Thursday, April 5, 2018

Landscaping Your Story World

I once read a book in which an author waxed prolific about plants for pages upon pages. It did nothing to inform the plot, he just loved plants. I don't remember the title, author, or story line, just the excruciating experience.

So my first piece of advice is resist detailed botany lectures unless the specifics of a plant play a part as a poison, medical experiment, or man-eating villain.

Whether your story world is real or fictional, the challenge is to make the setting come alive for readers who have never been there.

Here are a few examples:

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” —Willa Cather, My √Āntonia

"It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, arid vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness." — Charles Dickens, Hard Times

"I look down at the narrow canal of water that feeds into the fountain in the central courtyard. It's clogged with fragrant white gardenias.The marble urns that line the hallway are filled with the same assortment of white lilies, lilacs, and roses as the urns in the courtyard. The air is thick with the sweet smell of so many flowers, some of which, like the white lilacs and lilies, must cost a fortune because they are out of season." — Carol Goodman, The Drowning Tree

"Aniri's father had brought it back from Chira, the seaside resort where volcanic mountains edged the rocky eastern shores of Dharia, spilling inky lava and creating black diamond beaches."— Susan Kaye Quinn, First Daughter

"The incessant surf grew muted as we thrashed through a nearly impenetrable tangle of black pines and chestnuts. Weeds and leaf mold clogged the forest floor. The plants looked wilted and diseased in the dim light. Some leaves suffered blight, others were too pale. Multicolored fungi clung to rotting bark. Mushrooms sprouted everywhere. None were edible. Everything reeked of decay."— Diana Hurwitz, Mythikas Island Book Two: Persephone

"A towering, crumbling fortress encircled a flat, grassy courtyard. It was deserted and desolate and the forest had moved in. Saplings rooted between the cobbled floor stones. Vines crept up the cracks. Bright blooms poked their heads above encroaching grass. A pair of leaning cypress pines stood sentinel near a gap in the wall." — Diana Hurwitz, Mythikas Island Book Three: Aphrodite
Your setting might feature rolling prairie, sparse desert, concrete jungles, majestic redwoods, towering pines, or swaying palm trees. When using common terms, remember some readers don't have the same frame of reference. Help them "see" what you see.

In describing made-up plants and flowers, a name is not enough. You should give some indication of what they look like.

Without descriptions: "She stepped from the rover onto the ground. Tanka grass and Palada trees stretched toward Alba Mon in the distance."

With descriptions: "She stepped from the rover onto the chalky red sand. Plumes of brown tanka grass waved in the arid breeze beneath the twisted stems of spike-leaved Palada trees. The sparse vegetation stretched for miles toward the jagged Alba Mons mountain range and the location of the base camp."

There will be times when your verbal camera zooms out or pans a vista to set the scene. There will be times when you highlight details. Skillful use of your verbal camera and descriptive terms can add emotion and set the mood.

Whether you take your readers into the heart of Africa, a magical school in England, or an outpost on Mars, deft selection of details and skilled weaving of descriptions make your story world memorable.

Read more about utilizing descriptions of nature in your story world:

Describing the Beauty of Nature

How to Describe a Landscape

The Rural Setting Thesaurus

The Urban Setting Thesaurus

For more tips on world building check out the newly released Story Building Blocks: Build A World Workbook.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. This is a great point: help readers to see what we, as writers, see. I also like your "without description" and "with description" paragraphs. Mental visuals (mind pictures) via description make all the difference. This one's a keeper, Diana. :-)

  2. Love this post, Diana. It also gave me the idea for my post later this month.

  3. Hello Diana,
    Ah, your post reminded me how much I love Willa Cather's writing! I shall have to go back and revisit her short stories. :-) And thank you for all the links as well!

  4. The descriptions that also give a sense of what the story might be about. The last line of the Willa Cather example as well as the Dickens one, really do that so well. I wondered what the country was running from in the Cather excerpt and what was causing the melancholy in the Dickens one. And I wondered if the "sense of decay" in the example from your book foreshadowed something to come in the story.

    I have never used a made-up plant in any of my stories, but I can see how important it is to describe them for the reader in fantasy or sci-fi stories.


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