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This chapter is from the book

Setting Tips and Exercises

It’s time to dive deeper into how location influences readers’ experiences. The following exercises are meant to spark your creativity and to encourage you to look at setting in a whole new way. All the exercises use (link:), (display:), and [[link]], or a combination of those tools. (If you need a refresher on how to use [[link]], refer to Chapter 2, “Using Choice to Create Agency.”)

Writing What You Know

Writers are always told to write what they know. If you took that advice literally, you could never write fantasy stories or science fiction. Books would have no unicorns or dragons or magical schools. Fiction would be a little dull.

Still, it does make sense to draw from personal experience, even when you’re trying to write about imaginary things. Maybe you’ve never been inside a real castle, but you’ve been inside a house. Use the layout of a house you know well, change the walls to worn stone and the grass outside the front door into a moat, and you’ve got yourself a castle!

If you want to write about something that you don’t have any firsthand experience with, do a little research. Maybe you won’t be able to go up in space, but you can certainly read firsthand accounts so you can accurately describe what liftoff feels like.

Being the Player’s Eyes

Here’s a cool fact: There is a longstanding relationship between the interactive fiction and blind communities. Text adventures—unlike graphical games—don’t require a lot of work to become accessible to all players. Because of this, many blind gamers gravitate toward interactive fiction. Keep this in mind when building your game because you, the writer, are always the player’s eyes.

When you’re building setting, you’re describing a place for someone who can’t see it. Imagine a very specific place—real or fictional—and then start describing it to yourself. How detailed can you be? Focus on each small unit of the space, describing it as fully as possible before moving on to the next section.

Considering What a Character Would Notice

Consider what your player character is like and how that might affect what he or she notices. A short player character isn’t going to be able to see high places, for instance, whereas a tall player character may not be focused on looking at the floor. Take a walk around the room you’re in right now, taking note of what you notice at your eye level. Now drop down to the floor and crawl through the room. Do you see how your description of the same place would change depending on your height?

Now factor in the player character’s personality. Is the player character someone who is very neat and tidy? A neat character would probably comment on a messy space or notice that things are out of place. Is the player character someone who moves quickly through an area, or is the character nervous or scared? A fast-moving or nervous player character may not notice the tiny details while running through the space.

Combining Motion with Surroundings

The world looks very different when you’re walking slowly through an area than when you’re seeing it from the window of a moving train. Creating settings that keep changing can help capture the reader’s interest. People might get restless staying in one place for too long, so think about keeping your players moving.

It’s easy to keep players moving; all you need to do is give your characters a reason to explore. Why do they need to get out of the spaceship or go into the cave? Why do they need to move from one room to another? Are they looking for clues, trying to escape another character, or merely exploring?

Using Your Other Senses

You’re not just the players’ eyes. You’re also their ears, nose, tongue, and hands. Setting isn’t just about what you see; it’s about what you hear, smell, taste, or feel in the setting. What are the sounds of the forest? What is the smell of the Irish countryside after a rainstorm? What does a strawberry taste like? Does the tabletop feel bumpy or smooth?

Considering the Mood of a Place

Some places are quiet and creepy, especially at night. Other places feel lonely, like a desolate planet on the edge of the solar system. Other places are lush and relaxing, like a jungle landscape thinning out onto a pristine beach.

Think of your setting as an extra character. What is the personality of your setting? Is it a loud place, a quiet place, an isolating place, a crowded place? Is your society a utopia or a dystopia? Is it a formal place where characters are dressed up or a casual place where jeans rule? Is the architecture ornate or plain? Is it an unforgiving landscape with prickly, unwelcoming foliage, or is it a warm, embracing small town surrounded by farmland? Is the place exciting like an amusement park or relaxing like a library?

Just as people have personalities, places do, too. The personalities of the characters may clash or work well with the setting, and the setting may even help you to create your characters. Think about the type of people who are drawn to or repelled by your setting.

You can use a fun little trick to hide the exit of a room. Place it inside a (link:) by nesting the passage choice using this template:

(link: "hyperlinked words")[words to replace linked words plus
[[exit to another passage|Passage Name]]]

Notice that there are three square brackets at the end of the line. The first two close off the link to the next passage, and the last square bracket closes off the new words that replace the original linked words. As you type, you’ll see the linked text change color to help you keep the brackets straight.

In Figure 3.6, you can see that the links to the passages that leads out of the room, Open Door and Leave Door, appear only when the player clicks on "lift the rug".

FIGURE 3.6

FIGURE 3.6 The passage hides the links to other passages from the player inside the (link:) tool.

