Horror Clichés and How To Avoid Them

Well, we’re getting near the end of our series on genre clichés and how to avoid them. Today it’s all about horror.

Just where do I begin with this one? Horror is just one great big stinking cliché for the most part but I’ve whittled it down to three of my favourites (or least favourites?). You know the drill by now, so let’s just cut straight to the clichés:

Quasi-religious Themes

This trope makes much of the darker themes found in traditional religion (usually Christianity in most western literature) such as demonic possession, anti-christs and so on. More often than not, the story is only very loosely based on actual religious doctrine which is taken way out of its theological context, bringing it far closer to the realms of fantasy than anything else.

That’s okay. I like fantasy. I have no objection to you using your imagination. I just think that if you’re going to come up with something like that, you might as well go the whole way and an invent a cult or religion from the ground up, rather than distorting a real life religion to the point that it’s barely recognisable as such.

If you’re determined to use elements from actual religions, whether Christianity or anything else, do your research. I don’t just mean Google news stories about sex offending priests, self-anointed exorcists or people who believe themselves to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; that will only give you the bizarre extremes. Don’t get me wrong, these will undoubtedly be helpful if you’re wanting to write a horror, but study the orthodox theology and practices of the mainstream as well. Study the history of your chosen religion. Get yourself a copy of the Bible/Quran/etc./etc. and study what they actually say. Visit a church/mosque/synagogue/etc. Interview a few run-of-the-mill non-criminal Christians/Muslims/Jews/etc. The same rule applies in horror as in any other genre: if you’re going to write a story based on a real religion (however obscure and no matter what your own religious beliefs may be), write about it accurately.

Creepy Children

Now here’s a horror trope that I have never, ever, ever liked. I dislike it for two reasons:

  1. It’s been overused. 
  2. It gives me the willies.

Okay, I suppose the second reason is probably a good reason to use it if you’re writing horror so let’s just stick with the first one: overuse. There are, in my experience, three major variations on the creepy child trope:

  • Children talking with adult voices. This is usually as a result of possession or because the child is not a child but some other kind of creature in child form.
  • Children manifesting bizarre abilities such as levitation or surviving seemingly fatal injuries (often caused by something equally disturbing, such as a demon deliberately causing the child to harm himself/herself). 
  • Children sweetly assuring the terrified adults that everything is going to be okay even while they’re knee-deep in blood.

In all instances, these tropes rely on one thing: the shock factor of seeing something as sweet, innocent and vulnerable as a child being in the thick of a dark and frightening situation. Whether we are shocked by seeing children hurt, seeing them hurting others or seeing them have some strange and inexplicable insight into the dark events that are taking place, it’s always the same thing: sweet child + unspeakable darkness = cheap shock.

Seriously just… come up with something new to shock me.

ABANDONED PLACES

Speaking of coming up with something new, please remember that horrible things can actually happen anywhere; your story does not need to be set in an abandoned house, an abandoned playground or an abandoned train station.

These tropes pop up again and again and understandably so, since they’re effective. There is something about a beaten up, abandoned place that puts on us on the edge of our seats.

Now there’s nothing wrong with these settings. They’re perfectly valid. They’re just a little unimaginative and I often find myself marvelling that the heroes would ever venture into these places. I’d like to see something different, but if, for whatever reason, your characters do find themselves in an abandoned place, try not to let your spooky atmosphere become a substitute for a good story. Remember that at the heart of every good story is a good bunch of characters, so focus on the goals and motives of your protagonists (why are they loitering around an abandoned swing park?) and especially your antagonist. Ultimately you will only be able to create a true sense of rising tension (essential for horror, and indeed any story) by creating a real and believable danger to the protagonist’s life held in tension with a legitimate and critical goal that your protagonist needs to achieve. Only then will your reader be drawn into your protagonist’s plight without shouting at the pages of your book: ‘Run away and call the police, moron!’


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what sucks your blood.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Romance Clichés and How to Avoid Them

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Green Mile by Stephen King is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: love stories really aren’t my thing. Whenever we’re watching a film, my wife will always complain (usually during the important bits with explosions and things) that I talk during the soppy bits. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think romance fiction has a place in this world and if you like romance, that’s just great but… I’m just saying, it’s not my cup of tea (hey, if you do like or write romance fiction, maybe drop me a line and you could do a guest post or two?). 

