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).


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If you’ve ever poked around writing forums or read unpublished fantasy writing, you’ve seen characters that are little more than a pair of eyes to show readers the world.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.



4 thoughts to “Writing Fantasy – The Story Isn’t About Your Setting”

  1. I’m loving the food metaphors for writing, haha. That’s solid advice about ensuring that one’s writing always serves multiple functions; I definitely still struggle with that problem in first drafts. Having the character interact with their environment and project their attitudes onto it is a great strategy. I also try to minimize the total number of settings so that I can utilize each one in the overarching plot. Still, I have a big chunk of description for a city that only appears in the story for a second, but it’s meant to create the passage of time. It’s basically a summary of the protagonist’s journey as they’re traveling by bike to their destination:

    “My tires bumped over rocks along the dirt road as I blazed past other travelers. The storefronts in Dravadine were a labyrinth of marmalade roofs and vine-covered walls, easy on the eyes. A street market was already crammed with crowds of chattering people, who gossiped to neighbors or haggled with fur traders and fishermen. Around the corner, a band of street musicians strummed a mad harmony of guitars and panpipes, and I slowed as I passed to appreciate the way their fingers blazed across the strings, the way they seemed to give life to their instruments.”

    1. Haha, thanks! I think I may have been a little hungry while I typed this article up. I love “marmalade roofs” in your excerpt. I think the “easy on the eyes” part is a good little glimpse of the character and how she perceives the setting. Also the character slowing to watch the musicians shows something about her personality. I don’t know if the character enjoys the thrill of riding, but you could use the movement of the bike as a more prominent player in the description. Instead of just “Around the corner,” she could take a corner so recklessly that she nearly smashes into a crate of fruits. Granted, that may not be the type of person she is, but you get the idea. Overall, I don’t think this one is a full non-example, because you did sprinkle some character in. But you’re right in saying there’s room for more! Then again, there’s always room for more. But looking for ways to squeeze it in is only going to improve your writing.

      Here’s a passage of describing the setting from what I’m working on – I kind of like this one:

      “The sun beat down. His own smell, which was noteworthy, mixed with sulfurous chemical waste from the Academy. The mutated insect flyers passed over him and his smell, probably assuming that he had gone bad—at least, gone more bad than the rotted piles of filth they were landing on for lunch. The fliers had nests in nearly all of the piles, breeding in the water within. He had seen a few Scrappers swell up and die after being bitten by the bigger ones. Some days, he envied them.”

      1. Thank you for your comments! I love the idea of personalizing the bike movement so that it reveals character. She isn’t necessarily reckless, but she is certainly impatient, so the action you suggested actually fits well with her personality (and matches her impatient behavior later on in that same chapter).

        In your excerpt, I especially like the subtle humor in the phrase “which was noteworthy.” The third sentence trips me up a bit because of the length; it might be the “and his smell” part that’s causing the stumble. Perhaps that description could be condensed into something like “The mutated insect flyers passed over him, probably assuming he had gone as bad as the rotted piles of filth they were landing on for lunch.” In the sentence after that, you could elaborate on what kind of filth it is (e.g., banana peels and rat feces, or whatever items are specific to your world). Also, I’d keep the consistency with the spelling of the word fliers vs. flyers.

        The last line really captures the voice and demonstrates your point about incorporating the character’s perspective into setting. The paragraph has a strong flow to it as well, with one thought segueing into the next (from smell to insect flyers to Scrappers). Connecting strings of thoughts is something I need to work on in my writing.

        1. No problem. And thanks for your comments as well. You’re spot on with my third sentence. I’m going to rework that to make it more clear. And thank you for catching that I didn’t stay consistent with the flier/flyer. I probably could have read over that twenty times and not noticed, haha. I’m really glad you liked the last sentence as well. That was actually a last minute addition right before including that excerpt. I took my own advice, and like you said, I think it does round out the description and make it worth talking about.

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