First I want to describe what I consider to be the difference between “world building” and a story’s “setting.” If you’re creating a fantasy world, then you will almost certainly have to do a lot of world building. World building provides the framework for the settings that you’ll create for your story. World building is a high-level activity, even though it can get very detailed. Tolkien, for example, created entire languages as part of his world building.
Setting, on the other hand, is a low-level activity. It’s all about scenes, not about the overall story. Settings are intimate, personal and should contribute to the scene’s mood and overall purpose. Settings should engage the reader’s senses. The most impressive world building in the history of literature won’t make any difference if the story’s settings are drab, colorless and generic.
One way to try to create good settings is to follow the “cover every sense” rule, meaning you should give the reader a description of what the protagonist sees, hears, smells, touches and tastes. But this can be overdone too, and I’ve read a lot of books where every scene covers those senses in more or less the same order until I feel like I’m going down a checklist of senses.
My personal approach is to describe a scene in such a way that what the protagonist notices is what the reader notices. If there’s nothing worth mentioning about how a room smells, there’s no point in trying to make something up just to hit that sense and mark it off your list. In fact I believe that tends to break the spell the writer is trying to create because the writer is forcing things at that point, and whenever the writer forces anything, there is a risk that the reader will notice. When the reader notices the writer is involved, the spell of immersiveness is easily broken, and anything that breaks immersiveness gives the reader a chance to put the story down and do something else.
Settings should also be dynamic. Life isn’t static. Leaves fall, wind blows, furniture is moved, music changes… Adding a dynamic element to the setting as a scene develops can greatly enhance the reader’s ability to visualize the scene. Describing the setting gives an author the opportunity to set a scene’s mood, preparing the reader for the scene. Properly done the setting becomes a subtle means of foreshadowing events and reinforcing the book’s themes.
Here’s a scene setup from my current WIP, “Warlock.” There’s nothing special about this, it’s just a scene of the protagonist waking up in strange surroundings.
Lirak awoke. At first the strange surroundings confused him. Faintly in the distance he heard the crowing of groundbirds welcoming a new day in the White City. He lay still for a moment, enjoying the soft bed and pillow, such a marked contrast from the rough forest bedding he was used to. Sitting up, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed, suppressing a shiver as his bare feet found cold stone. The rising sun outside his window painted the room’s white walls with rose-colored hues, bright enough to make him shade his eyes for a moment. The sun’s rays highlighted the edges of a small wooden table and chair adjacent to the window, sending bright reflections off a glass pitcher full of cool water. He poured himself a glass, noting a sweet, tangy odor rising from the glass as the water gurgled from the pitcher. It was a pleasant smell, and he enjoyed a long, refreshing drink.
All of this has a purpose. One goal is to bring the reader along as Lirak orients himself to his new surroundings. Another goal is to give an idea of the sort of city he has woken up in. A third goal is to give the reader a sense of the city’s culture. A fourth goal is to give some contrast between his old life and the new life this awakening is foreshadowing.
Now, the question is, “does it work?” After all this entire paragraph has absolutely NOTHING to do with the story’s plot. It’s all about setting a mood and giving the reader some sense of place and time. I hope it does, because I do this sort of thing a lot in my stories. 🙂