This week I am without a computer, so meantime, while I borrow someone else’s, and since I wanted to write about setting today, here is a post on what makes the details of a setting so powerful, lessons from my favorite author, George R. R. Martin:
Powerful writing is concrete and specific. An author who is skilled at telling a believable story demonstrates that he of she is convinced of its reality by the details used. A room isn’t full of “people chatting”, it’s “dimly lit, with trestle tables stacked end to end, and in one corner, a merchant with a silver beard is shouting at a young man with a curled moustache; in another, two women are whispering”.
Martin’s writing is full of concrete and specific imagery that makes it not only vivid, but believable. Here in this chapter with Tyrion, he reunites us with Jorah Mormont, and amidst the surprises that lead the novel toward its midpoint inflection, he makes sure to balance his exciting action with the detail he is so great at capturing.
When Martin describes, he tends to list, and he does so disparately. On the table before the widow, there’s a silver goblet, an ornate fan and an ancient bronze dagger carved with runes. Breakfast is soft flatbread, pink fish roe, honey sausage, fried locusts and bittersweet black ale. From outside comes the cries of gulls, a woman’s laughter and the voices of fishmongers. Always at least three things, and all of them unique.
What is most striking about this is that Martin anchors these detailed constructions with the main narrative. Never do we lose touch with Tyrion’s character or the plot thats folds itself around him. When Tyrion hears drunken song, the yowling of a cat in heat ana the far-off ring of steel, immediately Martin shares his thoughts with us. That is his true strength, and we see it especially with Tyrion, to whom Martim connects so well.
Writing that is detailed, often going on for hundreds of thousands of words, does not feel excessive when it engages you intimately with the characters. Details become a part of their experience. I care about the details because I am interested in the experience of the character, the same way as I like to hear a story told by my friend. Martin introduces us to characters who we care about an in the act of getting to know them, all those extra details become exciting, unveiling a world that is all the more personal.
(Taken from a post at, Following the Footsteps of the Masters, a blog devoted to the things that make epic fantasy great)