Friday, March 25, 2016

Unblocking setting

I’ve said before that I’m an extremely visual person, and this shows up in my writing process. Sometimes I can write actions and dialogue and even descriptions in a vacuum, but only up to a point. Eventually I’ll grind to a halt without something more substantial to anchor my mind.

I write best when I can picture the scene with an almost cinematic quality. When I’m struggling, it’s often because I haven’t achieved this visual clarity, and the answer is often to get out pens and paper to solidify the surroundings.

Alongside the text of the novel I accumulate a binder of maps and plans, from whole worlds, to countries, towns, and individual buildings. I blogged about this a few years ago. As well as helping overcome blocks, these sketches bring other benefits. Once I’ve committed details to paper I can be confident that future scenes in the same setting will be consistent. Fleshing out the plans beyond the obvious needs of the story also suggests incidental details to bring descriptions alive. The mood of a scene is best expressed through a choice handful of finely-observed specifics than through any volume of vague generalities.

The simple act of drawing a map is often enough to keep the writing flowing. On rare occasions I might capture more detailed setting descriptions when I want to establish a specific mood or feel, though it’s usually enough to just draw out the framework and my mind can fill in the details on the fly. I don’t generally worry about consistency at this level because a detailed description of a setting usually only pops up in one place, and I can easily refer back to the text for later consistency.

Mostly, these notes are only sketchy and partial, just enough to allow me to move on. But I’m also slowly transferring them into iDraw to publish on my website.
Examples like this go way beyond the needs of the story, but I’m hoping this background material will be of interest to readers.


  1. When your novels become best sellers these drawings and graphs can be collected into a special collection of your novels for discriminating enthusiasts.

  2. You draw amazing images, Ian. I think what you do is a great idea. I lack talent to create such images, but do the best I can with words in notebooks. :-)

  3. I visualize scenes on a cinematic level as well, although making a diagram of the ship's layout might've helped with my last book.

  4. Stephen, I'm hoping the website will add value for enthusiasts (both of them :D)

    Teresa, we each use whatever talents we can bring to the problem. I go way beyond what is strictly needed just for writing the story.

    Alex, if you're setting is a complex environment like a ship I think it's a valuable thing to do. If not for visualization then at least for consistency.

  5. I definitely agree about visualizing a scene like a movie, and also about mapping a setting. For stories set on a spaceship, I need to diagram the layout but I find I'm still lacking the 3D aspect of getting from one place to another.

  6. Once I have my setting, I'm good to go. I know not everyone agrees, but setting to me is terribly important.

  7. Ed, when it comes to a ship or a large building I find a diagram essential to working out how the action is going to play out, otherwise you end up with physical impossibilities all over the place.

    Denise, count me in the believers' camp, though I think it does make a difference what genre you're in, to how important setting details are. The new header is another example of a setting that I'm committing to iDraw.


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