How To Write Better Stories: Settings

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I was pretty sure J. K.  Rowling was over hyped as a “great” writer – until I read one of her books. Now I’m taking you through examples of great storytelling methods you can role model in your writing, using Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets as a reference.

Follow along as I tell you what I like in “real time,” show you things you should try to do in your own writing – and identify some stuff you probably shouldn’t do, too.

Chapter 17: another example of creating a setting – and not going overboard.

How much setting and description is enough, and how much is too much – or too little? New writers usually give waaaayyyy too much information the reader doesn’t need. How do you decide what’s the right balance? 

Give ONLY what’s needed. That, you learn from practice and seeing good examples. So let’s find a good example.

When Harry goes after the heir of Slitherin, he goes through a hole in the bathroom wall and goes down a big long pipe into a tunnel that descends for a long time. After that, Rowling says the tunnel walls are dripping water.

When he goes off on his own from there, he has to walk down the tunnel. None of that is described in a super amount of detail.

“The tunnel turned and turned again”

That’s about all you get

until:

“He was standing at the end of a very long, dimly lit chamber. Towering stone pillars entwined with more carved serpents rose to support a ceiling lost in darkness, casting long black shadows through the odd, greenish gloom that filled the place.”

That’s still pretty minimalist. But as he proceeds, we will be given more details.

Could the basilisk (a giant snake) be lurking in the “shadowy corner behind the pillar”?

That tells us there are shadowy corners and pillars – further enhancing the reader’s understanding of the setting. But the use of those specific words also helps give you a feeling about the place. Harry is acting scared, so the reader feels apprehensive.

He moves a little farther and she spent some more time describing what he sees – and how he feels about what he sees.

A little farther, we get a little more detail. So the story is moving along as the description of the setting is being unravel before us. That’s good stuff, and worthy of emulation.

You don’t need to do an either or. Mix them together.

“Then, as he drew  level with the last pair of pillars, a statue high as the chamber itself loomed into view, standing against The back wall.

“Harry had to train his neck to look up into the giant face above.”

So we get an idea of how big it is, but what the character is doing as well as by what the character is seeing.

Rowling takes the next three or four lines to describe what he sees, using a lot of detail, but the last line is back to the story. He sees the girl that had been taken, and the way Rowling describes her here is how Rowling had described her earlier, so without using the character’s name we know who it is.

Of course, Harry says her name right after that, so there’s no doubt for readers who didn’t get it. But for those who did, who put it together, figuring it out is another small moment of Aha!

When to add detail in settings

For me, the underscoring lesson for detail in settings is: new or different = dive in with detail. That’s my rule. If you like my writing and want to emulate it, follow my lead. If you like Hemingway or Anne Rice, follow theirs. Find a place where a good author goes into detail in a setting, read ahead and read back, and see what all they included.

Now: what to include?

We don’t typically describe when people blink, because we all blink. We all take breaths. It’s when we blink three times in a row because we’re in shock, or gasp, that would describe it as authors. In other words, when it is different from normal.

When we go to a new place like Venice and the character is in awe of the beauty of the old city, we take it in through the character’s eyes – so the author has to describe the scene in rich, lush detail.

  • That gives the reader the same experience the character is having (and then you make sure your character is overwhelmed by the beauty somehow, if you want)
  • You express that to underscore how the reader should be feeling.
  • If you can, have a character feel the way you want the reader to feel.

New. Different. That’s when you dive deep with detail in your setting.

How deep is up to you, and through practice, input from your beta readers, critique partners, editor… You’ll get a good feel.

Trial and error will play a role! Don’t be afraid to do it the way you want, but listen when others you trust tell you it’s too much or not enough. Ultimately, it’s your story so you get to decide. That’s just plain and simple: practice makes perfect.

Look, you’re going to do too much – and you’re going to get called on it when you do, so just be accepting of that and learn from it.

Like I had to.

The grape grower’s scene from An Angel On Her Shoulder.

Shudder.

That was a hard lesson to learn, but if I wanted to be a great writer, I had to learn it.

