Fantasy writers like to talk about world building, but what do you do once the world has been built?
One of the things I enjoy with fantasy is how it can transport me to a different world. A place that only exists in my mind. To achieve this, world building is important, but it’s also important to create a sense of place for the scenes of the story.
I want the locations to feel like they could be real places – somewhere I could visit.
How to achieve that?
The basic principle is as follows: give your reader a chance to put something of themselves into the scene, and they’ll make it their own.
This is what makes it come alive to them. It’s no longer just a description, but a place that exists in their mind, and which they helped create themselves.
It may sound a bit whimsy, but it’s not really all that complicated. Here are few tips that work for me.
Level of Detail
Do not overdo it with the descriptions. Rather than describing a location in exact detail, give the reader just enough information for them to be able to create their own impression of what it’s like, and then leave it at that.
It’s easy to think that a fully detailed description is better, as it provides a closer representation of the writer’s vision, but this isn’t necessarily the case.
Add too much detail, and the described location changes from a scene to a list of attributes.
Readers aren’t stupid. Unless something is completely outlandish, most people will be able to fill in any blanks in the descriptions they read. If the colour of the floor isn’t important to the story, there’s no need to mention it. There’s no need to even mention that there is a floor. It’s enough to say there’s a room, and readers will assume there is a floor.
What to Show
Try to mention a few Big Things, and a few Minor Details.
Big Things will allow a reader to get their bearings and create a framework for their imagination to work with. Minor Details will affect their attitude to what’s being described, and it will impact how they fill in the blanks in the description.
Let’s look at an example over two paragraphs. First:
A long narrow room. White stone walls tinted orange and yellow by candlelight. A wooden bench along the left wall, and a rickety old table with a few chairs up front, right next to the doorway. Candles burned in little alcoves in the walls and on the table. Large faded rugs covered the floor.
In this paragraph, there are two Big Things: The shape of the room, and the color. That’s enough to start forming an image of what the room looks like.
The rest of the paragraph is Minor Details. The reader won’t know it at this stage, but it’s more important that the bench is wooden, and that the table is old and rickety, than where they are located. It sets the tone for the place.
The next paragraph is as follows:
The bar itself was all the way in the back. A high wooden counter, a few shelves, and an old transistor radio that played some kind of mellow jazz. An enormous woman stood behind the bar, and on a stool in front of it, right next to the radio, sat a bent old man. Dark shapes in the light of the candles.
Here too, there are two Big Things: There’s a bar, and it’s in the back of the room. The rest, again, is Minor Details.
What’s worth noting is the man and the woman. They’re part of the description of the room here, but they’re also introductions to themselves, with the rest showing up later.
Also remember the radio. It will be discussed later.
Interacting With the Environment
If all goes as planned, the reader will now have a pretty good impression of the room in which this scene takes place. It’s still a static image though.
The rest of the scene is just conversation, and the location doesn’t really matter as far as the plot is concerned. However, it matters for the reader’s enjoyment of the story.
By including the environment in the conversation, the location comes alive, and becomes a bar you could imagine visiting. It adds a bit of life.
Another example from a little bit later in the same chapter:
She produced a bottle from underneath the counter, uncorked it, and sat it down in front of Roy on the bar.
A happy smile tugged at his face as he looked at it. Wet with condensation. Thin vapours of frost curling their way out the top. Cold as a wolf’s howl, as they used to say back home.
These two paragraphs are pretty short, but what matters is what’s left out.
The beer comes from underneath the counter, and its cold. There’s no mention of a fridge or anything like that, but it can be safely assumed there is one (spoiler: it’s an enchanted chill-box). It’s a minor thing, but it still engages their mind, and that’s what matters.
With every little thing the reader has to fill out, they add something of themselves, however tiny. By doing this, they take ownership of their impression, and it becomes more their own.
Environment as Actor
Usually, the only actors in a scene are the characters talking or interacting with each other.
Sometimes, but not always, it’s possible to have the environment act as well, even if it’s not a sentient being as such. Do you remember the radio from the first example? It shows up a few more times in the scene, for example here:
“Yeah.” Roy sighed and let his shoulders slump. “It’s her.”
