What, Another Tavern? The Use of Setting in Fantasy

What, Another Tavern? The Use of Setting in Fantasy


Before I go into this discussion of setting in narrative structure, it’s time for some caveats.  Mostly by accident I was perusing some threads on Reddit Fantasy the other day and I stumbled on one that was discussing my Facebook-based essays on characterization and dialogue.  This particular thread was something of a hate-fest.  Apparently I came across in that essay as arrogant and my two examples of dialogue (the ones set in the bar) were equally vile and poorly done. Now, granted, these pronouncements travelled down to my lowly level of mediocrity from some pretty high stools, and of course this being the internet, there really wasn’t much in the way of cogent analysis or examples of how dialogue should really be done in fiction, but beyond the airs of disdain and contempt, character-assassination and all the rest, I did come away with one worthy realization.

The lessons I provide in workshops and in these freely-given essays on narrative structure in fiction are not the only path to the art of writing.  Far from it. And, having said that, most of what I’m saying in these essays didn’t originate from me at all.  A lot of it comes from some terrific creative writing teachers I was fortunate enough to experience when I was starting out.  The fiction writing classes I took began at the University of Manitoba, continued on at the University of Victoria, and finished up at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.  So, six or seven years’ worth of workshops, involving a broad range of teaching styles, theoretical approaches and editorial practices. In addition to these were all the books on writing I read, studied and digested.

Am I doing a poor job of passing on those lessons? Possibly.  Did I ever learn them in the first place?  Some people surely think not.  Alas, as with every one of us, I can only work with what I have.

One more caveat and this is potentially a huge one. All my creative writing schooling was on the short-story form.  My deciding to extend these lessons to the novel form has always been problematic, and for many readers, their experience of being novel-readers leads to certain expectations from the author and novel they’re reading, and if I don’t meet those expectations in the proper fashion, well, scratch one more potential fan. And, as I’ve said many times before: mea culpa.  I didn’t know any better, and nowadays, well, I’m stuck with it since I don’t know any other way of writing what I want to write.

Accordingly – and this could be very important – I might be giving bad advice.   If you want to be a novelist.  If you want millions and millions of readers.  Now, this isn’t false modesty: even given my own fairly healthy book sales, my books don’t reach stratospheric sales and, to date, no-one’s lining up to buy film or television rights.  In many circles, I’m not on the A-list.  And I’m kind of fine with that.  Like I said, I did what I could with what I had.  I couldn’t ask anything more of myself than that.  You hit, you miss, you get on with it.

Accordingly, I’m going to back off a little bit with this discussion on setting in fantasy fiction, and keep to a more generalized approach.  In many respects, what I’ll be saying here has more to do with me as a reader of fantasy rather than as a writer of fantasy: what I liked in what I read, what I looked for, what rewarded me and what didn’t in terms of style, voice, structure, and modes of literary construction.

Once again, however, I do not claim ownership to any of this.  Writers pass things on to writers who pass things on and so on, and that can occur in a workshop setting, or in what a beginning writer teaches herself while reading her favourite novel and wondering, how does she do that?  Can I figure this out so I can use it, too?  More to the point, can I steal it?  Because, hey, stealing the literary tricks and techniques of our favourite writers is how we all started.  The salient point is this: ownership is irrelevant.  It’s why I offer these essays for free, to anyone who might be interested.

Not the only path.  Just one path.  Maybe even the wrong path.  So take from these essays what you will, or take nothing from them, or take the opposite of what I’m proposing or valuing, or take them as lessons on how not to do things in fiction writing.  Whatever works for you.  And if you pull off whatever works for you in a brilliant, stunning way, why, it’ll work for others too – and lo, you’ve found your readers.


Setting in Fantasy fiction

Setting in Fantasy fiction is complicated business. At the smallest fictive scale, it’s the background or backdrop to a single scene.  At the grandest scale, it’s not just an entire world including its deep history, it’s also the cosmology of the universe being invented (one where, say, magic works).  Can’t get much bigger than that.

So, in this first part of this essay, I will approach ‘setting’ from that grand scale, and of course there’s a more common term for that: world-building.  But even this for the beginning writer is a complicated challenge, because matter as we perceive it (and we perceive it only in this way) is causatively linked. How is this important to fiction and worldbuilding?  Well, as above, so below.

A world with magic is a world with a hidden layer or plane of causality that’s not readily or immediately apparent.  By extension, such a world exists in a universe with hidden, non-observable causality.

