Toolbox – Setting and Description

I’m a Dungeon & Dragons player from way back. The best part about Dungeon Mastering was world building. I love world building! I love doing the research, drawing up maps, populating the world and figuring out what makes it tick.  So onto July’s toolbox – setting and description.

What is a setting?

The story’s setting is the surroundings in which a scene or story is set. Setting consists of:

  • environment
  • time
  • place

Setting can be used to show atmosphere or even be a source of conflict for the protagonist.

The trick is avoid info-dumping. You can’t just roll out the gaming map, plop it on the table and slam the reader with everything at once. It needs to be hinted at, an atmosphere created using descriptions, the character’s actions and point of view (which leads into next month’s toolbox). You need to show, not tell. Show the smell of the gum trees, the sound of the leaves rustling in the wind, the feel of the tip of the blade.

Descriptions are shown through a point of view, whether a character, camera or omniscient. If a character is a painter, setting descriptions may revolve around colours, hues, balance, line – things a painter is familiar with. If a scientist, descriptions may be more technical. Make the description active, part of the story. Use all of the senses – smell, touch, hearing, taste and not just sight.

The level of description will vary in different genres. Rule of thumb: the more exotic or foreign the setting, the more description will be required – such in in fantasy or historical genres. Action stories use less description due the the fast pace – the character doesn’t have time to stop and smell the roses! Description can be used to increase tension or build unease in paranormal or horror stories.

I was reminded to be careful of name dropping. Check on trademark, copyright and avoid disparaging known names. (Most writers can’t afford law suits.)

Finally (and this is a hard one for me), try not to let description hold you up on your first draft. Now I’m off to work out the rules of magic for a new story… And draw another map.

-Karen J Carlisle

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