Over the last year, I’ve repeatedly disagreed with a critique group member about how much setting description is necessary in our novels. He favors long descriptions, while I prefer my prose more sparse. Truthfully, both are valid and will appeal to different audiences. But I also know with my own writing that my view of what the page presents and what is in my head are not always in alignment. So, to examine the question more thoroughly, I have decided to analyze some of best-selling fantasy novels and see how they do it.
To start with, I’m going to examine initial setting. In fantasy worlds, we are trying to paint a picture of a world that doesn’t exist. And, in truth, we must recognize that most people who read fantasy are invested in the wonder aspect of the genre, in experiencing the strangeness of a place different than our own. So, how do the masters introduce setting?
- Examine the prologue (if present) and first chapter of the book.
- Black out everything not involved in describing setting. Note: I’m not interested in character description her, except how it shows setting. Sometimes, the characters themselves are setting pieces rather than real actors (or both).
- Look for keys points in how the author conveys setting.
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (This Week!)
- The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (August 21)
- The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (September 18)
- The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson [yes, this is a second Brandon Sanderson novel because a) I wanted to contrast his style between Epic Fantasy and YA, and b) because I really enjoy his style]. (October 16)
This Week’s Case Study: Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Why this book?
In addition to really enjoying this book, Pat Rothfuss is considered a careful and accomplished writer with elegant prose. He is one of the few fantasy authors founding his success on only a couple well-written novels (much to the chagrin of his fans awaiting the next installment).
By The Numbers
Prologue: approx 360 words, 90% setting description
Chapter One: approx 6100 words, 28% setting description (including objects)
Here are the pages with non-setting elements blacked out:
7 Ways Patrick Rothfuss Excels at Setting
Setting for Tone
Rothfuss does an excellent job of delivering a forlorn and despondent tone through his setting. Setting isn’t just to convey an image, but feeling. Rothfuss uses a number of elements to do this:
- He highlights what is missing. The book starts with silence, “The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking.” At the end of the prologue, he describes his “third” silence as “the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.” Silence is by definition absence, but Rothfuss gives meaning to the nothing and makes it a powerful setting element.
- Rothfuss uses the uneasiness of the people and their circumstances to add to the tone. The inn has no crowd. People talk of charms to drive away evil and taxes and war. The fire is dead. Goods are expensive. All of this adds to the gloom.
Repetition of Elements
The word “silence” is used 18 times, and not just in the prologue (not to mention other uses of quiet and silent). It hangs between words and people, a reminder of the void. He repeatedly makes mention of the isolation of the town, of the scarcity of people. Even though there are few people in the inn, they huddle together. He repeats the phrase “times being what they were” with an ominous tone, a reminder again that so much is missing in the present.
Connect Metaphors and Similes as Part of a Wholistic Picture
Rothfuss has no shortage of metaphors in his prose:
“brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves”
“[the silence] was deep and wide as autumn’s ending”
“it was as a great river-smooth stone”
“it was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die”
“his eyes were wild around the edges, like a skittish horse”
“silence filled the room like a cold sweat”
“stars glittering in the deep velvet of a night with no moon”
“dark as coal and smooth as polished glass”
Rothfuss makes good use of metaphors in his description. One thing I liked is that they are connected by their bleakness. Every image is a sad one. Again, it is not just about presenting an image for the reader, but evoking emotion. I’m always on the lookout for a good metaphor in my writing, but must admit I hadn’t given much thought to considering them as a group.
Setting through Character Interaction
I’m often guilty of starting my scenes like a movie set awaiting the director’s command of “action”. I describe the details and then set things into motion. There are more exciting ways to do it.
Consider the mahogany bar of the inn. Rothfuss could have said, “A mahogany bar stretched along the back of the common room.” Instead, he uses two different approaches that are more active: 1. “And it was in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight”, and 2. “He raised his voice and knocked his empty mug hollowly on the top of the mahogany bar.”
I generally follow the advice of avoiding forms of the “to be” verb when possible (was, is, were, are, etc)–instead of “the tree was tall”, say “the tree towered over the nearby houses”–but this goes beyond that. Characters interacting with the setting is a great way to describe it.
Later, when the group is examining the monstrous spider, Rothfuss doesn’t just say “the smooth legs were hard like stone”, he has Kote interact with it:
the innkeeper took on of the long, smooth legs and tried to break it with both hands like a stick . . . He set it against the edge of the table and leaned his weight against it. It broke with a sharp crack.
The latter much more effectively conveys a feeling for the material.
Setting through Dialogue
Again, with the spider creature, Rothfuss doesn’t just describe it, but lets the characters do it, saying, “It’s got no eyes . . . It’s got no mouth either, . . . how does it eat? . . . What does it eat? . . . Its feet are sharp like knvies . . . More like razors.” Why does Rothfuss do this? There are a few reasons, I think.
1. Dialogue shows how the object fits into the characters lives, what they know about it, whether it is common or not;
2. Dialogue is generally more interesting than exposition;
3. The creature needs a lot of description, but going on for pages would be boring.
So, Rotfus gives an initial description, lets the characters talk about it, then has the innkeeper interact with the creature’s corpse. This keeps the creature in the spotlight without it becoming tedious.
Dialogue can help stop infodumps with the added benefit of characterization.
