I would — and do, and have — argued that the most fundamental job of the novel opening is to establish the protagonist and place the protagonist in the world. In other words, the opening needs to focus on the protagonist and the setting before anything else. I’m therefore immediately on board with the basic idea of this post, although I notice — belatedly — that this post is not necessarily going to focus on the opening of a novel. Quite possibly the focus will be on problems with setting and worldbuilding that appear as the novel unfolds.
The setting tied to each scene carries a lot of storytelling weight because it had the power to touch and amplify anything to do with characters, events, and emotion. Used correctly, a location can characterize the story’s cast, steer the plot, evoke emotions and mood, create windows to allow for active backstory sharing, provide conflict and challenges, and act as a mirror for what the protagonist needs most, reinforcing his motivation at every step.
So, setting throughout. That’s fair. Not sure what’s meant by “characterize the story’s cast.” Perhaps that idea might be better expressed as: the reactions of the characters to the setting is never neutral; their reactions are part of characterization. That is, imagine a historical romance set in Big Sky country:
Does the protagonist perceive this setting as awe-inspiring? Bleak? Lonely? Frightening? Freeing? The protagonist’s backstory is going to influence their perceptions. Also, how about the other characters? These reactions aren’t relevant solely to immediate characterization; they can be part of important character arcs. Does one character express joy at the openness and freedom of this setting, thus influencing a more timid character to move toward a better sense of freedom herself?
Also, yes, tidbits of backstory can be worked into the description of the setting, and the setting does certainly evoke a mood, or ought to, and so on. So, this post is about mistakes. Let’s see what those might be:
1) Treating The Setting Like Stage Dressing. By this, the article mainly means using too little description; leaving the setting flat; failing to give the reader enough of a picture of the setting so that the reader can’t feel drawn into the world.
2) Focusing On Only One Sense. That’s clear. People are so visually oriented that I’m sure it’s possible to forget to describe details that are perceived by other sensory modalities.
3) Over-Describing Or Describing The Wrong Things. I see comments about this sometimes; that the author is lingering too much on unimportant details and the story bogs down. I’m not sure I can think of obvious examples off the top of my head.
I guess for me, more typically I fail to describe something that’s important a few paragraphs or pages later and therefore I have to go back and describe whatever that was. In Tarashana, for example, in that duel that occurs close to the end, various details of the sky and the physical setting are important and I very specifically went back to add enough details in the paragraphs that lead up to that duel so that those elements wouldn’t occur out of nothing.
4) Not taking Advantage of POV & Emotion Filters. Yes, this is a biggie. This post does a good job here:
Another [error] that can water down the effect of setting description is a very distanced narrative where every detail is explained, rather than shown through the emotional filter of the POV character. A character who is anxious is going to view the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of any given setting differently than a character who is excited, or disappointed, or even filled with gratitude.
Right. That’s crucial, especially with a first-person or close third-person narrative. Though really, it’s important with every kind of narrative. Failing to tie the description to the character is going to give an overly intellectual feel to the narrative, pushing the reader away from an emotional connection with the protagonist or other viewpoint characters.
5) Choosing A Setting That Is Convenient Rather Than Meaningful. I don’t think that’s very likely to be a problem in SFF. Anybody writing fantasy or science fiction is going to be thinking a lot about setting as part of worldbuilding. I think that’s true for individual scenes as well as the broader setting.
One more comment:
I realized ages ago that when I read fantasy or SF, characterization is the element that matters most to me. But when I read mysteries or historicals, setting comes to the foreground and both characterization and setting matter most to me. nk this is because a more distant or unfamiliar setting makes the story seem more like fantasy to me, which I like. Regardless of the reason, I’m far, far more interested in mysteries with interesting or intriguing settings, and also vastly more drawn toward historicals with much more distant settings. Anything set in, oh, the Roaring Twenties, no matter how good the story may be, is not going to appeal to me as much as an equally good story set in, say, Classical Greece.
Okay! What is ONE novel with a setting that particularly appeals to you? Bonus if it’s something I haven’t read. Wait, let me correct that: Bonus if it’s a basically happy story that I haven’t read. I hardly know what to mention myself, since after all I comment about books I’ve read all the time and saying Oooh, The Hands of the Emperor! would be pretty repetitive, though the settings in that one are great. Let me think.
Oh, here we go, how about this one. I know I definitely haven’t mentioned it here for a long time, if ever:
Below the Root and And All Between by Zylpha Keatley Snyder. There’s a third book, also shown at the link, but I didn’t read it myself until much later because the library only had the first two. Perhaps for that reason, the first two stand out clearly in my memory, while I don’t recall the third well at all. Fortunately there’s a clear resolution at the end of the second book, so I wasn’t left hanging when I first read these stories.
Regardless, these books definitely offer a lovely setting, evoked here by the original cover:
I loved this setting so much! It’s right up there for Lovely Fantasy Worlds I Want To Visit. The stories are charming too. I mean, there are problems, but obviously these problems are overcome. I would say these probably count as happy stories, at least by the end.