Silence fell over the room. Even the song on the radio quieted for a moment, giving way to a lone clarinet in a minor key.
Here, the conversation goes a little bit sad, and that’s underlined by the music on the radio going sad too.
It may seem a bit cheap, but it also reminds the reader that there’s a radio, and that there’s music playing. It’s a signal that there’s more going on in the scene than what the characters are talking about – even if it’s not important to the plot.
It also gives the location a little bit of life.
If your world doesn’t have radios, use something else – the wind in the trees, or the bard over in the corner. Anything goes.
Embrace the Mundane
Even within the wonderful realm of fantasy fiction, there is room for the ordinary. It’s how to anchor the reader in the world. It’s the backdrop that makes the fantastic elements really shine.
The human mind is an amazing thing. With just a few words, a train of thought can take off and bring your imagination to the edge of the known universe and beyond (first class ticket, too). This is, at least partially, due to the power of association.
For a lot of the words and concepts we come across, we already have an idea of them, and putting them together into new impressions happens very quickly.
By basing a description on something familiar (A long narrow room.), the reader will very quickly know what’s up. Their impressions will form and adjust with every word they read.
Now compare this with something the reader might not be familiar with:
Further in, a lone jellybob hung in the air at just about head height, motionless above a bowl of water on the ground. Its thin tendrils sparkled like a trail of stars in the soft pulsating glow of its heart.
Very few readers will know what a jellybob is, and might pause at the word, even if just for an instant. The rest of the paragraph adds a bit of description, and a reader will be able to form some kind of image. It’s still pretty quick, but not quite as fast as imagining something old and familiar.
All this isn’t to say that fantastic and unknown things shouldn’t be included in descriptions. After all, the fantastic is part of the appeal of fantasy. Rather, create a solid firmament from the mundane, and then add on the fantastic once you’ve got the reader to accept your world.
Adding More Detail
Be very careful when adding on to the description of the room – especially when adding in big things that could have been mentioned from the start.
Consider the initial description of the bar room from the examples above. Did you imagine the room with a pinball machine along the right wall? Did the room have a fan spinning in the ceiling? Were there windows?
I’m going to hazard a guess and say you did not imagine the pinball machine. The fan in the ceiling is not entirely implausible though, and the same goes for the windows. There might be a fan, and there might be windows.
I have no way of knowing what you imagined in that regard.
This is why it’s important to be careful when adding new information to a description. There’s a chance it might contradict the image in the reader’s mind. When that happens, it breaks immersion, and the reader is reminded it’s just a book after all.
All the hard work you put into giving life to your scene will be for naught. Let’s not let that happen.
A test you can perform in order to check if it’s safe to add something to a scene is to return to the initial description:
A long narrow room. White stone walls tinted orange and yellow by candlelight.
Pretend you’re an invisible observer and that you’re standing in the same location as the narrator. If you would be able to “see” the pinball machine from where you’re standing, then don’t add it in later if it’s not mentioned initially.
Your readers will be standing in the same spot, and they will create an image based on what the narrator tells them. Some of them might imagine the bar has a pinball machine, while others might not.
It’s better to be safe than sorry and not add something that would run the risk of contradicting the reader.
Adding life to your story is what creates immersion, and what lets your readers feel like they’re visiting the world you’ve created. To sum things up, these are the tips I’ve shared here.
- Don’t go into too much detail
- Use a mix of Big Things and Minor Details.
- Let your characters interact with the environment.
- Let the environment act too.
- Embrace the mundane.
- Do not add Big Things the reader might have already decided aren’t there.
As with so many other things, these aren’t rules you have to follow. Rather, they’re things to consider, and which may or may not work depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Certainly, they work for me, but my story might be different from yours.
As such, I’d like to ask: what’s your best advice for giving the locations of your story a sense of place, or for blowing life into your scenes outside of the characters taking part? Do you consider it important, or would you rather just get on with the story?
Either post a comment below here, or look up the article’s thread on our writing forum.
Finally, the examples in this article are from my book Last Fight of the Old Hound, and a jellybob is pretty much a flying luminous jellyfish – sort of.