Thursday, October 18, 2012

When the Setting Makes the Story

You know, I had the perfect introduction to this post all written out. But then I accidentally pasted the rest of my post from Word on top of it, and then Blogger autosaved the draft before I could revert to an earlier copy. Now, of course, I can't remember what I said. Are openings for posts one of the most difficult parts of blogs for anyone else?

Anyway, I do remember saying something about I've been wanting to write on a particular aspect of settings for a while. And then with MaryAnn and Susan writing on different aspects of setting last week, I thought it would be the perfect time to continue the theme. MaryAnn wrote about believable societies and Susan wrote about adding details, but I'm going to take a few steps back. I want to talk today about two steps that can take the setting from the background of a story (har) and make it central to the story's heart.

Make it original 

Few things draw me in more than an unusual setting. Some prince tracking his heritage and a lost secret weapon? Snore.  A Zulu prince in the 19th century chasing down his heritage and a lost secret weapon? Now I’m paying attention. I’m drawn to fantasy because of the way it fires my imagination, and a vividly drawn and unique setting can help a story stick in my mind long past the first read.

Of course, if you’re going to use another culture as your setting, be darn sure you thoroughly do your research. See MaryAnn’s post, and this excellently scathing review from the review site Dear Author of a book set in fake-Japan.

Make it integral to the story, not secondary

A cool and original setting is all good, but if it's not integral to your stories or your characters, it risks feeling tacked on. If the story could be transferred to another setting with few changes, you've got work to do.
The Last Airbender, which was also MaryAnn's example, is an example of a setting that's integral to the story. Given that the heart of the conflict within the story involves the clashes between races (and between bending abilities), there's really nowhere else the story could be.

Settings both original and integral

Many people will tell you there’s nothing really new in fiction, that it’s all been done before. Maybe, but only in the most broad sense. Take these settings: An alternate America. The moon. Venice with fantasy trappings. A school for wizards. Heard it all before, right? Taken that way, these settings have been done dozens of times. But add in those details – Patricia Wrede’s magnificent flora and fauna, Meredith Ann Pierce’s sea of dust, Scott Lynch’s mysterious glass towers, and of course J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series – make those tired tropes new again. You all know Harry Potter, but here's more on what of these other three series so captivated me.

Patricia Wrede’s Frontier series

The Frontier series is set in an alternate history America in about the 1800s.  The book mostly takes place on a small settlement along the Mississippi River. In this series, the founding fathers were all mages, and they set up a Great Barrier spell to separate the colonies from the extremely dangerous wilderness on the other side of the river.

There are a whole variety of creatures from history (mammoths, sabre tooth tigers) and magical (swarming weasels, ice dragons). I was especially pleased by the inclusion of dire wolves (best species name ever). Wrede has clearly done her research, and has more than a passing grasp of ecology. Sabre tooth tigers cause plenty of danger (have you ever seen life size models of how huge those things were? YIKES), but the animal that causes the most destruction is an insect. Very ecologically appropriate.

The plot centers on the thirteenth child of a mage who is certain that her birth order means she’s destined for bad luck. The book starts shortly after her family moves to the edge of the Great Barrier Spell, and continues through the next ten years of her life at an occasionally breakneck and jarring pace. But the ideas and characterization are great, and once and a team of mages and scientists move across the Great Barrier Spell and into the open landscape, I was totally hooked. Can’t wait for book three, when we apparently will find out what’s on the other side of the Rocky Mountains (something that can frighten dragons!).

Meredith Ann Pierce’s Darkangel Series

The Darkangel Series is set on the moon of Earth, or Oceanus as it’s called in these books. But this is a moon that has been terraformed and settled, with its own unique landscapes, flora and fauna. The trilogy tells of a young woman kidnapped by the Darkangel to care for his twelve brides, whose hearts he has eaten. Aeriel must use her knowledge and wits and prevent him from taking a thirteenth bride, which would turn him into a vampyre and doom her world.

My favorite book of the trilogy is the second, which takes Aeriel on a journey across the terraformed moon. One of the author’s great strengths is her use of prose to make the settings shine:

She saw that this was the haven of the bats. They flew in and out of the opening and through the cave like silver moths, and many of them clung to the walls and ceilings, like a mass of withered leaves.
 Aeriel’s craft sped over the Sea-of-Dust, riding the swells that rolled like water and glowed by starlight with their own internal fire. Beneath the surface, Aeriel saw the silt-fine particles constantly shifting. Wind stole a few from the crests of the waves, whirling them off in dust devils against the dark, starry sky…
Stars turned. Night drifted by. Oceanus peered over the rim of the world, and Aeriel’s heart lifted, soared. The air was showered in its ghost-blue light.
Does a dust sea make logical sense? No. Do I care? Absolutely not, because the image is so strong in my mind that I would dearly love to see an ocean of dust. Cultivating a sense of wonder can get you far.  

Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora series

Occasionally, when I read a new book, I become immensely jealous that I didn't come up with a particular idea. In Scott Lynch’s case, I’m in love with his idea of mysterious cities left behind by an unknown race (he probably is not the first to use this device, but it’s the first time I was jealous). I love the idea of moving through these mysterious technologically advanced and completely indestructible glass structures that glow and fade with the hours of the day. I actually didn't realize the setting was based in Venice until I read the author’s website.
The city, rather than animals or exotic landscapes, is the star of the setting here. Even aside from the Elderglass tower, Lynch puts intricate detail into all parts of the city, from the slums to high society - literally, in this case, where they reside high in the alien towers. It's been a while since I've read this, but one of the things that sticks in my mind is the idea of Gentled animals, of damaging a creature's brain until it's permanently docile. Probably of great use to anyone who has to deal with recalcitrant donkeys, but creepy as heck.

I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a new fantasy read. Lynch has a way of twisting the plot in completely unexpected directions.  Trying to explain the plot is, therefore, rather difficult. As is usual of books with such twisty plots, a short description can sound rather banal: Locke and his band of thieves attempt to pull off a robbery of rich merchants. You’ll just have to take my word that the setting, the characters, the plot and the prose (oh, the prose) are top notch.  And Lynch will take your bull fighters and raise you some shark fighters. (Be warned, this book is rather high on the violence scale).

What are your favorite settings from books, from fantasy or other genres?


  1. I totally agree!! Making the setting integral to the plot is key. The reason to pick a setting is the "it could only happen here" factor.

    The biggest problem I have writing is leaving things out--research gives me so many cool tidbits that I want to include them all. And I can't. :)

  2. Ender's Game. Training children for battle? Yawn. Training in by playing games in null gravity. Wow. And then later on, at Command School in a world hollowed out by the enemy. And later on, on Lusitania, the setting is so complex and important that I can't even find a sentence to describe it. I'm not usually incredibly interested in setting, but if other authors could do it as well as Orson Scott Card, I would be. :)

  3. Once again, I put out my plea to the rulers of the blogger world--please give me an 'edit comments' feature. Sorry for the poor grammar in the comment above. I should learn to proofread.

  4. Great post!! I do think that setting is so important. I agree with what you said that the story and setting need to be integrated together so that there is no other place that the story could be set. That is why I usually plot and world-build at the same time.

    Pssst, Melanie, if I make a glaring error in a comment, I usually cut and paste my comment into a new comment. Fix the embarrassing error, and delete the original comment. Since we are administrators we have that power. :)

  5. I loved your examples, Sabrina. I think most of my story ideas start with setting long before they are populated with characters. I love the "it can only happen here" concept, and every book I've ever read that I absolutely loved all came back to that rule.

    Thanks for the post, Sabrina. It's been on my mind the last couple of days as I tweak my plot around for NaNo.


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