Part II: SETTING & WORLD BUILDING
Have you ever read a novel in which setting was an afterthought? Where the sense of place, like a backdrop in a photographer’s studio, could be swapped for another without any real change in the conflict?
How about a story in which the world was so thoroughly enmeshed with plot that no skilled surgeon could ever hope to carve the one from the other?
Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut, by D.G. Lamb is such a book, and I hope to explore some lessons about world building and setting by examining a few excerpts.
Joshua stood transfixed by the sensation of heat on his cheek from the sun! He followed the golden beam’s path back up to where it gloriously streamed down from a small patch of sapphire blue sky, the sun just peeking over the hard golden edge of the covering cloud. He marveled as the mists separated to reveal the upper slopes of Mount Lipsig looming to the north of New Cincinnati. He squinted against the sparkling explosion of sunlight reflecting off the metallic microfibers embedded in the Permacrete monorail posts. Joshua was amazed he could actually see the train sliding up the silver monorail strand that curved above the dense jungles surrounding the colony. Several large rusty horizontal gashes in the mountainside marked the extensive mining operations, the reddish earth in sharp contrast to the surrounding verdant vegetation. But the magnificent view paled in significance to what had just happened: for the first time in Joshua’s life, he had felt direct sunlight on his face.
What can we learn from this excerpt?
First of all, we’re getting a lot of detail here. Having read the story in its entirety, I can tell you what we’re not getting: filler. Some of the descriptions might not be strictly necessary to the story (do we need to know the dirt is red?), but here the foundation is laid for a setting that proves to be integral to the plot—even if you can’t see how yet.
So, one takeaway would be to make sure you develop plot with setting in mind (and vice versa). However, even if the plot and setting are inextricably entwined, what does any of it matter if the characters are nothing more than shifting pawns? Which brings me to my second point and my first Wired for Story quote:
Lisa Cron says, “Story is how what happens [PLOT] affects someone [CHARACTER] who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.”
With that definition in mind, never forget that any story element—be it plot or anything else—is completely irrelevant if it has no impact on the character. Lisa even goes so far as to say, “Every single thing in a story—including subplots, weather, setting, even tone—must have a clear impact on what the reader is dying to know: Will the protagonist achieve [his] goal?”
Anything that thwarts the character’s goal will certainly impact that character, but the effect doesn’t have to be external (physical). It could be emotional or mental instead.
Now… Reread that last sentence from the excerpt: “for the first time in Joshua’s life, he had felt direct sunlight on his face.” Think on that for just a moment… Can you imagine never feeling the sun? Do you suppose Joshua was affected by that singular event? I sure do. And not in the same way you or I would be affected because—and this is important—you and I didn’t grow up on Cypress Grove. A character is, in large part, a product of his or her experience, which includes environmental factors as much as events. So, to fully explore characterization, writers need to give flesh to whatever world our protagonists inhabit. Also, to make the best use of setting, let no detail grace the page without making it integral to either character or plot.
On a final note… lest you think it’s not enough for Joshua to merely appreciate the moment, the burst of sunshine also speaks directly to his current goal of helping himself and his mother escape the pungent stink and shame of their swamp-adjacent housing. Joshua was, in fact, on a mission to win bets for his mother’s Café Fund when he witnessed the miracle—and then this: “A groan escaped Joshua as he realized… [A] man had used his sheet to video the rare direct sunshine and would now likely make… 20, no—50 times what Joshua could make from winning bets at a pickup stickball match.”
For me, that revelation was a sucker punch to the gut, drawn from a universal emotion: the if only of regret. And that scene wasn’t the last time the author achieved that particular effect—not just for Joshua, but for me as well.
In my final comment for this excerpt, let’s have a second look at a single line: “He squinted against the sparkling explosion of sunlight reflecting off the metallic microfibers embedded in the Permacrete monorail posts.”
Sparkling explosion… Metallic microfibers… Permacrete monorail posts. Each of these descriptions is specific, concrete, and—therefore—vivid.
Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer explains how to make writing more vivid as follows: “You present your story in terms of things that can be verified by sensory perception. Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch… Describe them precisely, put them forth in terms of action and of movement, and you’re in business. Your two key tools are nouns and verbs… The nouns you want are pictorial nouns: nouns that flash pictures, images, into your reader’s mind. The more specific, concrete, and definite…the more vivid the picture. The noun rhinoceros flashes a sharper, more meaningful picture to your reader than does the noun animal.”