A world with active gods is a world with a hidden layer or plane of existence that imposes causality downward in non-observable ways.

[By the way, these two factors will have a profound effect upon the mind-scape of every sentient life-form in that universe. Or not.  Because that universe with its non-observable causality might actually be our universe.  We just can’t figure it out yet, scientifically.  While, from the spiritual side of things, there’s no need to figure it out.  The faithful among us simply accept it.]

This then is the cosmological framework of world-building.  For fantasy, where magic works, it’s pretty much a given.  Things move unseen, mysterious forces act upon innocent and unsuspecting mortals, the unknown is frightening.

But novels start with scenes, don’t they? This is where is gets interesting, because a good writer will have a clear sense of that cosmological framework even as she begins composing her first scene in the novel.  Is that presumptuous of me to say so?  I would answer ‘no, not at all,’ because even that ‘clear sense’ can be vague in its specifics.  Rather, it’s a sense of things of mystery and wonder, of potential and the possible.  It swirls in the head of the writer and what shows up on the page, with that first scene, is a kind of fractal expression of that vast cosmology.

And this is why setting in scene-building can suddenly land on the writer like a ton of bricks.  What do you use among all these mundane details to spark that sense of otherness, of a world and universe distinctly different from ours?  Can you do it without focusing on the setting in the scene, without altering in any way the banal physicality of a, say, tavern?

Sure.  Tolkien put a hooded stranger in the back corner.  And he added in some distinctly non-human characters (hobbits), tolerated by humans.  And so, an element of mystery coupled with a cultural context of co-existence.  Nice, subtle touches to be sure.  And let’s face it, no one could argue that Tolkien didn’t know enough about the world he’d built.  The challenge he no doubt faced was in selectively dropping in background information while simultaneously advancing the story.

These days, no Fantasy writer could get away with the info-dumps Tolkien used, and the modern style of narrative weighs far more heavily on propelling the story along lest the reader get bored.

But Tolkien isn’t the only example we can use from the foundational canon of Fantasy; the other avenue is Sword & Sorcery, which most often appeared in short-story form, and in short-stories, there’s no room for info-dumps, and the alien-ness of the setting needs to be slipped in, sporadically and with utmost brevity, and only in what’s absolutely necessary.  There’s no room for long expositional info-dumps.  At this point, the selection of details conveying that Fantasy setting is crucial.

Sword & Sorcery has fed into modern Epic Fantasy to a far greater extent than many might believe.  At the same time, one could argue, quite convincingly, that some of those eponymously Sword & Sorcery elements of narrative are in fact reflecting a somewhat muddier cross-over from film and television storytelling dynamics. The brevity demanded in scripts for forty-seven-minute stories, the visual short-hand implicit in all film and television media, have in turn informed the modern writer (and reader) of Epic Fantasy.  We are all schooled in short-hand and the line between written stories, television and film, has become increasingly blurred as a consequence of generational cultural education.  And one could easily view this as an added pressure on the modern Fantasy writer.

In my own experience, I always wrote ‘visually,’ as if I was recording things I was watching on a big screen.  I used to attribute this to my origins as an illustrator, but these days I’m not so sure.  I have been a student of film and television for a long time.  I studied these media in my second degree at university, and for both myself and Cam (Esslemont), our first approach to the Malazan tales was in feature film script form.

Having said all that, my approach to composing the setting for a scene is as a painter, illustrator, or film or television director and cinematographer.  The scene fades in (in my mind) and I scramble to write down the details.  Or, conversely, the scene arrives in a single detail, and then another and then another, and so on, until the full portrait is revealed, and this is akin to a succession of close-focus shots (think Spaghetti Westerns).  The mind’s eye is the camera, and it’s busy doing camera things (CU, pull-back, tracking, panning, elevating, montage, etc).

If I had a specific recommendation to the writer, based on my own experience, I would offer up this approach.  Unless you’ve been living in a cave (one without hunting scenes painted on the walls), you’ve been thoroughly schooled in this visual style.  You recognize it instantly as a reader and viewer, after all, right?