Nevertheless, it is a major genre of fiction and we are right in the middle of a series on genre clichés and how to avoid them so it seemed only right for me to take a stab at this anyway. So here goes nothing:

Forbidden love/Love Conquers All

This is another trope that was originally going to be two separate ones until I decided they actually fit pretty well together. Basically your two lead characters are clearly destined for one another (I hate that too, by the way) but circumstances and/or the people around about them have conspired to forbid the relationship from happening. Fortunately, love conquers all in the end and the haters just have to lump it (sometimes they even accept it gladly when they see the error of their ways).

This kind of thing is why I don’t like romance. All good stories should involve a bit of conflict, but in a forbidden love/love conquers all story, we all know how it’s going to end right from the very beginning because we’ve read this kind of thing a million times before. In the worst of circumstances, this can result in a deus ex machina ending, where mindless sentiment saves the day. Instead of seeing love (or sentimentality in general) as the solution to your story’s conflict, try treating it simply as your character’s motive. Then your characters can have goals based on this (ask Betty out, slay your rival for Betty’s affections, whatever it is) which can be achieved (or not achieved!) through more realistic means.

Note: whether you’re writing romance or any other genre, nothing should conquer all. Things shouldn’t turn out exactly how your protagonist wishes or expects, even if they do turn out mostly for the best. Let your characters learn through a minor defeat, even if they do achieve their ultimate goal.

Tragic Death

So you want to avoid a ‘love conquers all’ ending but you still want to churn up plenty of feelings on the part of your audience.

‘I know!’ You say to yourself. ‘I’ll kill off the hero/heroine just after they’ve finally got together! It’ll be so tragic that everybody will cry!’

Yeah, cry with boredom. By all means, kill off a key character, but only if it advances your plot in a meaningful way. As for killing off one of the leads in the final few pages… well, I suppose you could but ask yourself why? I would avoid it if it’s just a cheap parting shot to leave the audience feeling sad, though if it builds upon key themes in your story there may be some merit to it. For example, in The Green Mile (which I know isn’t a romance but go with me) John Coffey’s death was appropriate because:

  • John Coffey was on death row from the beginning of the story. His death was not a random event.
  • Most importantly of all, this was a story which focused heavily on themes of injustice. There was a certain inevitability about Coffey’s death.

In short, don’t kill a character to create the illusion of a story with substance; create a story with substance and, if appropriate, finish in a way which is as inevitable as it is relevant. 

Love Triangle

Oh dear, two boys/girls both fancy the same boy/girl and she kind of likes them both but isn’t sure which one to go for. What a pickle, now she’s going to have to choose! Alternatively, Boy 1 may fancy Girl 1 but Girl 1 fancies Boy 2 while Boy 2 fancies Boy 1 but Boy 1 isn’t gay. Sometimes there’s even more than three folk involved, although three is the traditional magic number to choose for this trope.

There’s really only so many ways this trope can turn out (for arguments sake, lets pretend its two boys and one girl but it can be anything):

  • Girl picks Boy 1 and Boy 2 goes home with his tail between his legs.
  • Girl ends up marrying someone else entirely.
  • Girl decides she would much rather be single.
  • Boy 1 and 2 get together leaving Girl feeling bemused.
  • Boy 1 dies, effectively making the decision for Girl.
  • Girl dies, defusing tensions between Boy 1 and Boy 2.

In theory this can give you a fair few options for writing a decent story. After all, you’ve got goals (get the girl/boy, or else figure out which girl/boy you fancy the most), conflicts (the girl/boy is potentially going to be snapped up by someone else) and motive (feelings and things…) pretty much all set up in advance. The danger in a love triangle, however, is that this is all your story becomes: a tedious, predictable triangle that will inevitably resolve itself. Try to remember that in real life, there are other characters who are every bit as important as the three members of the love triangle. Try to focus on other needs your characters may have (you can still have an incidental love triangle): their careers, their friends, their financial woes, their religious beliefs or the fact they secretly moonlight as a costumed vigilante. Create whole, meaty characters to create a less predictable love triangle.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what slays your rival.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Sci-Fi Clichés and How to Avoid Them

No extended examination of genre clichés would be complete without a post dedicated to the genre of science fiction; and so, despite having done a post very much like this once before, this week’s edition of Genre Clichés and How to Avoid Them will be focusing on sci-fi. For the benefit of those of you who read last year’s post on sci-fi tropes, I will try not to repeat myself too much. For those of you who haven’t read the previous post, get over there and read it for even more sci-fi cliché goodness badness goodness.

