1. Kallisto
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    Kallisto Active Member

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    How to present a setting

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Kallisto, Oct 15, 2015.

    So I've recently gotten feedback and I understand it's an old question. When you're presenting a setting, particularly one in a fantasy or sci fi setting, how do you go about describing the setting without dry narrative?
     
  2. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Do it through your character. The whole draw for the reader is to experience the story through the eyes and ears of the MC--the same goes for the setting. You have your MC, who shows the world to the reader through his/her eyes. That character is not just standing around in the setting, most likely--she/he is doing something. So start there. What is the character doing? What is the character experiencing as he/she is doing it? Why is she/he taking note of those particular things and not other particular things? This not only shows your setting off, but it develops your character as well. Plus, it allows you to only show what the character sees and keep the rest in mystery until it's noticed.

    As a reader, I don't particularly care about the setting in and of itself. I only care about what the character cares about. Make the character care about what's around him/her, and the reader will care, too.
     
  3. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I agree completely. Especially where you point out that the character will be taking note of particular things and not other particular things. This will be greatly affected by what is happening in the scene. Some fantasy character who is sitting on a hilltop eating a fantasy sandwich and contemplating the fantasy scenery will see things differently from somebody who is running away from a deadly enemy through the same landscape, or starving and foraging for tidbits of food, or anxiously scanning the horizon for an incoming vehicle containing either friend or foe.
     
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  4. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    Depending on the character and the POV, I present the setting as they take notice their surroundings. The insights of an artist will be different from those of a carpenter. For foreign travelers arriving in a new location where everything is new, I show the reader through all the senses as they experience them.

    Also, if you want to outline emotional markers in advance helps. Summarizing an earlier scene I did to some of the critical emotions:

    Being guided forth by the light of the Eise's third story beacon, making one's way across the raised boardwalk in the dead of night, the way aroma of a hearty stew in the air provokes the weary stomach to growl in anticipation. The indistinct chatter and laughter of pleasant company, running one's hand against the ornate carvings and scrollwork of the building's exterior. The soothing voice of the young Cien caretaker as she recognizes the beleaguered state you are in from your travels. The joys of drawing a hot bath and being wrapped in fresh linens. Being served a hot meal and enjoying a soothing massage while telling enraptured locals of your hometown. Snuggling into a real bed for the first time in weeks and falling asleep instantly. A rejuvenating and deep sleep in this place of safety and comfort, allowing all the stress to melt away.

    These were the finer points which dominated the scene of a traveler who ended his long journey with some much needed care. The setting of the experience is just as important as the experience itself.
     
  5. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yep. And I think fantasy is worth noting, especially, because I get the feeling a lot of people focus far too much on setting in fantasy (and possibly sci-fi as well). Worldbuilding is great. It's important. But quite frankly, I don't care about your world. I care about the people in your world. And the same goes for any fictional town (even if it's fictional NYC) or fictional building or home. The story is in the people and what they do and why. The setting matters, but only to the extent that the characters are affected by it. How they're affected by it is critical in developing those characters because, as @jannert says, different characters will notice different things based on the situation.
     
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  6. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    @xanadu To ignore the world and the setting is to conduct a puppet show on a stage! There is no need for the principals of Chekhov's Gun in a novel, but relevancy is always pertinent. There is a difference between pages of irrelevant geography/world history and showing the culture of your people. If your fantasy and sci-fi settings are suffering from being cardboard cut outs then the author is failing to deliver depth and meaning. The point of worldbuilding is define and explore a different world, and not merely play charades with the reader.

    Xanadu, you are taking a stance that settings are not always impacting characters. Travelers in a strange land may become overwhelmed by novelties, but for those who live in a defined and familiar setting - they are part of the setting and will reflect various values based on their interactions within the local populace.

    Settings always impact your characters.
     
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  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think characters and setting should certainly interact, as you say. A tourist will notice things a native takes for granted—and will miss some things a native will be aware of. However, so often you see writers who have spent a lot of time 'worldbuilding' who feel they need to describe every little detail of their setting, no matter what is going on in a scene or who the characters are.

    I remember reading a story for critique (in a writing group) where people are fighting a life-or-death battle inside a room, and one of the characters describes the designs on the wallpaper, the carpet and the carving on the door, as well as how many windows the room has, and the colours the windowframes are painted. This is a person who is here to rescue somebody, and they are immediately attacked by several guards (in darkness!) They are NOT going to notice this kind of stuff, are they? They may be aware there are windows because they're contemplating jumping through one of them to escape. But the colour of the windowsill and the pattern on the carpet and the walls? I don't think so. Even if they have been in this room before, these are not the details which will be occupying their minds as they fight a wad of armed guards.
     
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2015
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  8. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    I absolutely do not advocate ignoring the world and the setting, at all. In fact, the setting has all the potential in the world to be important. But it's conditional--it matters only as much as it matters. Sounds like a meaningless tautology, sure, but I think you agree with it, too. As you say, there's a difference between irrelevant geography and showing the culture. There is nothing wrong, at all, with showing the culture. The culture matters. The irrelevant geography is, obviously, irrelevant. That's all I'm really saying. Whatever is impacting your characters is what matters. Whatever is impacting your characters at the moment is what should be shown at the moment. Whatever isn't impacting your characters at the moment should be left on the cutting room floor.

    I don't think we disagree as much as you think we do.
     
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  9. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    @xanadu - My disagreement was rooted in the fact that settings always are in effect and that the text must always be relevant. I suppose I am obligated to give some context now.

    The setting I have is a savage world with most settlements dotted around a large freshwater lake cradled by ancient jungles in the shadow of a mountain chain. The average age of the main characters are in the 40s and 50s - many are matriarchal figures who have raised their children to adulthood yet they struggle tirelessly to maintain their settlements. Concepts like "The Hero's Journey" do not apply - they do not leave their mundane world and travel afar. For many, daily life is a bumpy road that will eventually kill you. Prudent readers can assemble the pieces of the world, but I do not vomit origins.

    Yes, many novice authors try to cram 90% of their worldbuilding into the text - and pardon the expression, but as my colleague called it: "The most perverse form of authorial masturbation." While not exactly as spiteful as he, I find epic journeys like Lord of the Rings to be akin to fantasy tourism.
     
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  10. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    In defense of LOTR, most of the time the characters WERE tourists, in that they were just passing through a territory and noticing what they did. I loved the worldbuilding in that story, because I felt I was there. However, the details we were given did matter, and weren't just wallpaper. The swamps where the horrible neekerbreekers were biting, the high mountain blizzard that nearly killed the Fellowship, the underground caverns of Moria. And peaceful, autumnal Lothlorien, where the remnants of the Fellowship found rest after Gandalf's death. I can't imagine what that story would have been like without these settings described as they were.

    However, the one setting that we got to know like natives was The Shire. The hobbits, who were our main characters, lived there. We got to see them 'at home,' know what the inhabitants were like, what they valued, what the houses and people and fields and forests looked like, how gossip worked, what was important to these 'people,' etc. We were not tourists in that world. We lived there for a while. So the details we were given were the details that mattered to the people who lived there.

    There were other main characters as well, but we didn't get to see them for very long in their own environments. So they, too, were 'tourists.' We didn't watch Legolas going about his daily routines in Rivendell, or Gimli hanging out with other dwarves in their homeland, or even Aragorn, whose life had been lived in so many places. It was the hobbits whom we got to watch 'at home.' And I think that is why The Shire felt like home to us readers as well.
     
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2015

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