A few months ago I wrote about the crippling effects of what I dubbed Phantom Protagonist Syndrome; a condition some stories develop whereby an otherwise excellent story can be ruined, or even left unfinished, on account of a protagonist who is so vague and undefined that the story crumbles to pieces. Today I want to talk about a similar condition which I have occasionally found in my own writing, as well as in that of others: Nowhere Nowhen Syndrome (NNS)
Savvy authors should be able to identify NNS in their story at the earliest stages of writing their manuscript (though you would be surprised how often it crops up even in published writing). You will settle down to draft a scene, confident that you know what is supposed to happen in this scene and what highly detailed and lifelike characters are involved. But somehow… you just can’t seem to get the engine running. You can barely envisage the scene in your mind’s eye, much less describe it. There are of course, several possible reasons why this might happen (including Phantom Protagonist Syndrome) but in my experience, NNS is one of the most common.
NNS is when your setting is too vague. In the same way that Phantom Protagonists are characters who lack the substance to create convincing people, a setting with NNS lacks the substance to create a convincing time and place. You may know that your story is set in post-apocalyptic London, circa AD 2084, but that is not the same as creating a setting. That’s just telling us the name of the place.
Creating a setting involves stimulating the imaginary senses of your reader so that they know what it’s like to really be there. They need to see it, hear it and smell it in their own imagination, or else they will never be truly drawn into the story. The best you will accomplish is a mere description of what is happening with all the substance and excitement of a history essay. This is especially important in sci-fi or fantasy settings where a reader has no common frame of reference (it’s no good telling me ‘Jimmy was on the lower deck of the Martin spaceship’ if I’ve never seen a Martian spaceship) but it applies to all genres of fiction, all the time. If you can’t clearly imagine what it is like to be in that drawing room or smoky jazz bar, neither will your reader. The cure for NNS, therefore, begins not on the page but in your imagination.
Go and stand outside. What do you see? What can you hear? What can you smell? What can you feel?
If the answer is ‘nothing much’, you’re doing it wrong. There is always something, even if it is just miles and miles of unspoilt pastureland, a small cluster of oak trees and a clear blue sky. Are there birds twittering? Can you smell freshly cut grass or is it obscured by the smell of manure from some distant field? Is it cold or warm? Are there any buildings? Trees? Animals? People? Roads? How does the weather look? Is there graffiti on any of the walls? Posters? Litter? Cigarette ends? Pools of blood? Crashed spaceships?
Look carefully and see everything. Examine every detail, both big and small: size, shape, textures, colours, etc. It’s not just a field. It’s a lush green paradise, dotted with cows who are enjoying a cool summer breeze and are oblivious to the steep inclination of the hillside. It’s not just a lamppost. It’s a lamppost littered with political posters and the stench of urine, intermittently illuminating the road with its flickering light-bulb. That’s the kind of detail we want in our fictional world.
Once you’ve got that setting clear in your imagination, then you can begin to put it on paper. As the author, the more details you have for your own reference, the better, so you might find it helpful to draw maps, write out descriptions of key landmarks or even take photographs if your setting is a real place. Personally, I suck at drawing and I tend to write a lot of fantasy, so I tend to write out a scene in which I imagine walking through the street/town/hotel lobby and I describe everything I see (though if I’m creating something as big as a town, I tend to draw a rough map too). These are just for your own reference as the author.
The audience, on the other hand, will probably get bored if you describe every lamppost, every tree and every cobblestone. When it comes to describing your setting in your manuscript, you will probably need to be selective about how much description you give. As a rule of thumb, the more important it is to your story, the more carefully you should describe it (and you understand, of course, that by ‘describe it’ I mean show us your setting; don’t just tell us about it).
You see, as well as helping your reader imagine the scene, a vivid setting also goes a long way to tell you something about life in our fictional world without having to state it explicitly. Your audience are probably smart enough to figure out a lot of what you haven’t told them from what you have show them. For instance, suppose we had this as our first line:
‘Swastikas fluttered brazenly on banners of blood which hung from almost every window.’
Boom. The reader instantly knows something about the political situation in this place and can probably take a reasonable guess at roughly where and when our story is set (heck, it even gives us a pretty decent chance of guessing who the bad guys are). Notice also that by describing the colour of the banners as ‘blood’ instead of simply ‘red’, I am able to create a certain impression in the audience’s mind of the meaning of this setting. It doesn’t simply tell you that this is a Nazi town; it also hints at some violent undercurrent implied by this setting.
If, on the other hand, the street had nothing remarkable hanging out of any of the windows, I probably wouldn’t bother mentioning the windows at all. Most buildings on most streets have windows. The reader knows that. You don’t need to describe each one if they have no bearing on your story. Instead give detailed accounts of important things, such as the bullet-holes in the wall or the train that your protagonist is about to board. Treat more trivial details as salt and pepper to add substance to your setting; not to bore your audience to tears with. When possible, select trivial details which can foreshadow what is to come (‘It was a dark and stormy night’ might be a rubbish line in many respects, but trivial details like the weather can often help to set the mood and foreshadow what is to come, though I’m sure you can think of something better than bad weather to help you do that).
I hope you find some of this useful. I fear I’ve barely been able to scratch the surface of creating vivid settings in this post (after all, creating a place is a big job), so if you’ve got any tips about creating vivid settings for your story, do share them with us in the comments section below.
Until next time!