When you pick up a book, watch a movie, or play a game with a good story, you immerse yourself inside the world of its creator. You may not realize it, but a lot of care and attention to detail has been put into designing this world. Little details that might escape your notice or that might not strike you as important may be key to the setting. Most people don’t realize it, but the setting of a story can be just as important as the story itself.
When designing a good setting, the creator has to think of many different things. The setting has to make logical sense in some way (i.e. a Star Trek show set in the 1700s probably wouldn’t make too much sense). The setting also has to be logically consistent, as in the rules shouldn’t change on a case by case basis (one of my biggest pet peeves with television shows and the like is when the rules of the world seem to change for no reason other than a plot contrivance). Obviously the importance of such a thing is on a case by case basis. No one is going to complain about the setting consistency of Tetris nearly as much as something like The Last of Us. Time, rules, consistency, and so much more go into the creation of a setting, but to dwell on them all would take a separate post.
The thing I want to focus on this time is where these ideas for a setting come from, or how they interact with the story or the framework of a good book, movie, or video game. For example, if you remember, my second major post on this blog was a story analysis of a video game called Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. In it, the setting of the game was 1899 London on New Year’s Eve, something which factored heavily into the main thematic point of the game. Not only was it poetic in the sense that a new century dawns as the game closes, but it’s set during an era of high pride for the British, a time when they are still essentially an empire. Without these key details, the story wouldn’t have nearly as much impact as it did. In fact, it could have even seemed irrelevant without them.
So we can see in this case that the setting served a very practical purpose for the story, elevating its main message by putting it in a historical context. But sometimes, the power of a setting comes not from its practicality, but from what it means to the creator on a personal level. Many writers and authors tend to draw on their own personal experiences and ideas when it comes to crafting stories or settings, myself included. The quote “write what you know” comes to mind, this idea of channeling your life experiences into a work. By using your personal experiences to drive a work forward, you can create a far more powerful piece of expression than you ever could otherwise. For a great example, let’s turn to another video game, one I haven’t talked about on this blog yet.
The Far North
As the waves crash onto the shore, a man opens his eyes. He pulls himself to his feet and studies his surroundings. The bright sun beats down on his exposed skin, and a path line by rocks beckons him forward. Gazing behind him, he sees the remains of his craft, tossed about and destroyed on the rocks. He takes a few deep breaths, in and out and in and out, in biological rhythm. But a darkness flows through his veins, a darkness that will kill him. He studies the landscape, and smells the air. The scent of the ocean fills his nostrils, but something else does as well. The scent of salvation lingers on the island, salvation from his disease.
Miasmata is a video game that was crafted entirely by two brothers, Joe and Bob Johnson. Like many of the other games I’ve talked about on this blog, Miasmata is a game about exploration. You play as a man named Robert Hughes who washes up on the island known only as Eden. Robert is afflicted with some unknown disease referred to only as a plague of sorts. The primary goal of the game is to collect plants and find the correct ones you need to make the three parts of the cure.
Much of the game is spent trying to find your way around the island. Without an ever-present map, you have to actually discover written maps throughout the world or triangulate your location through the use of landmarks. Otherwise, your map is just a blank piece of paper. And you don’t know what plants you need for this cure until you take them back to a safe zone and perform research on them. All of this goes a long way towards placing the emphasis on exploring the island.
So why am I talking about this game? One thing really came to the forefront of my mind as I played it. It seemed somehow…familiar to me. It was a few hours into the game when I finally realized why.
You might remember a couple of weeks ago I did some writing practice, specifically on writing place descriptions. The last one I wrote was personal to me. It described a cabin my family owned up in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. I say “used to”, because back in 2007 it burned down in the infamous Ham Lake Fire. Now, it is nothing but ashes.
As I wandered around the sun drenched isle of Eden in Miasmata, I slowly realized that it was reminding me of the Boundary Waters. The crunch of branches under my character’s feet, the call of birds, the blowing wind…it was all reminiscent of a setting I had not seen for some years now. There was very little reason for us to travel up that way anymore, so I hadn’t been up there ever since we did cleanup at the cabin years ago. It’s a place I spent many of my childhood vacations at, and this game was bringing me back there.
I thought for the longest time that I was projecting my own experiences with the far northern part of Minnesota onto this game. I thought that I was just being brought back by my own memories of the place. I thought that I was just forming my own personal assessment of the setting.
I thought wrong.
Drawing from Experience
Sometime in the last year or so I stumbled upon an article on IGN, a website devoted to entertainment articles and reviews. One of the things they like to talk about is video games. The article I ran across had to deal with the theme of survival as it was presented in video games (an interesting subject in its own right). But one of the games talked about was Miasmata, and they actually had quotes from the two brothers who made the game.
