is as accurate as I could get it. Not for the readers, but for me. I need to make it as clear as I can.

        Same when I write mystery and thrillers. The details have to be right, as best as I can make them. Kris and I have entire wing of our home full of nothing but research books we have collected over time. About three full bedrooms full with library shelves in the middle. Full of everything from a full run of Life Magazine for the pictures to know what an exact week in time looked like to really obscure books on a topic that we have picked up over the years.

        And I spend more time on Google and other methods of searching than I care to think about, and Kris and I regularly travel for nothing but research on projects.

        So I am in total agreement with Dave Farland on this topic. But your rant was sure fun. Too bad you really didn’t know what you are ranting about. (grin)

        • Dean Wesley Smith

          Sorry, not sure why that went through as Anonymous… But I claim it.

        • Yep. I knew it was you the minute I saw (grin).

          I have to say that as a reader, I’ll forgive someone if their setting isn’t quite as enchanting/correct/dazzling as some would like, so long as I care about the characters. Who cares if the story is set in Paris, if it’s dull and the characters are a*holes? I’ll forgive someone getting the science wrong, if it doesn’t totally destroy the story. I mean, I read about FTL space travel, and we haven’t figured out how to do that quite yet, but I can still enjoy the story.

          What I hate is when the world/scene building takes over the story. I don’t need minute details about mid-tenth century Viking life explained over thirty pages while the story gets lost and I forget why I was reading the book.

          On the other hand, if I’m reading a book about brain surgery after the zombie apocalypse has happened, and my fellow survivor dies because you left out an important part, you better believe I’m hunting you down and chopping your head off. Dead or undead.

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