One of the things I heard Brandon Sanderson speak of in his writing class was “the ladder of abstraction.” Basically, things become more vivid with greater specificity. For example, Bob’s pet -> Bob’s dog -> Bob’s Chihuahua. As we move along the path of greater specificity, we can picture the image more clearly, and the world becomes more credible and vivid.
We’ve already seen an example of this with “mahogany bar” instead of “the bar”. Another example Rothfuss uses is with money. Instead of just having someone dump their purse on the table, he gives specifics: “fingered through the jumbled coins, heavy silver talents and thin silver bits, copper jots, broken ha’pennies, and iron drabs.” Ultimately, the group is looking for iron to test the nature of the creature, but the smith apprentice shows off his knowledge with more detail:
“Just use a dab,” Jake said. “That’s good iron.”
“I don’t want good iron,” the innkeeper said. “A drab has too much carbon in it. It’s almost steel.”
“He’s right,” the smith’s prentice said. “Except it’s not carbon. You use coke to make steel. Coke and lime.”
Likewise, when Rothfuss wants to convey that prices are going up and luxury items become scarce, he doesn’t just say that, but gives specifics:
The merchant had been asking ten pennies for half a pound of salt, fifteen for a loaf of sugar. He didn’t have any pepper, or cinnamon, or chocolate. He did have one small sack of coffee, but he wanted two silver talents for that. At first people had laughed at his prices. Then, when he held firm, folk spat and cursed at him.
Rothfuss not only provides vivid detail that makes the setting easy to picture, he ties it into the lives of the people within that setting to give it realism and credibility.
Zoom in and Zoom Out
The opening scenes take place in the inn of a small town. It is a modest setting and Rothfuss populates it with abundant detail. But that doesn’t mean he ignores the larger world setting. Lines like:
the smith’s prentice had lived here since he was eleven, and he was still referred to as ‘that Rannish boy,’ as if Rannish were some foreign country and not a town less than thirty miles away
Killed her about two miles outside town, past the Oldstone Bridge
The Penitent King was having a difficult time with the rebels in Resavek. This caused some concern, but only in a general way. Resavek was a long way off, and even Cob, the most worldly of them, would be hard pressed to find it on a map.
help lend scope to the world and prevents the scene setting from becoming an island surrounded by nothingness.
The Rule Dragon speaks:
Talking about rules in writing is a bit like talking about dragons; some people don’t believe they exist. Even so, one of the things I was surprised to find when analyzing the opening of The Name of the Wind is that Rothfuss breaks a couple big “rules”. So, I thought it worth looking to see whether it pays off or not.
Rule #1: Never start a fantasy book at an inn.
Starting a fantasy novel at an inn is akin to starting a book with a character waking up in a strange place. It’s been done so often that it instantly puts many readers off, but that’s exactly what Rothfuss does. So, does it work?
The Rule Dragon says: yes. The trope of the inn usually involves a band of adventures relaxing when they encounter something that sets them on a new quest, or meeting with someone who wishes to hire them from a task. I believe it has its origin in Dungeons and Dragons games as a common device to introduce characters to the adventure.
That isn’t what Rothfuss does here. His inn isn’t about adventures, but about the mysterious innkeeper trying to keep a low profile in an out of the way town when supernatural problems arrive. Yes, it’s an inn, but it doesn’t serve the traditional purpose of the inn and so I think Rothfuss’s choice of a starting location works.
Rule #2: Avoid adverbs where possible, especially in speech attribution.
In On Writing, Steven King has a little rant about adverbs (especially adverbs with speech attributions), and his advice this advice is commonly bandied about in forums and critique groups. The common wisdom is to avoid adverbs when at all possible in favor of stronger verbs, or, in the case of speech, by choosing dialogue that clearly conveys the tone. I’d be curious to see Rothfuss and King discuss these opening pages because Rothfuss sure loves his adverbs. I counted at least 80 in the prologue and chapter 1, and there are a good many in speech attributions:
Cob said approvingly
Shep said darkly
the boy asked eagerly
Graham said quietly
Old Cob said judiciously
Jake said firmly
Cob said sharply
He said softly
He said distractedly
Cob said reflexively
Shep said darkly
Kote said quickly
Shep said darkly
Cob said scathingly
Bast said flatly
Kote said pointedly
Bast admitted reluctantly
Bast said uncomfortably
Bast said dryly
Bast said emphatically
he repeated derisively
Are all these adverbs useful?
The Rule Dragon says: no. Especially with the speech, I found them distracting. Maybe I’m too dense to see it, and goodness knows Rothfuss has already sold more books than I could ever hope to, but I’ve no idea why there are so many adverbs in this opening. I welcome any justification people may have.
Rothfuss’s use of tone and using character interaction to express setting detail have given me some food for thought for my own scenes. I’m not a fan of all the adverbs, but I’m sure part of that is that I’ve trained myself to be bugged by them. The first time I read The Name of the Wind, I hadn’t yet decided to pursue writing professionally and, I must admit, they didn’t bug me as much back then.
What do you think of Patrick Rothfuss’s setting introduction of The Name of the Wind? What books are your favorites for world-building in the opening pages and why?
Next month, we’ll look at Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. Also, come back next week for my review and giveaway of Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction.