Writing Powerful Scenes, Part 3: Setting

fantasy landscape purple

Though a scene can have a dozen different types of virtues, it must take place in some type of location, and truly unforgettable scenes don’t often come together when the setting is tepid or common.

Use Imagery

Now, a scene comes to life when the writer imbues it with enough detail to convince the reader that the writer has actually been to the place. This typically means that you need to surprise your reader with details, intriguing and delightful tidbits that generally aren’t created by a common person’s imagination. You have to relate sights, tastes, smells, and sounds in such a way that the scene comes alive by accretion, bit by bit. The place that you visit needs to have a history and a future.

Visit the Location

It’s true that you sometimes can’t get that kind of detail unless you do indeed visit the place that you’re describing. For this reason, when I began writing Of Mice and Magic, I had to go back to my home in Oregon and explore the woods around my old home—with a movie camera held inches off the ground, moving about from a mouse-eye view. I also went to the bayous in Louisiana and spent days and nights discovering the swamps. Years ago, I began to write a thriller about a movie producer working in China. A couple of hundred pages in, I found that I was stuck. I told my wife, “I really need to go to Shanghai for a couple of months and work on a big fantasy film.” I eventually went to Shanghai to do just that.

Tap into World Creation

But you can’t get all of the information that you need by visiting existing places—not when you’re writing historicals, fantasies, or science fiction novels. Writing such things requires a special talent for world creation, for imagining a setting fully. That’s why many fine writers who can write beautifully about real settings just may struggle more with those genres.

Turn Your Setting into a Character

Now, this is important: it’s not just enough for a writer to bring a setting to life. The setting needs to become a character in your story—something that motivates your characters, affects their moods, and perhaps that alters because of their actions. If you look at something like Dune, Lord of the Rings, or A Tale of Two Cities, you’ll find entire worlds that feel threatened, worlds that the reader becomes emotionally engaged with.

Once again, like your characters, a great setting needs to have some appeal for your reader, and some vulnerability. It may also have some uniqueness. It can become a place that the reader wants to visit and revisit, so that even though it exists only in the imagination, entire groups of fans think of it longingly. I recall several years ago seeing a group of Russian fans of Lord of the Rings. They were dressed in ringmail and elf costumes, and all of them had a melancholy look to them. They were trapped in our world, longing for their true home. In the background was a sign: Middle-earth Lives!

Previously Published


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