You could use this trick in your game to hide the exit by placing numerous links into the passage so the player needs to find the one that contains the exit out of the passage. Here’s how you could create one where the exit is hidden inside a book left behind on a seat:

The train car is completely empty except for a (link: "book left behind on the
first seat.")[book that fans open as you pick it up, revealing a [[tiny door|Exit]]
drawn on the page.] There are four windows, two on the [[left side|Left Windows]]
of the train and two on the [[right|Right Windows]], though all of them appear to
be locked.

There is a light flickering from the ceiling with an (link: "odd hinged door in
the glass cover.")[odd hinged door that breaks off in your hand when you try
to open it.] All of the seats are covered in [[plush velvet|Velvet]]; strange
for an ordinary passenger train.

The additional links in the passage help the reader visualize the space, but only one of them contains a way out of the train car. The extra passages, such as Left Windows, Right Windows, and Velvet, are all detail passages that give the player a little bit more information about the space and bring the player back to the train compartment passage.

Drawing the Player’s Attention

Vivid description doesn’t necessarily mean long description. In fact, most people don’t like to receive the setting as one big chunk of text at the beginning of the story. Write so that different aspects of the setting appear as the player character moves through the story. When you start your story, your player doesn’t need to know about every feature of the land. Instead, as the character moves around and encounters new locations, you can gradually reveal that there is a cave guarded by a dragon, that mountains blot out the sky, or that a town of fairy houses is nestled deep in the forest.

Balance barebones, practical descriptions of unimportant places with vibrant descriptions of important places. This helps draw the reader’s attention to whatever it is you want them to notice.

Let’s say that you’re describing a town. You may write a long description of the important buildings where the action will take place (the library, school, and bakery) but merely mention the fact that there is also a post office and hospital since the story will never enter those spaces.

Using Descriptive Words

The more descriptive the words you use, the fewer of them you need to use. Write out a description of the setting and then judge each word. Ask yourself if there’s a more specific word that says the same thing but goes a step further. For example, red is certainly a specific color, but crimson or maroon goes a step further in helping the reader visualize the shade of red you have in mind.

A thesaurus can come in handy! Look up synonyms for any words you think you could replace with something better.

Which hat store description a player receives is dependent on whether the player enters the store through the movie theater or the library as seen in Figure 3.7. Pretend that the library in this town instantly fills your brain with great vocabulary words, just by walking through the doors.

FIGURE 3.7

FIGURE 3.7 The two Hat Store passages give readers two very different levels of description on the same space.

If the player has been to the library, he or she will see a descriptive paragraph. If the player has been to the movie theater, he or she will see a basic paragraph.

For example, for Hat Store 1, you could write something simple like this:

You enter the hat store. The shelves hold a lot of hats in many different colors.
There is a woman behind the counter who looks up from her book as you enter.

In Hat Store 2, you can kick that description up a notch by choosing very specific words:

You enter the milliner and are instantly blinded by the lurid pink feathers coming
out of a magenta, velvet cloche set on a shelf by the front door. The store bell
tinkles like laughter as you enter, and the elderly woman behind the counter lifts
one gnarled finger in the air as she continues to read her book, indicating that
you should wait to speak until she is done with the page.

Which description gives you a very specific visual of the space?

Distinguishing Static and Dynamic Settings

Sometimes the setting remains exactly the same throughout a whole story; this is known as a static setting. In other stories, the setting may change a lot, and this is known as a dynamic setting. Whether or not the setting changes plays a big role in the action of the story.

There are two ways a setting can change: An event may change the landscape, such as a fire burning down an important building, or the player character may move, traveling from place to place. Both options create a sense of movement, which keeps the story trucking along. Static landscapes are great for conveying drudgery, and landscapes that transform help move the action.

So how could you tackle this exercise? First, set up the passage you need to repeat and title it Time Machine:

There is a time machine here with six buttons, each a different color.
Do you want to press the [[red button|Red]], [[orange button|Orange]],
[[yellow button|Yellow]], [[green button|Green]], [[blue button|Blue]],
or [[purple button|Purple]]?

Then, in the new passages that you just created, describe what happens when someone pushes one of those buttons. Make sure you add (display: "Time Machine") at the bottom of the paragraph so the player can still see the description of the time machine.

For instance, in the green button passage, I wrote a brief introduction that sends the player on his or her way or gives the player the option to choose a different button, using (display: "Time Machine"):

You press the green button and an image of the rolling fields of Ireland flash
on the screen. A cool voice comes out of the speakers: "Would you like to
[[visit Ireland|Ireland]] in the year 2045?"

You debate what to do. You have always wanted to visit [[Ireland|Ireland]].
(display: "Time Machine")

Sketch out the diverse settings, write layers of description with the (link:) tool, and write short passages. How does the player character interact with these very different settings? Does the player character enjoy some settings more than others?

This is your longest, most complicated story yet, so take your time with this exercise before going onto the next section.

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