I read somewhere that you should treat the setting of your story like a character. Give it a strong identity, allow it to have mood swings, ask it to interact with other characters, watch it drive the plot. Think of Wuthering Heights. How different that story could have been if Cathy hadn’t ventured out on to the moors in a storm.
Good characterisation is expressed in the detail and a little detail goes a long way towards creating a convincing story world.
Here’s a short excerpt from my first novel, Wolf Soul, in its first draft form:
Everywhere trees thrust from the ground, and hidden in among them Slav spied large mounds of earth heaped up.
And here’s the same line as it will go to press:
Everywhere, thickets of alder cluttered the forest, and hidden in among them Slav spied large mounds of earth.
When you’re writing about a forest, you find out a lot about trees. In this case, which ones make the best charcoal for gunpowder production.
But how can your setting have feelings? If you think about the phrase ‘mood lighting’ it lends us a clue.
As they travelled, darkness invaded the forest. Even during daylight, shadow triumphed, so little of the sun filtered down to the forest floor.
The above sentence does not convey a happy forest, which is perfect, as the story events which take place here aren’t happy either.
Dialogue between two characters is sometimes like a ping pong match of action and reaction. It’s the same when a character interacts with your setting. Stimulus leads to response. But rather than response coming direct from the setting, it can be conveyed via your character’s senses.
Slav dusted away the shallow snow from the foot of the tree. Cold bit into his fingertips numbing his sense of touch.
A good setting can move the story action forwards. In the extract below it’s the snow covered ground which brings to an end the characters’ escape on horseback. The forest is working against them.
As the exhausted mare plunged into the night something snatched at it beneath the snow, dragged its legs from under it. Perhaps it was a stray branch hidden below the white crust, or a decaying stump masked by the falling flakes. The animal plummeted forward, front legs crumpling.
I feel sorry for the poor mare.