Thursday, February 7, 2013

Using A Place

So yesterday I talked about things to consider when building a place/setting (And totally forgot language, which I am thoroughly ashamed of). Today I want to talk about how you use a setting to its fullest potential. Because a setting in a book isn't like the painted wood trees in an elementary theater performance—it's living and breathing and waited to be interacted with, and also to act upon your characters.

It's one thing to describe a festival in your book—and an entirely different thing to have your characters be at the festival and do things at the festival. Of course description is included in this said festival scene, but it also comes alive as your characters participate. The festival becomes a real thing.

I suppose it comes down to that whole Show vs. Tell thing. There are certainly times for both, but showing setting details when you can brings a world to life. I mean, let's look to the great JK Rowling for this a second. She talked about the big quidditch cup tournament, but then she also showed the tournament. For me, that's when the excitement and reality of it happened. Same with the Tri-Wizard tournament. And the Basilisk. And the pollyjuice potion. And the owls. Even down to wands choosing their wizards.

This also goes for characters. They shouldn't be plunked into a setting and not have been impacted by that place. For it to feel like a fully realized world, the characters have to truly be part of that world. This probably sounds obvious, but it doesn't hurt to give it a little extra thought.

For this I'm going to reference The Hunger Games. Like Katniss or not, she is truly a product of her world. She was never my favorite person, but I fully believed in the person she was and understood why she was making the choices she did. Not only that, but I wasn't a girl plucked out of now and placed in a novel. I can't think of anything place but District 12 as Katniss' home. That takes a lot of skill!

And finally, a setting should impact the plot. Also obvious, but if a story can be set anywhere, why set it in a fantasy world, you know? The things characters have to work through must be integral parts of the world. Like in Dune—the spice, the worms, the fremen, the politics—they served the plot just as much as the characters.

So as important as building a place is, using that place is what makes a novel magical.


  1. I agree, I love when they show us and not always tell us.

  2. Although I mostly agree about showing instead of telling, I have to point out that this is one reason the Harry Potter books were so long. She had a lot of important background to impart and she used scenes a lot to do so. But while JKR could get away with telephone-sized novels, other authors without her clout wouldn't have that kind of leeway.

    1. This is true, Barb, which is why I said there are times for both. Not everything in a world can be featured in scenes—not everything should be there that's in your head. I was just saying you can maximize setting by showing it and also implementing in plot and characters.

  3. But if a book FEELS too long, it is. Rowling's books, despite their length, always feel too short when I read them. I've seen 1.5-hour movies that were too long, and 3.5-hour movies that were perfect in length (or even too short).

    Katniss was in a trilogy with far shorter books, but they were the right length for the story. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was at least 100 pages too long, right at the beginning.

    Use the setting as part of the whole story, and it isn't a waste of pages, EVER.

  4. Totally!! My current WIP is a fantasy, but the world is based on a real semi-tropical place. The scenes where my characters are in "the wild" are some of my favorites because the environment pulls on their emotions and alters their interactions. I *think* it makes my story more believable and valid. Maybe. :)