So, what does the camera focus on?  Useful stuff.  Stuff that can, of themselves, convey the non-Earth/non-Real-World aspects of your created world.  The scattered bones of a dead dragon, the aimless wandering of lost ghosts, the broken god huddled in a tent filled with numbing smoke.  In describing these things, be as cool and meticulous as any unblinking camera: you don’t need to add verbiage to them.  The mere fact of their existence conveys all you need and more besides (more?  Well, atmosphere, for one.  A sense of strangeness and antiquity for another.  How about mood?  How about sub-text [recall the ‘ringing bell’ exercise I discussed in a previous essay]?  All this in addition to essential facts of the world you’ve built: 1.  Dragons exist.  2. Dragons can and do get killed. 3.  Ghosts wander the mortal realm.  3.  Gods can be broken, can suffer in pain, can manifest in the world.

Cool and meticulous.  Here’s two examples to demonstrate what I mean.

He came to the rise and looked down on the bones of a dragon scattered down the slope.  The giant fangs of the skull gleamed in the pale light like a row of swords impaling the earth.  “Holy crap!” he cried,  “the bones of a dragon and look at those fangs!”

Uh, right.  Now, let’s shoulder the camera and take our time.

Weary beyond belief, he staggered up the rise, slipping again and again in the deep runnels of soft, lifeless earth.  Reaching the crest, he paused to draw breath, his gaze falling to way ahead. The slope he faced was soft and grey and strewn with a mass of scattered, bleached bones that stretched all the way down to the basin.  For a long moment he could make no sense of them, beyond their massive size.  But then, as he continued scanning the scene before him, he could make out a half-buried skull, eye-sockets and horse-like snout, as long as he was tall, the gaping black orbits as far apart as the width of his own shoulders.  One of the mandibles rested upright closer to where his stood, the yellowed enamel of the huge fangs cracked and chipped.  Beyond that, a row of ribs made uncertain steps downward, some of them snapped off, leaving splintered shards.  Among all the vertebrae tumbled down the hillside, he could see two that were, clearly and emphatically, crushed.
            No fangs had done that.  In his mind, he imagined fists delivering hammer-blows with stunning force.
            He drew a deep breath of the dusty air, and then shook his head.  “Ah, Kilmandaros, you never change.”

Okay, let’s deconstruct that opening and see all that’s going on here.  But before I do that, look back up to the first attempt.  The missed opportunity is almost immediate: ‘… the bones of a dragon…’ No!  Stop!  Let’s see these bones, dammit.  What bones, which bones, where the bones!  I will emphasize this: missed opportunity.  Because that’s precisely what it is.  It’s not enough to simply describe your setting.  Make use of it.  Use your assembling of details to convey authority – the sense not only that you’re there, but you as author, know what you’re talking about.  Does that mean you need to know the skeletal anatomy of dragons?  Well, yes, because that skeletal anatomy is going to be mundane in and of itself, and this is important (mundane details can be assembled to create something magical – see how that works?  It’s a dragon.  Holy crap! But it has a skull, it has ribs, pelvic bones.  Its mandibles consist of two distinct halves and no, they don’t remain attached to the skull – trust me, unless some connecting tissue remains, mandibles fall away from maxilla and upper part of the skull.  So, while you don’t need to know a lot about this, you need to know enough to fake it.  And the best way to fake it is to use practical, mundane, accurate observations).

Back to the first attempt.  With the sword/fang simile I tried to purple it up, but I admit that it didn’t quite work, because, dammit, the simile ain’t too bad.  What makes it fail is that we don’t know where that skull and fangs are, we don’t know where the rest of bones are; we’ve done some weird jump to one specific detail without expanding the scene naturally.  The simile also fails in that it takes us nowhere.  What’s a row of swords impaling the earth to do with anything? Unless you can work it subtextually later on, of course, but within the scene itself, it does little beyond jolting our attention.

And then the character speaks in a manner meant to convey our amazement – we don’t need that: he’s just become the mouthpiece for the author wanting us, the reader, to be amazed.


Okay, on to the deconstructing.  Here goes.

Weary beyond belief, he staggered up the rise, slipping again and again in the deep runnels of soft, lifeless earth.  [opening with emotional context specific to the character.  We don’t know why he’s weary, but he is, and this weariness will serve to make his reaction to seeing the dragon bones somewhat deadened – and that ‘deadened’ response is something I’m going to use, by folding it into story, character (times 2!), tone, atmosphere and historical background – really?  All that? Yup.  Oh, and in that ‘staggering’ I add salient setting details: hill, ridge, rise, soft, lifeless earth.  And yes, ‘lifeless’ foreshadows.  All in one sentence.]

