I’m aware there are specific sections on the main boards for writing tips, but the aim of the next two or three weeks is to simply share thoughts on one specific topic before returning to my usual ramblings.
So why this particular subject? Because it’s one I rarely follow the tips I’m happy to dispense, so perhaps committing to server space will encourage me to up my own game in threads.
One thing that most writers (adventure or otherwise) find challenging about setting is understanding how it gives the story context.
Too many spend a lot of time on plot or dialogue (holds hand up) and ensure they have great characters and expect to produce a fantastic read for their fellow writers. Setting is the most often overlooked aspect of adventure writing that is relatively easily teachable. And I’ve written with some great ones in this past year.
Certain parts of writing are difficult to impart – style and pace are the two that immediately spring to mind – but like plotting or creating believable characters, crafting great settings is something that can be learned. Having said all of that, good setting does not mean a good read but it’s fair to say that bad setting can equal a bad one.
Stories in a vacuum!
The adventure doesn’t just need things to happen – it needs somewhere for them to happen. Setting doesn’t just give the characters a place to see things unfold, great setting adds to the experience. It creates the mood and can draw the other writers into the story in a way that no other facet can.
Setting isn’t world building, but it’s a small step towards creating a believable world in which your characters and plot live. Setting is not, however, just the broad brush-strokes of the world – it’s not just the background. It’s the link to great characters.
We are all influenced by where we grew up, where we went to school, where we live. The creation of accurate settings reflects who your characters are, where they came from and sometimes even where they are going. Your characters may be a reflection of their environment. Or the setting may give the others an insight as to why your character is developing the way they are. For example, are your characters conform to their setting, or are they rebelling?
Scenery is often a challenge — particular in fictional settings. Too much scenery and the other writers will feel like they’ve stumbled into a book of photographs.
Very pretty but it doesn’t go anywhere.
Yet too little and there is no context for the story. Scenery has its place. If the scene opens with a man bursting into the room with a gun, the other writers don’t want ten minutes of you describing how beautiful the room is – they want to know what’s going to happen.
So you have to know the appropriate point to describe the scene.
You either have to delay the entrance with the pistol, or find another way of working it in.
Each scene deserves at least a few words of setting – even if it’s a familiar place. You can always reveal details bit by bit if it’s a setting frequented often.
Other writers probably won’t take in all of the details in one sitting anyway.
Because that’s exactly how it works in real life. You typically notice the big things first and then upon revisiting, you start to notice more and more of the details. Eventually you would notice if something was moved or missing.
A good rule (to be stretched and bent as you see fit) is to give the description as early in the scene as possible, without it getting in the way of the story or encounter. The second suggestion is to invest more time on scenery the first time you visit – and the more important the setting is throughout the adventure.
Sometimes the scenery or setting plays as big a part in the story as any character. In a whodunit, the murder scene is often integral to the plot. On these occasions, as much effort should be lavished on the creation of the setting as that important NPC. And like characterisation, you may not use all of the detail – but you had better be prepared. Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels is a prime example.
So if you have a dungeon, what was it before it was a dungeon? People just don’t build them. They are typically functional building that fall into disrepair and then they become dungeons over many, many years. The dungeon should have a flavour that reflects its original (or most recent) use.
Sometimes the place has an importance because of its effect on the characters – and on these occasions, it merits a greater description. It’s a classic show and tell scenario. You can tell the writers about the character or you can show the interaction with the setting – which is always far more effective.
There is a real tendency for writers to fall into two opposite traps when describing a place that is familiar to them – either from real life or a fantasy setting they’ve used over and over again.
The first option is to explain every detail. Often you’re proud of what you know or remember and you want to share this in every minute detail. The second mistake is to assume that every writer knows about Coruscant, the Jedi Temple or the Millennium Falcon – and so no description is given.
In the first scenario, the other writers will think they’ve stumbled upon a guidebook, not an adventure. In the second, anyone who hasn’t read the books or watched the films will feel left out.
It’s like a recipe book without a picture of what the end product is supposed to look like – you feel cheated in some way.
Include the detail that sets the scene and is relevant. Add nothing more but don’t scrimp on the ingredients either. And check what other writers are saying about a setting, make sure it tallies with what you’re describing!
The greater the alteration or uniqueness of scene, the more important the description becomes – and the earlier the writer needs to share the image. To use a literary example, too many books transfer the action from a quiet room in the centre of Chicago to the wastes of Alaska and don’t let the reader know until the second page of writing. As a reader this is most disconcerting (and the example I use is from a real novel).
If your characters experience a change of setting, you need to describe that change – even if it means holding up the plot for a minute or two.
Players that travel to another place, enter a dark cave or simply visit a village with differing customs – we all need to be aware of what’s changed.
It sets us mentally to be prepared for other changes e.g. the characters here may react differently to you.
So…next time I’ll offer some more practical advice and some words of wisdom from Steven King too.