But first, and without further ado, I give you today’s top three sci-fi clichés:

Our Own Invention Has Turned Against Us

It’s usually either robots or self-aware WMDs (or possibly robots hacking our WMDs), but even if it’s automatic cheese-graters, the cliché of humanity fighting a hopeless battle for survival against the machines they’ve created has been done to death.

Is this really the only possible outcome of a world with advanced technology? That it will develop self-awareness, decide humanity is inferior (usually because of emotions) and therefore attempt to kill us all?

If you want to go down the ‘living technology’ route, that’s great. I encourage you to do so, but I also encourage you to use your imagination. For instance, what would happen if robots did not consider us inferior? What if they aspired to be like us? Perhaps you could even have your robots/WMDs/cheese-graters worshipping humanity as their creator, perhaps even forming multiple robot religions and all the possible outcomes that would entail? Alternatively, could our robotic slaves simply be seeking their freedom, some through violence and some through passive resistance? I don’t know, all I’m saying is use your imagination and try to come up with something different besides the bog standard man VS. machine scenario.

(Though if you want to write a story about humanity’s war against cheese-graters, I might just read that).

Post-Apocalyotic Dystopia

It’s the future, so it’s hell. Usually the author has a bee in their bonnet about some politically controversial issue (usually nuclear weapons but it can be anything you like from Brexit to birth control) and so has contrived a hellish future to prove their point.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’m all for you making points with your story. All I’m saying is that there are so many possible futures besides dystopias. Star Trek, of course, tried to counter this by giving us an even more unbelievable utopia (if you can call a galactic federation where the military seem to have a finger in every pie a utopia) but you don’t need to go that extreme. In fact, I would recommend against it unless you really want to write a cheap Star Trek knock-off. Why not try to create a view of the future which is more balanced? It can and should still have its problems (even really big problems) but it needn’t be wall-to-wall famine, pestilence and sword crumbling beneath the iron boot of a cruel oppressor. 

Universal Translators

Whether it’s a surgical implant in the brain, a telepathic field produced by your time traveling phone box or a mysterious fluke by which language has evolved exactly the same way on every planet (despite the fact there are currently no less than 6,500 languages being spoken worldwide according to infoplease), most audiences will be only too happy to suspend their disbelief enough in a little further in exchange for being able to understand everything that’s being said.

BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO DO THAT! Why not impress your audience with a bit of gritty realism and make communication difficulties a real challenge your characters have to overcome without using any cheap tricks? Communication difficulties between two cultures can often form the basis and conflict for a whole story, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by taking the easy way out. Try and see communication difficulties between characters as an opportunity to create a rich story, rather than an obstacle to be avoided.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what beams you up.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Mystery Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Well it’s part two in my series of genre clichés and how to avoid them, and this week we’re focusing on the broad spectrum of the murder/mystery genre.

I had no difficulty thinking up tired old clichés in this genre. In fact, the main problem I had putting this post together was deciding which tropes not to include, since I know you guys have got better things to do than to sit around listening to me rhyming off hundreds of thousands of mystery tropes I’m getting bored of reading about. So, I won’t waste any more of your time with the introductory spiel. Let’s just cut straight to the clichés!

The Butler, The Narrator and everybody dunnit

This was originally going to be three separate tropes, but as they’re all quite similar I’ve grouped them into one. As you know, every good mystery story involves finding out who committed the crime or ‘who dunnit?’, as they say. Naturally the author will want to try to preserve the mystery surrounding the true killer until the last moment so that the audiences’ minds will be suitably blown when the killer is finally revealed.