Reaching the crest, he paused to draw breath, his gaze falling to way ahead. [I vary up the sentence structure here.  I could have written:  He reached the crest.  But I didn’t, because I wanted to pull the reader along, but incrementally. What do I mean?  Well, the sentence consists of three clauses.  The first clause physically brings us to the crest, the second clause makes us pause (and breathe), the third clause directs his gaze ahead.  Body to breath to seeing, a natural progression and if you’ve ever climbed a steep slope and reached the top, this is what you do.  So, as details, they’re authentic.  Not to mention reinforcing the tight POV. ]

The slope he faced was soft and grey and strewn with a mass of scattered, bleached bones that stretched all the way down to the basin.  [Cool and meticulous.  You just state what he sees, because the previous sentence’s last clause ends with his gaze.  Ergo, tell the reader what he sees.  Plainly, blankly.  You don’t need to load any emotional stuff onto that statement.  You don’t want to in any way obfuscate it. Additionally, you don’t need to write:  ‘He saw…’ because the use of ‘gaze’ does the work for you.]

For a long moment he could make no sense of them, beyond their massive size. [Pulling us back to his POV also serves here to let the reader digest the previous sentence, to do the mental work of comprehending those first scene details.  Informationally, their judgement as to size is tied directly to the character, which is a way of getting away with open comparative descriptives even as they beg the question: massive compared to what?  It’s a bit of a cheat and some creative writing teachers might howl at it, even if the judgement is not the narrator’s but the character’s.  But then, a lot of writing is about cheating]

But then, as he continued scanning the scene before him, he could make out a half-buried skull, eye-sockets and horse-like snout, as long as he was tall, the gaping black orbits as far apart as the width of his own shoulders.  [here, I don’t necessarily place that skull within the description – but I will in the next sentence establish something of relationship or placement, at least relative to the mandible half that’s closer to the POV. And yet, though it’s not specific, it is what draws his attention, as it might for anyone.  But in describing the skull I don’t fly immediately into simile; instead, I just describe it in detail, reinforcing the notion of scale hinted at in the previous sentence.  (BTW, this is how you use successive sentences to build something, by making them all inter-related.)  Having said all that, we don’t know how tall our character is, or how wide his shoulders, but that’s okay, since our sense of what a dragon skull would look like in turns infers that he’s both tall and wide-shouldered.  In other words, I use the description of the dragon to add character details in terms of physicality – yes, you have permission to work back and forth like this. Lastly, ‘horse-like snout’ also tells us that there are horses in this fantasy setting, a detail of mundane lifeforms we’re all familiar with.]

One of the mandibles rested upright closer to where his stood, the yellowed enamel of the huge fangs cracked and chipped.  [Some specific placement, which also helps in the level of detail he gets from that mandible.  If my description about chipped and cracked fangs had been applied to the maxilla and upper skull way down at the base of the slope (oh yeah, heavier objects move farther down a slope than lighter ones, another mundane truth reinforcing the veracity of the scene), well, the guy’s got amazing vision!  Makes more sense to lay out those details to something closer to hand.  But what else do these details suggest?  Possibly … been there a while.  Or, dragon was old and therefore powerful.  You can let the answer hang for a bit, and even when you do answer it, it can remain somewhat ambiguous.  In that sense, it’s a detail that conveys mystery.]

Beyond that, a row of ribs made uncertain steps downward, some of them snapped off, leaving splintered shards.  [And now having moved the camera’s focus first down to the skull then back up to the mandible, I now head back down, step by step this time, using the ribs, and I add details to indicate that those ribs have been damaged.  Bones splinter when they’re alive, not dead. When dead, they just break. Granted, while I know this from my archaeology days, not all readers will know that.  Conversely, the reader who does is the reader who’d write an author to set them straight if the author used the detail wrongly.]

Among all the vertebrae tumbled down the hillside, he could see two that were, clearly and emphatically, crushed.  [Because I’m visually ‘stepping’ down the slope, I can add more details, this time the vertebrae, and with those details I can at last convey something I’ve been hinting at with the snapped ribs; namely, that someone beat this dragon to death. The tight POV allows that ‘emphatically’ as again it’s not tied to the narrator but to the character]

  No fangs had done that.  In his mind, he imagined fists delivering hammer-blows with stunning force.  [Tight-in POV again, to add emphasis to the detail of those crushed vertebrae, allowing me to use more forceful words (‘hammer-blows,’  ‘stunning’)]