I went on and on about an old man’s history building his successful business in the wine industry. How he started, how he accumulated the acreage and propagated grape vines in little pots on the small balcony of his crappy apartment; how he slaved in the fields evenings and weekends while working two and three other jobs for years, just to make the small vineyard survive. He built it into a successful business that gave him a good living, allowing him to grow rich and powerful in the town where he lived.

Those three sentences tell it, but I used about five pages. Maybe more.

Oops.

I was showing off! I knew about that stuff so I put it in the story. It came out because it wasn’t necessary – and even worse, it was boring.

But all that information was stuff that I knew, so I could have my character act appropriately. Readers didn’t need to know his whole life to know he was resentful of his children for not taking up in the business he had toiled over his whole life.

But

Here and there you can drop in a line or two of tech speak/ industry speak/ words only used in that business:

“What’s the brix on the Niagras?”

“About 24, but they taste pretty sweet to me. I think we should pick them.”

“No, we need 26. Those grapes run this company. We wait to harvest when they say they’re ready, not before. A few more days. Schedule some extra crews for Saturday.”

See? It’ll show you know what you’re talking about, giving your story authenticity. A little goes a long way. And from context clues, you figure out that Niagras are grapes and that brix measures sweetness. (Also, from that short exchange you see that one person knows more about the business than the other.)

Back to Rowling. There’s another nice description of a ghost-like apparition when Harry see Tom Riddle in the chamber. Harry notes that the image has fuzzy edges.

Sadly, another big long bad guy monologue. Didn’t this guy watch The Incredibles? You’re not supposed to do that!

But the bad guy then tells how he manipulated people into doing his dirty work. And now he has Harry Potter right where he wants it.

Dun dun dunnn!!

And now we know who the bad guy is. Do I feel cheated? I’m not sure. I felt like some of the people Rowling was putting up were obviously not the right choice because she was kind of forcing them on us, but I do feel a little cheated because there was a lot of crap going on that we had no clue about. So that’s a little tricky. I don’t mind being wrong, I mind not even been giving a chance to guess right. There were bad guy actions going on that weren’t shown at all in the story; it happened behind the scenes, so readers had zero chance to know how it was happening. (We saw the results; we couldn’t know how it happened.) So yeah, I guess this was a little bit of underhanded dealing. We could not possibly have known the stuff that the main characters didn’t know.

The solution? It wouldn’t have been that difficult to jump off into a different scene in a different point of view and show us some of the stuff going on, but maybe that was a little too complicated for a book and a younger audience.

That said…

Sales hides all sins. I’m going to say I wouldn’t have done it this way, but since this book was wildly successful, I can’t argue with it. It’s kind of like when a football team wins the Super Bowl even though fumbled the ball away twelve times: they probably played sloppy and they shouldn’t have won, but they did – so you enjoy the success but you certainly don’t emulate the fumbling! They were successful despite the fumbling.

This book may have been successful despite this little underhanded reveal – and it’s up to you to decide how big a deal it is.

And that’s a good point.

This one chapter might be a little “weak” but the rest of the book is very strong.

And I’m okay with that. Because it has been a great story to this point and I’m not done so it might be a great finish with just a with a little weak section here.

Another editing note, and I have seen this a few times but didn’t comment until now. Words are capitalized that shouldn’t be. I don’t know if “Muggle” should be or should not, but “petrified” shouldn’t…

And everyone who was Petrified will be all right again…

Rowling capitalizes “petrified” and the others let it go through. There’s a noticeable lack of British spelling in these words so I assume this is the American version, but what’s up with the random capitalizations?

Then a big reveal! That’s pretty awesome.

Is it true or not? I’m not sure. Let’s see what Harry decides.

I guess so. Riddle is Voldemort.

Wow.

I’m not upset by this one because I don’t think there was a reason for us to be upset. We weren’t supposed to know.  This is supposed to be a shock. And it is. In a good way.

And…

Using the word puzzle is neat, but having the persons name be riddle is almost a hint. Maybe I need to be more on my toes from now on.

My lingering questions as I read…

So once again Harry is face-to-face with Voldemort. That’s pretty cool. I was wondering when he was gonna show back up anyway. But I have to wonder, what the hell is up with Lockhart? Was he even needed in this book? Except for the foil, I mean. And what is up with the Phoenix? Why did we have to learn about it at all – it is on the cover of the book mind you – if it’s not going to somehow be reintroduced?