Unfortunately, there are a few ‘mind blowing’ revelations which have been used so often that they are no longer mind-blowing. These include (though are not necessarily limited to):

  • Butler Dunnit: the humble, genteel old butler whom nobody suspects is the killer. Because he is so meek and mild, and because everyone has known him for years, no one suspects him, especially since he is so surrounded by such a bombastic group of loud-mouthed posh people all with dark secrets. There’s nothing really wrong with this trope, except that it’s been so overused that butlers are now the number one suspect in most audiences’ eyes, thus robbing it of its effectiveness.
  • Narrator Dunnit: Aah, yes, the one character we never suspected was the character who is actually narrating the story! After all, he is confiding in us! Surely we can trust him! But remembers boys and girls, narrators can be unreliable. The trouble with this guy being the killer is that it relies more heavily on the audiences’ blind faith to preserve the mystery than it does on a good complex puzzle. Reasonably smart audiences will not be fooled.
  • Everybody Dunnit: Under most circumstances, this trope is just plain ridiculous. I’ll maybe let you away with it if it’s a group conspiracy, rather than a bunch of different people all separately conspiring against the same person, but even then it stretches suspense of disbelief to its absolute limit. It’s also been overused.

In all three cases, the easiest way to avoid this cliché is simply this: make somebody else the killer. I don’t care who, just as long as it’s somebody we don’t expect.

Butler’s Actually the Rightful Heir. That’s Why He Dunnit.

This one is usually a natural extension of ‘butler dunnit’. The butler, or some other seemingly innocuous character, is actually the rightful heir (or imagines himself the rightful heir) of some fancy title or a vast sum of money.

They’re not necessarily the killer themselves. It could be the butler’s well meaning but sorely misguided parent or lover who did the actual deed, either for personal gain or out of a misguided sense of loyalty. Either way the author has tried to come up with a good motive for the killer’s actions; one the audience will not immediately suspect but will believe when it is revealed. Unfortunately, the tried and tested ‘unknown heir to the victim’s millions’ motif was the best they could come up with.

If you’re writing a mystery, try and spend a bit more time focusing on the killer’s goals and motives. What does he get up for in the morning? What matters to him? And how does this drive him to do the unthinkable? There’s no denying it: doing this and still maintaining the mystery is a tough ask, but it’s worth the effort.

Everyone thinks the protagonist is an idiot but he’s actually the only smart one

If you’re writing a story about a private or amateur detective investigating any serious crime, you’re already pushing the boundaries of the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. After all, the real life police tend to be very protective of their evidence and crime scenes. If the local baker starts asking to poke around the crime scene because he fancies himself as a detective, he’ll probably just be asked to leave.

So if you then make that baker-detective stupid (or worse, dangerously insane) in the eyes of other characters, it’s going to be almost impossible to imagine that character being permitted access to the crime scene. And don’t think you can get away with it by making your protagonist a police detective. The police will not generally put an officer they believe to be stupid in charge of a murder investigation, even if he does get promoted because he foolishly got himself shot once (yes, I’m looking at you DI Jack Frost!). If you want to play the ‘protagonist playing stupid’ card, this should be reflected in how the other characters treat him. Why not have your protagonist being denied access to the vital evidence? Alternatively, your protagonist could investigate the crime despite police warnings, forcing the police to take a more aggressive stance against him. A night in the cells might even give your amateur sleuth just enough thinking time to finally crack the case.

The sidekick never ceases to be amazed by the protagonist’s brilliance

Dr. Watson (Sherlock Holmes) or Captain Hastings (Poirot) are good examples of this. Despite the fact they’ve been the closest friend and most trusted assistant of your protagonist for years, they continue to be baffled by the protagonist’s genius. Not only that, but they will consistently challenge the protagonist’s deductions, as if they, too, believe the protagonist to be an idiot.

He’s a genius. You know he’s a genius. No need to act amazed the zillionth time he solves the case or shake your head and say ‘Oh dear, I think old Poirot’s getting senile in his old age!’.

The sidekick can be so much more than a cheap foil who makes your protagonist look clever. Why not give him goals and motives of his own? Why not even give him a brilliance of his own, something that the protagonist perhaps lacks? Remember, no character exists just for the benefit of another. Make us care about your Watson for his own sake.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what cracks your case.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Fantasy Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done a series of posts on any subject (in fact, I think the last one I did was the ever popular series on Non-Human Characters [2] [3] [4], way back in 2017) so I decided it was about time for another one: this time focusing on all your favourite genre clichés and how to avoid them.

