Jul 08 2009

How to Do Settings and Scenery Well

Published by at 4:47 am under Setting,Writing Articles

1.  Focus on details that develop a character. For example, it’s not so interesting that your hero’s bedroom has a dresser. What can the dresser tell us about the character? If he’s such a neat-freak that he even sorts and folds his underwear, that helps build his personality.

2.  Use sensory details and props to develop a mood. For example, let’s say you’re describing a hospital.  Is it clean and professional like the Mayo Clinic?  Or is it seedy and dangerous like a Tijuana chopshop?  Is it primal and raw like a shaman’s hut?  What do the patients look and smell like?  What sort of medical implements are on hand?  How do the staff and receptionists behave?  What does the place smell like?  Are there any noticeable sounds?  What are the bathrooms like?  Etc.

3.  Mood and character development often go hand in hand. For example, Superman’s Metropolis is clean and generally looks inspiring.  Its most distinctive building is a newspaper office.  In contrast, the most distinctive building in Gotham City is an insane asylum.  Batman can’t throw a batarang across the street without hitting a hooker or a crack dealer.   Spooky Gothic architecture is everywhere.

4.  Use the scenery to make the scene interactive. For example, if your heroes are fighting a speedy villain in a typical mall, the heroes could set off the sprinklers.  That will make it harder for the villain to keep his footing.  Using the scenery helps remind the reader that the story is happening somewhere real, not in a vacuum.  It can also make the characters seem clever and impressive.

5.  Please avoid overdoing the scenery, particularly if it’s generic. For example, let’s say I’m writing about a character that works at a typical grocery store, just like the one in your neighborhood.  It doesn’t need much description, and the description probably isn’t very interesting.  In contrast, if the grocery store is a dystopian perversion of the grocery stores in your neighborhood, then more description is probably warranted.  For example, the manager likes to keep fruits stocked in the front of the store so that he can wing apples at any of the cashiers that fall asleep on the job.

12 responses so far

12 Responses to “How to Do Settings and Scenery Well”

  1. Marissaon 08 Jul 2009 at 5:05 pm

    …I’m hoping my Chapter 1 didn’t inspire this. 😛

  2. B. Macon 08 Jul 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Nah, I’ve been working on this for months.

    The main question on my mind was “why is my description of Surf City falling flat?” I have some interesting details about the city, but they don’t amount to a mood. I think it needs to feel as enchanting and dream-like as Gotham feels spooky and nightmarish. In terms of character development, SC has to be a place where Agent Black (the taxman) is the outsider and Agent Orange (the crazy mutant alligator) has a firmer grasp of reality.

    If you remember the scene where Jacob goes through an airport, I think that failed because it focuses too much on describing what a typical, generic airport looks like. I should have focused more on the details that would have made that airport click for that story.

  3. B. Macon 12 Jul 2009 at 10:50 pm

    I like that. To use another self-reference (God, I’m filled with these today), let’s say we have a sane-and-plain character like Agent Black and a nutty-and-paranoid character like Agent Orange in a forest. Agent Black would probably focus on the small nuisances he’s not used to (the bugs, the smells, the vaguely sinister sounds all around him). Agent Orange would probably wonder why the hell those wily beavers were building dams. “Whatever they plan to do with our water supply, it could only be nefarious!”

  4. Swapnil Siddharthon 16 Oct 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Well. I like this article. I too have problems in these writing stuffs.

  5. Loysquaredon 05 Jul 2010 at 4:36 am

    What are the advantages/disadvantages for using actual places as scenery?
    Would it make the reader relate more with the story and characters? Or could it be a limitation/burden at the long run? Does that apply to other stuff as well? For example, making specific use of: cities, buildings, settings, car models, furniture, etc.
    How can that be translated into illustrated novels or comic books? To illustrate better, if I use a Starbuck as a setting, or make a character drive a Hummer H2, does that breach any technical/legal boundaries? Are there copyrights or other legal term infringements we should be aware of by doing so? Can I make an approach to use this as means for profit/sponsorship, or is that ethically incorrect? Sorry I bombarded you with all these questions, but needed to clear some doubts.

