Storytelling: The Setting

By , April 30, 2013

A good story needs a number of elements to work together well. Characters are a big part of this equation, since they are the reader’s way of experiencing what’s going on. Save for the occasional story written from the second person perspective (You will know one of these when you see it. It tells you what is going on much like this aside does. You may or may not like it, but they are effective because), the reader needs some sort of framing device to understand the scenes as they unfold.

Dialog and conflict are how this is usually done. But today I’d like to tell you more about where the action is taking place, rather than why.

The setting of a story is more than just scenery. It is a full-fledged character in its own right, one relying on different means of communication than language. The setting is one of the first things explained in a pitch or outline, as it must immediately transport the reader to the action. But time and place are just the beginning of the setting’s work. After all, it’s in every scene, and there’s only so many times a character can check their watch or the position of the sun before we’ll lose interest.

The Mongoliad is blessed with an abundance of fantastic settings, including the wide steppes of Mongolia, crumbling European castles, dark catacombs, rich capitol cities, and many more. The setting makes itself known, whether or not it’s introduced directly. When a group of Shield-Brethren rides in pursuit of an enemy, they rarely do so in non-descript white space. The hills, grasslands, rivers, mountains, forests, and towns they pass through each mark an important part of the journey, even if only mentioned once.

Like the other characters in the story, the setting can both help the plot along and hinder the achievement of goals. Nothing stops a cavalry charge quite as well as uneven, pitfall laden ground. A company of skilled archers loses all advantage when their target reaches the trees and disappears into the forest. Walls keep people both in and out of cities, though their construction determines for how long.

The more of the reader’s senses that can be engaged by the setting, the more they can believe the action. Theres no hard and fast checklist of environmental factors to fill out, but the smell of baking bread is something most people can relate to, as is the sound of a blacksmith’s hammer. Small details add up quickly, until the scene is as real as the world outside your window.

Case in point, the arena at H√ľnern. Even if you haven’t read the entire text of the Mongoliad yet (no spoilers, I promise), you already know something about the setting simply because of what it is. You mind is filling with images of gladiators, a sand-filled area where combatants fight to the death. Descriptions of the setting could end there, but the authors give us more.

Through a character’s eyes, we watch it being built. We know about the tunnels dug under the stands through which the fighters enter, but it’s not until later that we “see” the deep shadows inside them, and how in comparison the light of mid-morning is blinding when we arrive in the arena. At first we are told there is a grand pavilion from which the dissolute Khan watches the action, but once we’re in the arena proper we explore its sumptuous colors, and wonder as to just where the Mongol leader is sitting inside. We feel the heat of the sun beat down on our armor, hear the noise of the crowd as our opponent enters.

Or rather, our hero Haakon does. Since we know, really know the area ourselves, we can feel his heart beating madly as the fight begins. We dodge when he dodges, and wonder with him about what is behind the Red Veil on the other side of the field of battle.

Storytelling is an ancient art. At its core is the ability to make us believe in something we can’t see, and will likely not experience for ourselves. To hear the roar of the crowd, to watch a long fly ball cross the outfield wall with nothing but a voice on the radio as our guide to the action. We want to believe, want to run after that ball and climb the fence to catch it, and are either happy or sad depending on which side of the sword or bat our hero is.

It’s said that knowing where to fight is almost as important as when and how. For those of us on the other side of the text, knowing where the fighting is happening is everything. We’ll find out who wins in the end, but in that first magic moment when we step into the scene with our heroes, anything is possible.

And it’s definitely worth turning the page to find out what happens next.

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