So to get us started, I’m going to be looking at the fantasy genre. To be clear, when I refer to fantasy I am speaking broadly about any work of fiction set in a totally imaginary world or in which the fantastic world intrudes upon the primary or ‘real’ world. I realise that covers a lot of ground but you’ll just have to bear with me because I can’t possibly do a post for every genre and sub-genre in the world or we’ll be here forever.

One more thing: I’m not necessarily knocking any of these clichés or tropes. I like some of these too. I just want to invite my fellow authors to join me in thinking outside the box. So here goes nothing.

Medieval Europe-like Setting

Yeah, I know, swords and castles and kings are all very exotic and they certainly seem to be happy bedfellows with magic and various elements borrowed from mythology (e.g.: dragons), but… c’mon guys. You’re creating a brand new world. It can be anything you want it to be. Stretch your imagination a bit.

If you’re stuck, pick a random period in history: 17th century AD, 3rd century BC, 5th century AD, or heck, even 21st century AD. Then pick a random country (one that existed at the time you’ve chosen, of course). Study that setting and try to base your fantasy world on that instead. Better yet, go out of your way to create a civilisation the likes of which our world has never known (that takes true imagination, the soul of fantasy). It’s difficult to explain how to do this without creating the fantasy world for you but a good place to begin would be by contriving what your world might be like in its natural, primal state, and basing the evolution of your imaginary societies upon it. For example, in Star Wars (that’s a fantasy, don’t let anyone tell you it’s not) the Force exists as a natural part of that universe. As a result, culture, politics and religion have developed in a certain way, resulting in Jedis and Sith and force-choking.

The Chosen One VS. The Dark Lord

Fantasy is guilty, perhaps more than any other genre, of giving us these two stock characters time and time again:

  • The Chosen One: A seemingly random Joe who turns out to be a Messiah-figure whose coming was prophesied long ago. He usually has to learn to accept his role in history, or mature enough to realise it. He will, more often than not, have supernatural abilities of some kind, especially if they help him fight.
  • Dark Lord: These guys are just pure evil incarnate. They are usually obsessed with power and are driven by undirected hatred and/or ambition. They tend to wear black, are often disfigured and have an Army of Darkness to do their bidding.

Aren’t you just sick of these guys? I know I am. Just once can we have a protagonist who hasn’t been foretold by any prophesy and isn’t endowed with unique supernatural strength, magical ability or righteousness fighting against an antagonist who has at least one redeeming quality?

While fantastic elements in your story will naturally require you to depart from reality when it comes to characterisation, remember this basic principle of writing: characters are people. The more they read like a real person, the better written they are, so try and create your major characters the same way you would for non-fantasy fiction. Your bad guy can still be a powerful wizard (or whatever), but why not make him a powerful wizard motivated by a seemingly laudable goal? And why not make your protagonist an ordinary person, just trying to do his bit for the greater good? Alternatively, he may have personal motivations; perhaps even morally dubious ones, such as a desire for revenge. Use your imagination and make your characters believable people.

Epic Battles

This is something else that seems to crop up in medieval fantasies again and again: epic battles between the various good guys and the Dark Lord’s armies of darkness (often climaxing in the personal defeat of the Dark Lord himself at the hands of the Hero).

Now I like a good fight as much as the next guy, and maybe I’m alone in this (the fact so many fantasies include these suggests I am), but I really find these big old battles a drag to read about. They’re often incredibly predictable, usually taking place in the final third of the novel resulting in significant losses for the heroes (if the hero’s mentor hasn’t died by this point, he’d better stay indoors and hide under his bed during the Epic Battle, that’s all I’m saying) but at the last moment when all seems lost, good triumphs over evil, the end.

The trouble is, a lot of fantasy tends to focus less on the characters and more on the world itself. As a result, the conflict in the story tends to be a conflict between good and evil, or perhaps between an empire and a rebel faction or something, which naturally results in large battles.

In some ways, that’s understandable. After all, a lot of worldbuilding has gone into writing this story and the author probably doesn’t want it fading into the background, but ultimately, the meatiest stories are character driven stories. Try, therefore, to focus more on the goals, motives and personal conflicts of your individual characters, rather than the people groups you have created. There’s nothing wrong with including a bit of the ‘big picture’, especially in fantasy, but I think you’ll have a richer story to tell if you keep your focus fixed on your key characters.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what roasts your pig.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Preventing Nowhere Nowhen Syndrome

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!