He drew a deep breath of the dusty air, and then shook his head.  “Ah, Kilmandaros, you never change.”  [Recall the drawn breath to announce his arrival on the slope.  Here I close the mini-scene out with a drawn breath, although the emotional context has now evolved.  That first drawn breath was about being physically tired; this second drawn breath is about what he knows.  And what he has concluded.  Bell-ringing, selecting the one detail to repeat.  So, to underscore the evolution I add him shaking his head.  But that drawn breath adds another function: it gives him the air to then speak, and so he does.  Now, recall that ‘deadened’ state in which he makes his first appearance, and how I said I was going to fold it into story, character tone, atmosphere, etc?  Well, here we go.  Who the hell is Kilmandaros?  He knows, but maybe you don’t (but if you’ve read the Malazan Book of the Fallen, why, you do, too, and so you share his sigh and his sentiment, right? Good, that’s what I wanted from you. Thanks.)  But if this is all new to you, back to the question: who the hell is Kilmandaros?  Well, obviously, Kilmandaros is someone who beats dragons to death, and is someone our character knows and knows well, and hey, she keepsbeating dragons to death!  Just as important, we see here the character doing something vital: putting together the evidence of his eyes.  Making, in other words, a mental exercise, which he does without us necessarily seeingit written out.  The pieces are simply in the details he notes. Hence, the double-characterization I mentioned earlier: both our unnamed wandered, and Kilmindaros, and even more, something of their relationship.

So, while he and the writer play the roles of the camera for purposes of describing the scene, why, both he and the writer play the role of something more profound, something more essential to story-telling: that of a thinking, feeling camera.

Now, dear writer, shoulder the camera and hit ‘record.’

I may have more to say on setting, but this’ll do for now.



7 Responses

  1. Dimitri says:

    “In many circles, I’m not on the A-list. And I’m kind of fine with that. Like I said, I did what I could with what I had. I couldn’t ask anything more of myself than that. You hit, you miss, you get on with it.”

    It’s true that you’re not on a lot of A-lists, at least in the mainstream circles. But IMO this isn’t because you “did what you could with what you had”, but rather because you did something others couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do in fantasy fiction. On a technical level alone your novels are a work of art and it boggles my mind just imagining how you might’ve been able to pull that off. But the main thing that sucked me into Malazan is the authenticity and audacity to challenge established tropes and convictions you injected into this series (Apart from your amazing humor and imagination in regards of creating unique characters). I always felt challenged by your writing, which I am really thankful for. You challenged me to question our culture, our history, our way of thinking (apart from a myriad of other things). If I have to boil my love for Malazan down to a single thing, it would be that these books tell beautiful stories that encourage me to think about interesting, and sometimes difficult, questions (I hope this makes sense). This is simply nothing that will attract a huge crowd of people (but luckily it still attracts enough people!)
    It’s hard for me to put my love for the world, you and Cam created, into words. What I can do is to say “thank you”, you gave me a lot I never want to miss in my life 🙂

  2. Great essay. I love the way you’ve broken each piece of the extract down and explained your thinking and construction. Thanks, Steven.

  3. Shadow of Shadowthrone says:

    How could anyone object to these articles? I love reading them. They are very interesting and useful. I’d read a whole book full of your insight linked to your Malazan tales. Thanks!

  4. Michael Monteleone says:

    Very much appreciated breakdown of an author’s thoughts on “setting”. Sure, spontaneity is good but when writing from within our bubbles, these should be our thoughts.

  5. John F Richardson says:

    My RPG stories always started out “You are in a bar, a fight breaks out. What ya gonna do?” and it goes downhill from there.

    I have learned much from your articles. I attempted to write a novela years ago, had a good start, and good end….it was the stuff in the middle that got me ))) Please do not think your insights are NOT appreciated, because, they surely are.

  6. Jonas says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write these essays. Your perspective is always interesting to me precisely because of how different it is from most other advice on writing.

  7. Steve says:

    I am very grateful that you take the time to deconstruct your writing on such a detailed level. I am a teacher and have used your work to highlight numerous techniques for students. Your kindness and generosity in giving of your process is very appreciated. I wrote on my blog recently that I only wish the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare had done the same – an article entitled Learning from a Master, the best unseen commentary you’ve ever read. How much richer would we all be if they had. I also used your deconstruction of the siege of Pale as an example of how to critically comment on a literary extract. I did provide full referencing and did my best to encourage thoughtful readers to check your books out. You are, by far and away, my favourite contemporary author. Thanks Steve. The prologue to the new Karsa novel was great. Thanks again.

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