And is there some kind of double meaning to the Phoenix anyway? Riddle/Voldemort coming back to life through the diary and lifesource of the little girl, that’s definitely phoenix-ish. Is Dumbledore going to do the same?

Fucking mysteries. Getting me all bolloxed up.

And right on cue, there’s the Phoenix! I totally called it. Kinda.

Riddle threatens Harry but it seems a little bit false because Riddle now knows Harry didn’t die the prior times he tried to kill him, so why would he be successful this time? It seems like a false threat to say the longer you talk, the longer you stay alive. Harry was doing no talking at all when he was a baby and he survived that encounter.

Action

A great example of how to depict action comes now, shorter sentences and lots more punctuation, to allow your brain time to process things in small bits. I usually go with just short sentences, but other punctuation marks (like emdashes and commas) work, too:

The basilisk was moving towards Harry; he could hear its heavy body slithering heavily across the dusty floor. Eyes still tightly shut, Harry began to run blindly sideways, his hands outstretched, feeling his way – Voldemortt was laughing –

Harry tripped. He fell hard on to the stone and tasted blood – the serpent was barely feet from him, he could hear it coming –

That’s a lot of punctuation for just a few sentences, but it conveys the action in short bits and breaks it up for your brain to digest easily, making it read faster. Also, if you were to look at how many words it takes to say basically he fell, it’s a lot of words.

Another editing note. Harry began to run…

We don’t begin to do things, we just do them. So what did he do? He took a step with the intention of running, that’s how you begin to run, but again revenue hides all sins. Your critique partners will probably flag it, but if you write a great story you’ll get excused for doing it. (Doing this in the middle of the action scene is a great way to hide it because I missed it the first time through.)

More reaction before action, as the Phoenix distracts the snake. Again, could be done better. No reason to have a wonder for two sentences when something is going on.

Here’s an unnecessary filter:

“No!” Harry heard Riddle screaming.

Why not just say “No!” Riddle screamed.

We’re getting near the end of the story so it’s time to address some loose ends…

So… How did the Phoenix know to show up anyway? And how did it know to bring the stupid hat, too?

There better be a good explanation for this. (Another big tell, no doubt.)

Oh, and here’s a sword for you, Harry – just in time to kill the giant snake. Because sorting hats do that.

When the Phoenix put his head on Harry’s wound, I knew that was going to heal Harry’s arm somehow. I forgot that Dumbledore told us Phoenix tears have healing abilities. But that’s fine. (Not the sword in the hat thing, though.) And in case any of the readers forgot, Riddle reminds us.

Harry stabs the diary and THAT kills Voldemort? Okie dokie. How’d he know to do that? (I’m borderline hating this now.)

Cheater!

CHEATER!!

You’re cheating!

But I like how the Phoenix flies them out. Because he’s magic, them grabbing him makes them light, not that he’s necessarily strong. Nicely done.

I like that Lockhart’s spell backfired and knocked his own memory out. That’s a nice little bit of poetic justice.

I liked that Moaning Myrtle ended up not just being a ghost like some of these other bozo ghosts, but that she had a role to play. (It did not feel like it she when she turned out to be the girl who got killed by the basilisk; but that’s just me.) That one, I was kind of figuring it out right as the characters were, so it really felt good to me. Some of these other reveals did not. If I am wanting to see an example of how to unfold a mystery and it’s answer, that would be a great example. The clues were there if we were paying attention and when it was revealed I thought totally good about it.

Which is again why people love mysteries. Look at my reactions.

You want to get reactions like that from your readers, right?

6 thoughts on “How To Write Better Stories: Settings

  1. I lean light on setting details (like JK – I think that means we’re BFFs now). For me, it all comes down to POV. What can the character see? What would they notice? Most people don’t get out of a car and internally describe every little detail of the house (maybe writers do). Normal people don’t, unless something is different, as you noted.
    Describing setting strictly through POV gets especially interesting when something hinders your character’s senses, like if they were drugged or are in a dark room.

    Liked by 1 person

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