Archive for the 'Setting' Category

May 25 2013

Setting as a Character

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

New writers have a tendency to focus so much on their character development that they forget that the right setting can be just as important. Setting provides a picture for a reader, without which your characters are flying through nothingness. Action and drama mean very little without interaction between the characters and their environment so, in the right circumstances, a well-established setting can become a character in its own right. Think of Hogwarts, where the staircases are just as likely to move as the people walking on them, a flying car that saves the protagonist from his enemies and the hidden caverns and passages which not only help move plot along but which often interface with the characters too. It is this intelligent use of setting that sets your work apart from average writers and makes your work truly readable and re-readable.


“I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”

–J K Rowling


Setting can be magical without the presence of magic though. If you’ve ever visited the ancient ruins of a castle, you will know that age brings with it a sense of history and stories unknown. So as your character stumbles across a castle in the night, a hundred feet tall all around, its harsh grey stone covered in green and gold lichen which reflects the moonlight and all but one window dark, you are able to bring about a sense of age and vastness, a sense of mystery and majesty. Similarly, if you’ve ever found yourself in an exotic plant store, there is something about the bizarre, unknown vegetation that demonstrates you don’t need a tree that takes a swing at you as you pass to give a fantastical element to the setting. In the shade of leaning palms, your character finds escape from the arid heat. Winding your way along an isolated trail in the Amazon rainforest, the flora and fauna hold a great deal of surprises, distractions, obstacles and dangers which can be relevant to the progress of your story. Familiarity is what causes something to become clichéd. As long as you stay fresh and thoughtful about your setting then you won’t fall into this trap.


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Aug 15 2011

Redefining Setting

Setting is indisputably an integral part of any story. To a large extent, setting defines your story by shaping the character’s experiences.  Even more so than character, setting tends to be the most memorable and instantly recallable aspect of a story.


Some writers treat settings merely as a backdrop.  This is a damaging, borderline murderous view that inhibits the setting’s ability to captivate and engross readers.   A backdrop, no matter how beautiful or intricate, is only a backdrop. Just a necessary aspect of creative works of art that is taken for granted.  A setting can do so much more for your story.


The key to making your setting exceptional is to treat it as it deserves to be treated, like a character.

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Jul 08 2009

How to Do Settings and Scenery Well

Published by 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.

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Jul 07 2009

How to make travel-scenes interesting

Many novels, particularly fantasies, spend a lot of time on traveling scenes.  Here are some suggestions to keep the journeys smooth and interesting.

1. Don’t give the journey more length than the goal merits. If the characters take a 20-page trip through the wilderness to find something minor, readers will probably feel annoyed.  In contrast, a journey that is absolutely critical to the plot might span hundreds of pages.  For example, if the book is about settlers on the Oregon Trail, then almost all of the book is probably going to be in transit.

2. Make the journey urgent. For example, the characters are running out of time and/or they are in danger.  Urgent journeys are usually more interesting.  Urgent journeys also go farther to develop how impressive the characters are.  Anyone can get around the world, but doing it in 80 days in 1872 is pretty remarkable.

3.  Use the trek as an opportunity for character development. A strong journey usually requires chemistry between the characters.  Chemistry is hard to pin down, but it generally entails a bit of conflict and style.

4.  Show us some new scenery. In a fantasy, this is a great opportunity to use your imagination.  Why should travelers should stay away from the Mangled Forest?

5.  Stay away from redundancy.   For example, if the characters defend themselves from bears one page, it would be pretty boring if they had to fight off wolves or wild zebras or rabid gnomes or whatever a few pages later.   Also, don’t spend too much time building the landscapes. Show us just enough to build a mood.

6.  A journey depends on effective use of low-intensity pacing. Unlike, say, a car chase, a journey is going to consist of scenes that are mostly unintense.  There may be brief intervals of intense action (probably combat), but those will get redundant fairly quickly.  In general, suspense and/or spookiness usually go farther than a battle royale rumble through the jungle.

7.  If at all possible, just cut out the description of the journey by having the narrator tell us that the characters made it. If you can do that without eviscerating the plot, chances are that the journey isn’t important enough to draw out.  Readers will really thank you for glossing over minor, boring details.  (For example, see our review of Empire of Ivory).

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Oct 03 2008

TV Tropes Presents: Big Applesauce!

TV Tropes notes the cliche that stories with real-world settings tend to be in New York City. In comic books, that’s overwhelmingly true. (And Gotham/Metropolis aren’t fooling anyone… at the time DC Comics first used those, they were nicknames for New York City). There are a few reasons for this cliched setting.

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Jul 14 2008

An Exercise to Help Write Better Settings

The Associated Press describes a California town that is so xenophobic that it has a vigilante “Border Patrol” tear down all the road signs that might help motorists find it. What a delightfully gruesome detail. Would you like a writing assignment? Write a detail that describes a fundamental flaw of a place or character. The more flavor, the better.

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Jul 12 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Don’t Use Your Hometown as a Setting

Published by under Setting,Writing Articles

Conclusion 1: Don’t set a story in your hometown or place of birth.

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