1. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    How to describe a fantasy setting

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by RiverSong, Dec 20, 2017.

    Hi, I'm attempting to write a fantasy novel for the first time. I'm stuck on how to describe the time. It's a fantasy plot with multiple kingdoms in it. Sort of similar to a Lord of the Rings atmosphere. Any suggestions on how to start off the story so the reader not only understands the setting is that of fantasy and mystical surroundings but they also feel as if they are there. Also, should I start the story describing the time this story is set in, or start with describing the first kingdom that is first in the story? Thank you!
     
  2. halisme

    halisme Contributor Contributor

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    Start with neither of those methods. Instead, focus on a character and their perception of the world, and then build outwards.
     
  3. Mouthwash

    Mouthwash Senior Member

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    Please, no! Lord of the Rings is done and dusted as a model. When I hear this I think "factory-assembled elves n' dwarves." Even if that's not what you intend.
     
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2017
  4. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    That was just an example of "fantasy". To be honest I've never even watched the series. And there are not any elves or dwarves in my story. I was just trying to give an example of a setting I was looking for help to get a description of. I feel good with my description of the characters, I'm just at a road block with how to describe a fantasy setting so the reader knows it is that setting.
     
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  5. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    Thank you for the idea. I like that concept.
     
  6. Mouthwash

    Mouthwash Senior Member

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    You shouldn't take time out to "describe" the world to the reader. That should be done through the eyes of the characters, and never in a way that distracts from the thrust of the plot.
     
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2017
  7. halisme

    halisme Contributor Contributor

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    If you've never seen something, not a good idea to use it as a reference point.
     
  8. making tracks

    making tracks Active Member

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    I think it should become obvious when reading it that it is a fantasy setting, you don't need to spoon feed it to the reader. Mention little details that will give them clues - what the houses look like, what their jobs are, who the 'Lord of the Land ' or equivalent is. The way the characters act, interact with each other and the events going on will help. Things like people riding on horseback down cobbled streets etc will all piece the world together. Things that are part of the story and not obviously just added in.

    And I agree with the others, if you can put it from the character's perspective it won't read like an info dump. If you want to describe the setting try to do it as organically as possible.
     
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  9. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    Although, I have never seen LOTR series, I have seen previews for it. I used LOTR as a reference because I was looking for some guidance on how to describe that sort of setting. How would the reader know they are there? As I mentioned, this is my first attempt at writing a fantasy and I hit a road block on how to describe the setting, the scenery. My story isn't a LOTR theme. My story line and characters are much different. But I do like the setting in which it takes place which is why I used it as an example. I can easily describe current time/era scenery. However a make believe era and time, I was at a road block with.
     
  10. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    Thank you! That was very helpful. I believe I was overthinking how the scenery must be the only way the reader knows the era in which the characters are displayed. But you make a great point - that what is taking place in the city/land/kingdoms will give it away.
     
  11. Mouthwash

    Mouthwash Senior Member

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    ...it seems a little odd that you would bring up a universe that you had never even read/watched for reference. What high fantasy do you know?
     
  12. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    Unfortunately, this thread is getting lost from the main question I was asking guidance in and me noting LOTR as an example of the setting is becoming the focus. I've mentioned this is my first attempt at fantasy writing. Not to get into too much detail, but I was given a project to attempt, a different genre to write for. I have my story line, the characters, the plot, etc and hit a road block on how to describe the scenery so the readers know it is not of this time, this era, this reality so to speak. I was only asking for some advise on how to describe the setting of a genre I've never written about.

    Making Tracks showed that perhaps I'm merely overthinking the whole description of the scenery thing and that by describing people's jobs, character, how they travel, etc is how the readers' will know.
     
  13. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner Contributor Contributor

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    You need to focus not on the setting but how the setting affects the characters. The world is a backdrop, if you make the reader immersed in the drama, the setting should highlight that. Lord of the Ring was not about Middle Earth, it was about the character drama. The setting just pushed that drama forwards.
     
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  14. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    Thank you. That makes a lot of sense! It became a challenge for me when I was trying to describe a surrounding. For example, the forest in which the characters travel through from kingdom to kingdom. I couldn't think of a "fantastical" way to describe it. There isn't anything mystical about the forest, I just want it to be described as more a breathtaking type of forest then what we are used to in reality.

    It appears I need to picture the "surroundings" as the characters see it, and not beat the description of it all to death.
     
  15. Teladan

    Teladan Active Member

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    Having written primarily fantasy, it's the same as any other work of fiction. One only has to use their imagination. One of the big things about fantasy is to keep the exposition short and sweet. Let the characters explore the world and discuss the important events in snappy dialogue. It's the same with any other genre, really. If your work will involve multiple kingdoms and plot lines, try using a mind map or other sort of timeline to help you organise events to see how they converge.

    My world focuses on large tribal confederates and tainted theocracies, the world having themes of anti-anthropocentrism/human supremacy over nature, but the main focus is the characters. It doesn't matter how complex your world building is if you don't have relatable characters. A lot of people get stuck making silly magic systems and the like. That doesn't matter. You need the human element to make your story worth telling.
     