Let’s have a look at another excerpt to see how D.G. Lamb’s mastery of sensory details accentuates his created world:
Time slowed almost to a stop. This had never happened before. The aura of an altered reality strengthened. Details shifted into clean focus: the musky odor…; the rolling sheen on the small segments of chitin that covered the main body of the spiderviper; the slow snicking sounds as they compressed together to form a locked shell; the inverted V shape of the two hind legs on each side of the animal, articulated and proportioned like a spider’s, but covered in skin with tiny tufts of hair increasing in density down to tiny paws that were covered in fur…; a large rubbery lip pulled back above a dripping circular mouth filled with teeth, revealing a black fang tipped tongue where a nose should be…
I don’t know about you, but I don’t need the author to convey what Joshua’s thinking here. I can already feel it myself. The vivid details plant my feet in the same space with that deadly creature, and the slow description coupled with implicit negative expectations increases strain to the point of rupture. Which leads me to another aspect of storytelling this author excels at…
Janice Hardy, in her book Plotting your Novel, defines tension as “the sense of something about to happen.” K.M. Weiland differentiates between conflict and tension as follows: “Conflict indicates outright confrontation… Tension, on the other hand, is what I like to think of as the threat of conflict… Tension allows you to dial down the excitement and the altercations without losing reader attention. In fact, tension-heavy scenes can often be more gripping, simply because readers know the conflict is coming and they can’t do anything to stop it.”
Joshua happens upon that creature. Something is about to happen, but we don’t know what. The result? We’re riveted to the page with the need to know. BUT— How do we work tension into our own writing? → Drop hints to the reader about what might go wrong. Direct their attention, for example, to the shadows, the unidentified noises, the protagonist’s suspicions—to heighten foreboding and dread—as in the following examples:
As Joshua’s mother leaves to go to work: “The world felt …somehow… not quite normal, as if… it had stepped back to watch her.”
Joshua came to a corner and looked up at the signpost across the pedway. His gut twisted as he recalled his mother’s look when she realized he had come to this place. The right half of a street sign hung on a rusty wire, occasionally tapping against a cracked security camera case that also dangled from the light pole. It stated simply: Ave. And whatever the maps said about the official name, that was what everyone called this stretch of pedway: The Avenue.
Everyone knew of the predatory spidervipers lurking in the jungle surrounding the city, but with The Avenue, the dark menace that hung in the air was personal. It came from an accumulation of the whispers and oblique hints of unspoken evil acts that had taken place there, from the look of fear and reproach that came over people’s faces when The Avenue was even mentioned.
And there Joshua stands—in the place his mother warned him against visiting. What’s going to happen? Something… Maybe not now, but eventually. Can’t you feel it in the tone?
In a sense, these moments of tension, rich with world-building details (the mention of The Avenue and the spidervipers that serve to heighten a reader’s awareness), are nothing more than promises that whisper, “Trouble’s brewing. Are you ready?”
What do you think? How important is setting to you when you read and/or write? Are you ready to be immersed in Joshua’s world? Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a paperback (for U.S. residents only) of your choice of “Driven to the Hilt I” OR “Forging the Blade” AND a $10 Amazon gift card.
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Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut
Already a social outcast because of his father’s alleged betrayal, young Joshua finds himself trapped outside the mining colony on the planet of Cypress Grove. He faces a murky rainforest infested with a creature so deadly, it has kept all humans confined inside their only settlement for decades. If he can manage to escape these alien wilds, he must then brave the even darker dangers of the colony’s underworld.
It is a tale of survival, a premature coming of age in an environment demanding resiliency, inventiveness, and self-reliance. But when teetering on the sharp edge of stark choices, decisions of life or death, can Joshua afford to consider questions of right and wrong, or does expediency rule the day?
Debut author D G Lamb, a clinical neuropsychologist, uses his understanding of posttraumatic stress symptoms to inject psychological authenticity and complexity into Joshua’s personality, creating a wounded, but endearing central character.
(Available at Amazon. My official Goodreads review here.)
Driven to the Hilt: Forging the Blade
An inscrutable stranger offers him a deal that seems too good to be true. And it is. Joshua soon faces new challenges to survive in a place he had not believed was even real.
Having successfully evaded the colony’s underworld and corrupt police, Joshua finds himself trapped alone in a sterile white room. But it is no ordinary room, changing and shifting in response to his reactions and behaviors. Ultimately, he will have to make a choice… one that will forever change the direction of his life.
DG Lamb creates a dynamic world full of new challenges and lessons for an endearing young hero. Lamb’s extensive experience as a clinical neuropsychologist and his understanding of posttraumatic stress symptoms injects psychological authenticity and complexity into Joshua and a host of engaging new characters.
“I was immediately griped by the exquisite prose, the author’s ability to create vivid images in the minds of readers and to plunge them into the consciousness of the characters.” – Readers’ Favorite review
Available at Amazon.