  6. B. Macon 05 Jul 2010 at 9:33 am

    “What are the advantages/disadvantages for using actual places as scenery? Would it make the reader relate more with the story and characters?” Maybe it’d be more relatable for your readers from the location, but I think it may reduce relatability among the (vastly larger) number of readers that are not from the location. Cases in point: 97% of Americans are outside of New York City. 88% of Britons are outside of London. 92% of Canadians are outside of Toronto. So you may well be alienating a vast proportion of potential readers, particularly when you consider international markets.

    In particular, I’d recommend against using your hometown as the setting because it’s easier to make incorrect assumptions about how much your readers will know. “When I say a Chicagoan is a North-Sider, everybody will assume he’s a snob who considers himself a diehard Cubs fan because that’s what the TVs play at his country club.” Actually, 99% of potential readers in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada don’t know ANYTHING about Chicago’s divisions or their stereotypes. One advantage of working with a city you’re not familiar with is that you’re mentally building the city from the ground up.

    With real cities, you may also have reader misconceptions. I think there’s a popular misconception that New York City is a crime-ridden hellhole. A hellhole, possibly, but it has a substantially better crime rate than most other U.S. cities. (For example, it has a murder rate 6 times lower than Detroit or Baltimore, although more than twice as high as London).

    Sometimes, audience misconceptions may be helpful to the story. For example, they may help readers believe that superheroes can wander around New York and find armed robbers and street gangs without too much trouble.

    Even if you write about a real city, feel free to make stuff up unless realism really, really matters to the story. Characters walking from the Empire State Building to a Yankees game that’s 8 miles away in real-life? Believable to most everybody outside of NYC*. The Sears Tower on the coast of Lake Michigan, even though it’s actually ~1.5 miles inland? Nobody will know otherwise!

    Now, what happens if the publisher’s assistant reviewing the manuscript is from NYC or once worked there? (I think this is fairly common among American publishing professionals, particularly in comic books). In that case, I don’t think she would reject the manuscript on that basis, although it might make her a bit more skeptical if it comes up early.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I think you can use landmarks like the Sears Tower as part of a skyline but often not as an individual location. According to Kathy-Burns Millard, “Photos which feature [the Sears Tower] cannot be sold for commercial purposes. In some cases a cityscape which happens to include the tower as a small part of the photo might be acceptable.” I assume that would extend to other commercial uses, like a comic book cityscape of Chicago’s skyline. (However, I assume you’re free to use public landmarks and government buildings like the White House or Mount Rushmore).

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that heroes and villains usually have their own (fictional) high-rises. In most cases, you can pick out the supervillain’s skyscraper from a city scape because it looks really tall, unfamiliar and sci-fi.

    I’d be careful about using a particular brand by name. For one thing, it dates the story. H2s will probably be long-forgotten in 10 or 20 years, and even nowadays readers might not be familiar with the brand. However, I don’t think it’s unethical/legally questionable to use a company’s cars as references for cars used as scenery in a comic book. Pretty much every comic book set in the modern era has cars in it, and I don’t recall anyone getting sued because one of the cars looks too much like, say, a Ford Taurus.

    Unless you end up insulting a product and/or its users, I really doubt that anybody at Ford is going to sign off on spending tens of thousands of dollars to sue you*.

    *Important exception: Marvel and DC have aggressive legal departments. I assume that Simon & Schuster changed the title of its upcoming superhero anthology from “With Great Power…” to “Masked” either because Marvel threatened a lawsuit or because somebody at S&S thought it might lead to a Marvel lawsuit. And, mind you, S&S has the legal resources to fight a lawsuit if it needs to. Most smaller publishers have to be more careful.

  7. Loysquaredon 05 Jul 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Thank you, that’s really helpful.

  8. B. Macon 06 Jul 2010 at 12:19 am

    Some more advantages of using real cities include…

    –A comic book’s artists will save time on concept-work and designing the city. Important buildings will still probably be designed and inserted, though.

    –More recognizable/iconic cityscapes and sites. For example, the the Oval Office scene was not awesome simply because Nightcrawler single-handedly kung fu’d ~30 Secret Service agents, but because it was an acrobatic rampage through the White House). See also: everything Roland Emmerich has ever been involved with, particularly Independence Day and 2012. Blowing up a random building doesn’t have nearly the same emotional cachet as blowing up the White House. (Ack. I’m rereading that last sentence and suspect that I’m going to get an awkward phone call from Washington tomorrow).

