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SUYS – World Building…A Step Further

Monday, May 7, 2007

Because of the genre, Speculative Lit writers (science fiction, fantasy, allegory, etc.) have both an advantage and a disadvantage when it comes to setting. Spec Lit readers expect much more detail when it comes to the setting. They want the author to do the cinematic sweep of the landscape (through the lens of the character observing it) and describe it in detail. But that means the Spec Lit author must know his world(s) intimately and be able to use captivating, picturesque language to describe the setting. To a lesser extent, readers of historicals/historical romances expect a larger measure of setting description (including costuming and props) than we typically see in contemporary fiction.

In the last post, I took setting signposts out of my chapter and made a list, and hopefully you did the same. When we take these words out of the context of the prose, do we still get a feel for the place, time, and character?

In The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction (Barnaby Conrad, ed.), we see that “a setting, deftly protrayed, not only tells us where we are but gives the story a sense of truth, the credibility we speak of as verisimilitude. It does wonders for that troublesome disbelief and the reader’s willing suspension thereof… But the real purpose of scene is its contribution to the story’s total, emotional effect.”

Are you using unique/specific descriptions and words rather than generic terminology to bring about the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief—so that the reader trusts that you know intimately the place about which you’re writing? Does your setting contribute to the emotional effect of the story? From my examples:

generic: the distant ship
specific: the French schooner

generic: ship
specific: Man o’ War or 98-gunner

generic: sail
specific: jigger staysail

What specifications have you designed your “world” by? Are you writing a contemporary? Although some editors will take them out, as you’re writing your drafts, use specific names people will recognize. In my contemporary romance, Happy Endings Inc., I gave the hero and heroine specific cars (he a Mercedes Roadster, she a Chrysler Sebring convertible). They have specific ringtones on their phones (his rings to the tune of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” when she calls him, hers plays “That’s Amore” when he calls or the Wedding March when any of her clients call. Using these specific songs help characterize them too). In the first chapter, I have my heroine at a new Italian restaurant in the fictional town where the specials the waiter tells her about all have a Cajun twist to them, because it’s set in Louisiana. (We’ll look at making fictional settings “feel” real in another lesson.)

Take another look at the list of your setting descriptors. Then, try to find a more specific word or phrase to make your setting unique and special.

  1. Monday, May 7, 2007 11:59 am

    In my current WIP, set in Alaska, I have a few descriptors that show the summer sky at night. I’ve only first-drafted the first 2 chapters, and now realize I need to add a bit more to make it real.



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