I’ve been told that my settings are better than average by more than one person. They may have used nicer words than that, but as we writers tend to suffer from imposter syndrome I’m not going to praise myself too much. Instead I’ll share a snippet from my first book, The Crystal Bridge, and let you decide if I’m an expert or not.
Kaden reached out with his mind and willed one of the circular images to slide along the shell until it hovered before his face. He took in this image, a dark blue sky filled with red nebulae that spun over darkened forests as the silver leaves hissed with their own breath.
He waved it away and pulled another image forward. Mountains of broken crystal shimmered beneath three suns as giant insects tunneled through the shards like some insane ant farm. Kaden pulled another image around and saw fire rain down from a blood red sky as wispy shadows sped over the blackened ground, eating ash.
Languages and sounds filtered through with the images. The wet clicking of mandibles, songs of alien birds that trilled and hummed unlike any earthly counterpart, the hollow screams of shadows without mouths.
Sometimes he could even taste and smell bits and pieces. Salt, bitter ash, fresh mountain air, ozone. He felt each image as though they were old memories of places he’d once been.
Kaden pulled up an image of rust orange mountains edged by a sea the color of green radiator coolant, shimmering in oily waves under the bright white sun. The chemical sea fumes stung his still closed eyes. He wiped the tears away as he selected another image.
A large part of my writing isn’t writing at all. I will spend hours laying on a couch, on my bed, or leaning back in a comfy chair imagining my worlds. I fly over fields. I walk through towns. I run my hands along the railings of old bridges. I breathe deeply over a new character. I taste the unique culinary delicacies.
In essence, I explore. This tip isn’t exclusive to setting. I daydream my way through scenes to develop plot and make my dialogue stronger. Daydreaming is a good way to tap into your subconscious and let it play with all the aspects of writing, but it really does a number on my settings, especially if I allow myself to sink into that point on the edge of sleep when your subconscious is most active. Take a day to move in and out of naps, daydreaming in between. I wrote that bit above after sitting inside Kaden’s golden Egg and experiencing those images for myself. Your manuscript will thank you.
2. Fall into Your Characters
Your setting is an extension of your characters in many ways. We experience the worlds through them and their perspectives. Their personality, moods, history, training, and focus will color everything you write, but especially your setting. Let this happen.
Sink into your characters. Allow the world to emerge through them and their experiences. Think how each one would interact with that world. Where would one look where another would not? What would one character focus on as important that another would gloss over? Your characters are unique individuals. Let them expose the setting to your reader. Kaden just lost his mother. You can see how his focus alternates between life and death in my snippet.
3. Use ALL the Senses
We, as humans, rely on sight more than any other sense, but our minds are carefully creating maps of our world using our other senses too. It’s what lets us navigate our homes with the lights out. I often close my eyes while I walk through my house, while I brush my teeth, while I shower, or while I find the lock on my door and turn the key. It further develops my maps of my world that are built on texture, smell, sound, and even taste to some degree.
Despite leaning mainly on sight, your readers have those maps in their heads too, even if they don’t go running through them as often as I do. If you want to immerse your readers, you should touch on the other senses. Use the same trick I use to explore reality to explore your imaginary worlds. Close your eyes and walk through a scene as you character with his or her eyes closed. What do they smell? Taste? Feel under their fingertips or underfoot? Hear?
Emotion is another type of sense in some ways too. What does your character feel inside as they walk through this scene? Do the smells trigger memories and emotional responses? Can a touch evoke fear or relief? Kaden’s tears above are blamed on the chemical fumes, but could there be more to them?
There are other variations of senses too. Hunger, thirst, pressure, tension, balance, pheromones, body awareness, and time perception. There are animals that sense magnetic waves.
4. Choose Your Words with Care
The words you use will do much to create your setting. There’s a big difference in the scene that plays out in a reader’s head when you say “the light bulb dimmed as a brownout rolled through the bunker” versus “the lone bulb flickered, and the shadows leaned in on us where we huddled in the center of the bunker, as though darkness were a fist squeezing the life out of all things light”. The choice of words paint a different picture and expose more about the character. Both ideas could be used in a book. One is not better than the other, but they each have a place in a completely different character and setting than the other. You must decide what words best paint the picture you want your readers to see.
5. Keep it Moving
I have read many a book that encourages me to skim through page after page of thick description that has nothing to do with the plot, the characters, or really even much of the setting. Don’t lose the tree your readers need to see while showing them the entire forest. Descriptions often work best when they pull double or triple duty. I mean by this that they do more than one thing. A good description can be showing the fascinating world you’ve created, move the plot forward, and expose the personality of your character all at once.
Not every sentence needs to be a flowery description of your world. Showing rather than telling is a helpful guideline, but showing can often be as simple as saying, “Tyler leapt from the tower after Peter.” Sometimes you don’t need to describe the whistling air or the crunch of stone as his foot left the tower behind. Your best descriptions will be bright spots in your manuscript that punch a hole into another world and let your reader swim through to forget reality behind them. You do not want your readers to drown or become desensitized to the magic of that moment. Give them these special experiences bit by bit.
There are a million things I could say about setting, but I think these five are a good place to start. Enjoy your worlds. I look forward to seeing what you can create. Go and make amazing worlds!
Charlie Pulsipher is a were-hamster and lemur enthusiast who lives in Saint George, Utah with his lovely wife and neurotic dog. He writes sci-fi and fantasy or some mix of the two. He plans on surviving the inevitable zombie-pocalypse that will surely start when dust bunnies rise up against their vacuum cleaner masters. He spends his time away from the keyboard hiking and camping in stunning Southern Utah. Don’t be fooled by his shy, humble exterior.
He does bite and his velociraptor impression is quite scary. It’s probably the coolest thing about him.