    –The city’s reputation may lend itself well to a given mood. Some places with distinct moods/reputations that come to mind include Las Vegas, Salt Lake City (the anti-Vegas), Honolulu (tropical paradise), Detroit/Gary/Philadelphia/Baltimore (crime-ridden slums), D.C. (uptight, hierarchical, governmental), New Orleans (French disdain of law enforcement + American disdain for gun regulation), Ohio and Kansas (stereotypically American), Berkeley/San Francisco (hippie/stereotypically anti-American), Texas (stereotypically Texan), etc.

    (Just don’t get lazy! Just because the city is named “Detroit” doesn’t mean the reader instantly immerses himself in a lurid cesspool of crime the likes of which the average Baghdadi or Sicilian can only imagine: the author is always responsible for building and establishing his world for his readers, whether the cities are real or not. For a good example of excellent world-building featuring a real city, I’d highly recommend checking out how The Wire uses Baltimore). PS: the best fictional portrayal of Detroit/Flint is a tie between Robocop and Roger & Me.

    –The stakes feel higher? I suspect people will care more about a real city than one that is purely fictional. Possibly related to iconic value and emotional impact.

    –It makes it easier to draw in real-life events, if that’s what you’re going for. IE: Spiderman’s “black issue” about the WTC attacks.

    –It makes filming the movie easier. 😉

  9. Loysquaredon 07 Jul 2010 at 12:42 am

    Personally, I feel realistic scenery makes the story more believable/plausible.

    Take the Charmed series for example, even though it’s a fantasy/magical-inspired world it’s still rooted to the urbanized region of San Francisco. I’ve never been there, but I can assimilate the story easier than the series’ hell/heaven/dimensions counterparts. Or the Harry Potter’s series, again, a fantasy/magical-inspired world inserted in modern-day United Kingdom; by extension you embrace the possibe pressence of the Hogwarts School.

    On the other hand, imaginary settings can give the author wide artistic freedom, but tends to be much more intricate and may easily loose the reader even when worked consistently. Certainly, I’ll need Tolkien’s map when visiting Middle-Earth.

    One curious case, in my opinion, is The Simpson’s Springfield. God knows how many Springfield towns/counties/cities are there in the USA. Nonetheless, the cartoons makes it a joke and puts it all over the place. You’ll never know where it really is!

  10. SilverWolfon 10 Mar 2012 at 2:26 am

    I have no idea where to write this so I will just write it here;
    My superhero novel is set in Australia, because that’s where I live and I don’t know enough about America or Brittan to set it there.
    I made up a city called Brayar, it is supposed to be kind of like a cross between;
    Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and maybe a tad like New York.
    The main characters are generally about 14 to 16 years old.
    Do you think that the story, being set down here in Oz, is workable?

  11. B. McKenzieon 10 Mar 2012 at 5:42 am

    Are you trying to publish this with Australian publishers? If so, I’m guessing it wouldn’t be an issue (or might even be a slight plus).

    I’m not very familiar with how British, Canadian and NZ readers/publishers would respond. I hope the Australian setting wouldn’t be a major issue in those markets.

    Several international bestsellers have done very well in the U.S. despite not being set here (e.g. Harry Potter and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but generally I would guess that a non-U.S. setting may cost some sales here–if your publisher publishes it in the U.S., they’ll probably know how to handle that. (For example, some of the terms in U.S. editions of Hary Potter were Americanized, like pullover –> sweater, because pullovers are dresses here. Also, Philosopher’s Stone -> Sorcerer’s Stone).

    YA isn’t my area of specialty, but I would guess that the age of the protagonists won’t raise any issues unless maybe you’re going for adult readers or perhaps upperclassmen in high school. Even then, there are a few stories about kids that did really well with much older readers (Harry Potter, Ender’s Game, Calvin & Hobbes*, etc).

    *Admittedly, C&H wasn’t a novel.

  12. SilverWolfon 10 Mar 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Thanks. I am thinking about having it mainly published in Australia and America, but that’s still all a few years off I think. 😉

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