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2017
  16. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Assorted thoughts:

    - Don't worry about this yet. Odds are that where you start now won't be where the final novel starts, so I'd say focus on character and plot. Later if you discover that the first events feel like they're happening in a blank space, you can figure out how to solve that problem then.

    - However, if you refuse to not worry about it :), one possible thing could be to start in a setting that is at least a little new to your POV character. Maybe he just left a home of stone cottages and thatched roofs and dirt roads and entered a city of brick buildings and tall pointed slate roofs and cobblestones. Or something. Maybe he's never seen a sword in his life and the city is filled with armed men. Novelty to your POV character gives you an excuse for noticing some things.

    If you don't want a change that big, maybe the first event happens in town on market day, and he's enjoying the smaller novelties of the town compared to his village or farm.

    - This sort of thing probably doesn't give you an excuse for explaining a ton of stuff about the geography and politics, and that's fine, because readers like to discover. As long as they have enough to keep themselves interested--buildings taller than the character has ever seen, rude crowded people, the smell of inadequately handled sewage, whatever--they're not going to worry too much over, "Now is this constitutional democracy or...?" unless and until that becomes relevant.
     
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  17. Mouthwash

    Mouthwash Senior Member

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    Others have answered your question. I just hope that you aren't doing this with LOTR movie trailers as your sole idea of fantasy.
     
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2017
  18. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    Thanks so much! This was very helpful. It appears it is going to be more about me using keywords, such as "cobblestones" then it is about long drawn out description of something. It's going to be all about how I say what something is. Thanks for taking the time to break it all down like that.
     
  19. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    Thank you. Unfortunately, sometimes my imagine is so concrete. I'm great at describing realistic surroundings, but struggle at describing what something fantastical looks like. Thanks for sharing your expertise on this genre with me.
     
  20. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I'll echo this sentiment: write the story, come back to the beginning later. The beginning is the hardest to write.

    For world building, I'll repeat what I've said in multiple threads because that's what worked for me, set up a Pinterest account (free) and create files for the things you have in mind for your story. It's like an encyclopedia of visions.

    Some of my files (called boards) are: 'future fashions', 'strange landscapes', and 'future cities'. But I also have more contemporary files that I put strange images in which fit what I had in mind so for example, my 'edge of the city' is very dystopian. There are so many pictures on Pinterest and all you need do is click on them and send them to the file you want.

    As for all the LOTRs comments, good grief, ignore them and write the story. There are always story ideas that someone won't like. I won't be reading a book on zombies any time in the foreseeable future. That doesn't mean the next World War Z isn't on someone's desk right now.
     
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  21. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    Thank you for your suggestions. My strength is more in script style writing. I can write lengthy dialogue between two characters and go into depth on their personalities/characteristics. My weakness is description of surroundings. I become concrete in a sense. Say I was to look at an image of glaciers out in Alaska. I would be an awe of the majestic beauty of them but could become overwhelmed if someone asked me to describe them.

    I do like your advise of creating files of images. If I see a variety of settings/scenery that could broaden my creativity for sure.
     
  22. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    My story started almost devoid of scenery except in my head and even that was vague. But the characters and dialogue came easily. Describing the setting is still my weakest area but I've come a long way and there are some descriptions in some chapters now that I actually love.

    Try this (ignore forum software issue with the address, the link works): =glaciers%7Ctyped]Pinterest Glaciers and see if you don't find all sorts of things to say about glaciers that you never imagined.

    Another idea I found reading how to write books and blogs was to treat the setting as a character. My character goes to her friend's house. The living area is an extension of his mother, everything in place, white, pristine, unwelcoming. The father's office has overgrown furniture that looms, the walls are dark, the door shuts with a thud. She's afraid before the man speaks.
     
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  23. RiverSong

    RiverSong Member

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    Relieved to see that I'm not the only one who has a weakness when it comes to settings. THANKS :agreed::bigsmile: so much for that link. Goodness those glaciers are so gorgeous and breathtaking. Far beyond what I pictured them to be. I know I may get some slack (again my description of objects/scenery is an area I need to work on) but I would have pictured glaciers in my head and thought, "mammoth ice intruding from an overwhelming ocean". I just exposed my weakness, but who cares. Looking at these images you showed me made me see them in such a different view and I worked at describing them in my mind. This was so helpful! :superagree:
     
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  24. Kallisto

    Kallisto Ruler of the world... somewhere...

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    So I usually start with the characters. Who is that main character. What is their goal, motive, and conflict. And the reason why I start with the character is because once I got that down, I'm now having to start and think of what kind of world shaped this character. We are all shaped by our experiences. If I have a character, for example, who feels like a failure because he's not a good warrior, I would consider having him growing up in a world where there's a strong warrior class and it's linked directly to masculinity.

    My current WIP involves several kingdoms as well. One thing I have to do is figure is the personality of each kingdom and let the setting reflect that personality in some way. That way you can describe the setting and the readers get a good idea on what kind of place it is.
     

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