Writing effective setting in adventures (part two)

27 11 2009

What’s the best way to avoid too much setting?

The bare minimum

Stephen King is a writer that likes the idea of giving the reader the bare minimum in terms of description.

He feels that too much and you force the reader to see your characters and settings in your way.

He wants the reader to own the description – thus making the story specific to them.

The key here is, ‘the bare minimum.’  Stephen King is a master at knowing what is too much and what is too little. If you are not as blessed as Mr. King, what do you do?

Trial and error

Until you become an expert, you will have to follow the trusted steps of trial and error.

The rule mentioned before of one line per new scene is a good starting point.

The more important a place is, the more you describe – but remember, you don’t have to reveal it all at once. Revisits can be used to flesh out more and more.

More than a few lines to describe the setting and you’d better have a good reason for it.

Know your players. Different players will have different tastes – if they love long descriptions, give it to them.

Using the right words

If you have a habit of overstating the scenery, work on the words you use. The later reference to senses is particularly useful here.

Use language that doesn’t just describe in a flat way. Use alliteration and very specific descriptors to sharpen your description.

A word like ‘gloomy’ suggests both the state of the weather and of the mood. The better your vocabulary, the better your settings will work.

How do you ensure you engage your player’s senses?

The basic five

The five senses are not anything mystical. They are on the other hand, extremely powerful when it comes to creating a setting.

Little else sparks the imagination like an appropriately used sense.

There is, as ever, a balancing act.  If the sense used is too obscure, you won’t engage the players – and they’ll spend so much time trying to work out what you meant that they’d miss the next few words.

On the other hand, making it too hackneyed doesn’t really add any value. Try to avoid the tried and tested if you can. Be original without being alien.

The final point is to ensure you use all of the senses.

GMs will typically spend 99% of the time talking about what characters can see and only use the other 1% when the input is exceptional – a loud noise or a pungent smell.

In real life the mix of sensory perception is never this heavily weighted in favour of sight. Why should your adventure be any different?

The emotions

Emotions aren’t senses of course, but they are a powerful link to getting a player to understand the setting very quickly. If you can combine senses and emotion you will really hook the player quickly – and that’s why I have linked them here.

Describing an inanimate object by using an emotion on the face of it seems odd, but it can convey in a couple of words what could take a five minutes to explain.

If your characters come to a ‘lonely house’ or enter a ‘confused room’ then you have started to evoke multiple images in the players’ mind – and only a small amount more description will enable the players to fully understand what you mean.

Understanding the levels of setting

Metaphors etc.

The subtlest way to describe is to say how the setting resembles something the players know well (or the other way around).  Each serves it’s own purpose but writers regularly confuse their uses.

a. Metaphors

This is an implication. There is no statement that there is a link; we simply use the resemblance.

‘She walked catlike across the roof of the villa.’

Nobody expects the character to have fur and a tail. If ‘she’ were a cat, we would say she simply walked – cats, by definition, walk catlike.

This one word suggests she walks assuredly, softly, secretively and no doubt evokes the image of a cat burglar. The players will probably already suspect that she is up to no good.

b. Similes

Here we add the prefix ‘like’ or ‘as’ and therefore by definition create more of a signpost to the link.

‘She walked across the villa’s roof like a cat.’

The same result but a different and less subtle route.

c. Analogies

This is the least subtle option as we tell the player that something was like something else and include a comparison.

‘Her journey across the roof of the villa was like a cat stalking its next meal as she made every effort to make no sound and reacted instinctively to every small movement around her.’

d. Allusions

Here you make reference to someone or something famous.

‘Felicity the burglar. The wonderful, wonderful burglar.’

I chose this on purpose – and if you didn’t understand it, I’ve proved my point.

If you’ve never seen or heard of Felix the Cat, the allusion is wasted. Worse still, the players would wonder what on earth the words mean. If they do get it, they feel pleased with themselves.

(If you still don’t get it, ask someone older than you to sing the ‘Felix the Cat’ song (or YouTube it).  Then you’ll get it).

Allusions are dangerous ground.

e. Personification

This is a variation, where an inanimate object (or sometimes flora or fauna) is given a human trait.

‘The fog hugged her body as she sat on the villa’s roof.’

Next time out I’ll talk about using nature in setting.

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