One of the things they talked about was where they got their inspiration from. I forget which one said it, but one of them talked about their experiences as a child. He talked about how their father used to bring them up to an area in Minnesota called the Boundary Waters.
I blinked. I did a double take. I laughed a little bit.
I was somewhat taken aback by that fact. I hadn’t ever really thought about it, but they had captured the feeling so perfectly. I wasn’t just applying my own personal experiences to the game, I was picking up on the cues they had placed in the game itself that were an homage to the Boundary Waters.
So you might be asking, why does this all matter? Why do I care what two brothers did as children, and how does it factor in to the importance of a setting? Well, if these two hadn’t had the experiences they did as children, they never would have been able to fashion such a believable and powerful setting for their video game. In the same way that book writers and movie creators draw upon their life experiences to capture a feeling or emotion, game creators draw upon their experiences and preferences to create their game. Bob and Joe Johnson drew upon the experiences in the Boundary Waters to create the fictional island of Eden.
Although I’m just gonna go out on a limb here and say the horned tiger monster that stalks you in the game has very little to do with their experiences in the Boundary Waters……I hope.
But all joking aside the care they took in crafting this setting is a testament to the power of it. Truly skilled writers can transport you somewhere with their attention to detail, even if you’ve never been there or even if you’ve never been anywhere similar to it. I would venture that’s why so many American movies are set inside the United States, because the people behind the writing have great personal experiences inside the country. And so they draw upon these experiences for their movies. But it’s not always about where you’ve been. Sometimes it’s about what you feel.
Has Alfonso Cuarón ever been to space? Probably not, but he probably knows something about fear, as all humans do. The fear of the unknown. The fear of death. The fear of loneliness. He drew upon this instinctual and metaphysical fears when he made the movie Gravity, which deals a lot with the fear of death and the idea of not being in control of your fate. Cuarón didn’t have to go to space itself to capture it. He had plenty of other resources at his disposal to help him craft his outer space setting.
“Write what you know” is less about using your personal autobiographical experiences than using your experiential ones. What you’ve felt is far more important than what you’ve seen in this case. Bob and Joe Johnson have probably never been stranded alone on an island with some horrible monster stalking you in the grass, but they’ve probably felt isolated and afraid at some point in their lives. Their personal experiences went into the game, and helped create a powerful atmosphere. They captured isolation in the same way a songwriter captures the feeling of heartbreak.
And that’s what writing what you know is all about, putting a little bit of yourself and what you feel into a work. Many people, particularly fledgling frustrated writers, tend to misinterpret “write what you know” as a sort of autobiographical statement. Never been to space? Well you can’t write about it then. Ever been in a war? Well then you can’t capture the feeling of horror war evokes. Never even seen an alien in outer space? Well don’t bother describing one then. No, that’s not what it’s about at all.
If all of us just wrote using our physical experiences, many of us would just write about working a nine-to-five job and going to the bar to get a drink. The world of settings would be incredibly boring in that case. There would be no science-fiction and no fantasy, because obviously no one in real life has been on the starship Enterprise exploring a distant planet or been in Mordor fighting the forces of Sauron. There would be far fewer explosions in movies, which would be a shame. Because everyone likes explosions.
Part of what can be frustrating as a beginning writer is looking at the immense volume of work out there and thinking “I could never write something that powerful. I’m too boring. My life story doesn’t have the same epic quality as these other writers”. I want to say right now, that doesn’t matter. Even if your life is nowhere near as dramatic or interesting as someone else’s, you can still draw upon the emotions you’ve felt. At some point in your life you’ve been afraid. At some point you’ve been happy. At some point sad. At some point angry, confused, and frustrated. You can translate that emotion into your work, no matter how outlandish a setting you can come up with.
It’s all about what you feel. It seems to me that many young writers like myself get a little too concerned with the small details that they forget the big picture. Sure, the small details in A Machine for Pigs sometimes don’t fit together as nicely as we would like, but the big picture is what really grabs us. It’s what we remember in the long run. Too often we find ourselves bogged down by the little things. My advice for those feeling this pressure is this: forget it. Forget the pressure. It sounds too simple, but it really is. Don’t let the pressure get to you. Writing is not mathematics. It’s not a hard and fast field with one clear way of doing things. There are so many paths, so many different choices to make. Use what you feel. Write what you feel. What others have done doesn’t matter. Wear your inspiration on your sleeve. As Ray Bradbury once said, “you fail only if you stop writing”.
And that’s all for this week. I hope you enjoyed reading and if you’re a writer like me just remember, let the pressure go. It’s all about what you feel.
Fasten your eyes on the computer screen next Wednesday for another post. Until then, have a great week everybody.