Writing Fantasy – The Story Isn’t About Your Setting

If you’re like most writers drawn to fantasy, you can get lost in your setting. Maybe the most fun part about writing is dreaming up the cool places and cultures that will be featured in your world. That’s fine. But don’t make the mistake of letting the setting take the center stage. Make no mistake about it, your setting is the backdrop to the drama that unfolds, no matter how compelling the world is. Or if you want to put it another way, your setting is the flavor of the ice cream; it’s important, but no one wants to chug a bottle of vanilla extract (let’s pretend no one wants to guzzle chocolate syrup either, even though I can’t promise I wouldn’t—or haven’t, for that matter).

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Characters Are Not Just Eyes

If you’ve ever poked around writing forums or read unpublished fantasy writing, you’ve seen characters that are little more than a pair of eyes to show readers the world. Unless you’re extremely brave or simply don’t care if your work gets published, your story should take place within the setting. I’ll say it one more time for the stubborn among you: Setting is not story! This mistake can manifest in somewhat subtle ways. The simplest test to make sure you’re using setting properly is to ask if it is doing more than one job for your story. Let me give two examples:

“Brynn crossed the main street of Acretia. Above him, a tower of polished black stones thrust upward and into the clouds. Beyond the tower, and taller still, was the southern wall of the city, which bent inward to form a half-dome that cast its shadow over half of the southern district.”

So let’s say I really like the details above and want to include them in my book. I would ask myself some questions about these few lines:

  1. Do they move the plot forward? Not really.
  2. Do they reveal character? Not really.
  3. Do they demonstrate theme? Not really.
  4. Do they build subtext? Not really.
  5. Do they show writing voice? Maybe, but not really.
  6. Does it sound like I’m trying too hard? Maybe the part about thrusting upward into the clouds.
  7. Are they interesting? A little bit.
  8. What would I lose if I cut them from the story completely? *This would depend. If, for example, the domed shape of the wall became relevant later, it might be worth keeping. Or, for example, the tower of black stones could be referenced and then readers would remember having seen it. Otherwise, if this was just for flavor, then I would say no.

Okay. That’s a lot of questions. Should you literally write these out and run every two or three lines of description in your story through them? No. But you should get the general idea that these questions are striving toward and apply it to your writing. Essentially, how many ways can I make this detail about setting rich—and I don’t mean more descriptive, I mean more dense. Density is the key! The more purposes you can pack into a single line, the better.

Alright. If I really wanted to keep those details, I could try to make them more enriching to the story and address as many questions as possible like this:

“Brynn had to shove several beggars to cross the main street of Acretia. His father had told him tales of the city, but they had been just that: tales. The “towering pillar of shadow” was actually a crooked pile of dirty bricks no larger than a Varox. The “scantily dressed women” were things of questionable gender that he would rather have seen veiled in tokars. And the “impenetrable dome” was a lone patch of wall standing at the far end of town with a slight lean to it. No, Brynn thought, If Gurvus could be stopped, it was not going to be here.”

Maybe I got a little carried away. I also ended up changing the details that I originally liked in a way that felt more interesting. But that’s actually the point of questioning your details. Even if you don’t think these particular details are interesting, you can see that my attempt to make them more rich did do something interesting. It made my goal of “describe what he sees” transition into what now describes something about the character (he’s the type of guy to shove beggars) and he’s preoccupied with finding a way to stop someone named Gurvus. It moves the plot forward (whatever is going on with the army shows that he’s actually examining how well the city will stand up to an attack). I also showed his evaluation of the city through the lens of his father’s words, which provides some background on character. Theme and subtext are only hinted at slightly with the beggars and Brynn’s dismissal of them, but if we knew Brynn’s social class, those moments could show theme and subtext more strongly.  And finally, I changed the descriptions a little because I caught myself trying to sound too writerly when describing the tower before. By taking a different angle, I was able to describe the scene in straight-forward language that was more efficient.

And that’s the key. Efficiency.

Final Thoughts

So  if you haven’t already decided to, take a magnifying glass to your story. Look at the moments where you convey setting. And ask yourself if they are at least doing two jobs. In an ideal world, no sentence in your entire 100,000 word novel should be there for one reason only. When you realize how much actually needs to fit in those 100,000 words, it suddenly starts seeming like a limitation instead of a goal. You’ll also realize the need for efficiency. As a reader, efficient writing is like biting into a very satisfying and filling steak. The texture is just right, the flavors are just right, it’s warm, it’s juicy, and it smells great. Single-purpose writing is like snacking on unsalted crackers. They are dry and take a lot of work to chew, and you can eat them all day and still feel hungry (okay maybe you can’t, but I can. I have a big appetite).

Post an example of either some really rich setting sentences you’ve written, or some really shallow setting sentences in the comments.  We all write both of them, so there’s no shame in it. It’s actually easier to learn from the non-examples most of the time too. And as usual, if you enjoyed this please consider subscribing (the only emails you’ll ever get are when I post a new article) or sharing the article.