Your Fictional World: Setting and Description

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Those stories couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.

Consider Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, with its ambitious depiction of medieval England, James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries (Los Angeles in the 40’s and 50’s), Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (submarines), Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island (an eerily gothic prison island for the criminally insane), Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequels (prehistoric Europe), Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January mysteries (New Orleans in the first half of the 19th century), Frank Herbert’s Dune (the desert planet Arrakis), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Long Island’s “Gold Coast” in the 1920’s), Louis L’Amour’s westerns, and of course everything ever written by James Michener, whose books were all about the settings.

Even a familiar, present-day setting can take on a life of its own if it’s beautifully evoked. Boston is a city I’m very familiar with, but in Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River working class South Boston becomes not just a neighborhood, but an all-consuming state of mind.

Some of the settings in the books I’ve just named are huge and sweeping, some quite limited—a creepy little island, a claustrophobic submarine. They key to creating a memorable setting isn’t in making it big and complicated. In fact, a small, constrained location can be extremely effective if you know it really well and convey it with credible detail.

In his book Story, Robert McKee discusses this “Principle of Creative Limitation”: Limitation is vital. The first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world. Artists by nature crave freedom, so the principle that the structure/setting relationship restricts creative choices may stir the rebel in you. With a closer look, however, you’ll see that this relationship couldn’t be more positive. The constraint that setting imposes on story design doesn’t inhibit creativity; it inspires it.

Richard Adams’ Watership Down begins: The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit holes…. The protagonists of this wonderful book are, of course, rabbits, and their journey encompasses but a tiny patch of rural England. The location is small; the story is epic.

Every setting you create has two elements, period and location, and it will fall into one of three main categories: real, realistic, or fantastic.

Real. Some novels, both literary and commercial, are set in an actual, real location. One such novel is William Goldman’s Marathon Man, which takes place mostly in New York City and opens with the best prologue I’ve ever read. Set in a Manhattan neighborhood populated at the time with Germans, it’s written from the point of view of a cantankerous old Jewish man we never hear from again: Every time he drove through Yorkville, Rosenbaum got angry, just on general principles. The east 86th Street area was the last holdout of the krauts in Manhattan, and the sooner they got the beer halls replaced by new apartment buildings, the better off he’d be…. The places Goldman describes in this book actually exist. You could visit, for example, the Central Park Reservoir, and it would look very much as he described it.

Realistic settings, which utilize an invented location or a real location with invented elements, don’t actually exist, at least not as described, but they have an aura of verisimilitude about them. They seem real, and we’re meant to suspend disbelief and accept them as such. An example would be a novel set in, say, a fictional small town. I would include almost all historical fiction in this category, because no matter how accurately the author has re-created the period and setting, the all-important details are based not on reality, but on research.

One of my favorite historical novels is Martin Cruz Smith’s Rose, a romantic mystery set in 1872 in the gloomy English industrial town of Wigan. In this passage, our protagonist is getting his first view of Wigan as his train approaches it:

The dark sky turned darker, not with clouds but with a more pungent ingredient. From the window, Blair saw what could have been the towering effluent plume of a volcano, except that there was no erupting volcanic cone, no mountain of any size, in fact, between the Pennines to the east and the sea to the west, nothing but swale and hill above the long tilt of underground carboniferous deposits. The smoke rose not from a single point but as a dark veil across the northern horizon, as if all the land thereafter was on fire. Only closer could a traveler tell that the horizon was an unbroken line of chimneys.

Chimneys congregated around cotton mills, glassworks, iron foundries, chemical works, dye works, brick works. But the most monumental chimneys were at the coal pits, as if the earth itself had been turned into one great factory. When Blake wrote of “dark Satanic mills,” he meant chimneys.

Smith described this incredibly evocative scene not from real life, of course, but from his imagination, Wigan today being a much different place from what it was then. Of course, his imagination was aided by research into the time and place he was writing about, and with which he’d become intimately familiar. The front of the book contains a map of Wigan in 1872, another of the coal-mining pit in which much of the action takes place, and even a diagram of the workings of the “pit eye.” I have no way of knowing how strictly accurate all of this is, historically, but it’s remarkably realistic, and remarkably effective.

Fantastic settings, the realm of science fiction and fantasy, are the product of world building. The settings are not only fictional, but may incorporate such unreal elements as magic and mythical beings. Although there’s obviously a great deal of creative latitude when constructing such a setting, most writers don’t concoct it all out of whole cloth, but use research to ground it in a reality to which they—and their readers—can relate. For instance, the author of a book about a rain-drenched planet might invent flora and fauna with characteristics similar to those found in Earth’s rainforests.

It’s not the imaginary elements, but the combination of the imaginary and the real that make fantasy fiction so appealing, as in J.R.R. 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.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel; a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors….

Description is a writerly tool at which some of us are gifted and others not so much, but effective description is essential in bringing a setting to life. If you’re good at it, then you’re very lucky and I hate you very much. If it’s one of your weak points, my advice would be to keep it as minimal as possible. Paint with a broad brush, picking out one or two strong details and searching for just the right word or phrase to indicate what something looks or sounds or smells like. Aim for a feeling, a tone, a mood. One really striking detail can make a scene.

Here’s the opening of Chapter 6 of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, in which we get our first glimpse of the book’s loathsome quadriplegic villain, Mason Verger:

The chamber where Mason spends his life is quiet, but it has its own soft pulse, the hiss and sigh of the respirator that finds him breath. It is dark except for the glow of the big aquarium where an exotic eel turns and turns in an endless figure eight, its cast shadow moving like a ribbon over the room.

That two-sentence description of the room—the hiss and sigh, the writhing shadow—is enough to make any reader’s skin crawl. I don’t know where Harris came up with that eel, but wow, what an image, both revolting and gorgeous.

When I was studying art in college, one of my teachers put a truck crankshaft in the middle of the studio and ordered us to paint four different versions of it—to which we responded, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, that it was butt-ugly and unworthy of being immortalized on canvas. Why didn’t she have us doing still lifes or nudes or landscapes, like our other teachers? “Anyone can make a beautiful painting of something that’s already beautiful,” she told us. “The trick is to see—and convey—the beauty in what we initially regard as ordinary, mundane, even ugly.”

For writers, description is analogous to painting. When describing something that most people perceive as unpleasant—a rusted-out car, dirty snow along a city street, a scar from an operation—many writers resort to shorthand, been-there-done-that descriptions meant to evoke a familiar sense of disgust or distaste. But that’s taking the easy and ineffective way out.

Your descriptions will be much more evocative and powerful if you look at the thing you’re describing with the freshest eyes possible, as if you’ve never seen it or even thought about it before, and free your mind of considerations of beauty and ugliness. Use all your senses, and just say no to clichés. Make your reader see what it is you’re describing in a new and illuminating way, as Martin Cruz Smith did in his description of murky, soot-choked, yet strangely beautiful Wigan.

Louisa Burton
August 2010


“FictionCraft” © 2010 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

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