by Dave Wolverton
Years ago, I picked up a book on screenwriting. The esteemed author began by saying, I’m going to list the top 50 best-selling movies of all time. Read this list, and see if you can find anything at all in common.
I scanned the list, and quickly noticed that all fifty were set in another time and another place. It might have been a fantasy setting, a science fiction setting, a historical, or perhaps an exotic location that you’ll probably never be able to visit. Hence, we had movies like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Mary Poppins, and the Godfather all in our bestsellers.
So I found a list of the top 50 bestselling novels of all time, and discovered that they too were all set in “another time or another place.” Thus, you have A Tale of Two Cities, Twilight, and Harry Potter all vying for top slots.
The reason is simple: people crave transport. They want to be carried out of their seats, visit strange new places, and experience the extraordinary. Tales can do that. They can take you to the planet Dune, or throw you deep into the mines of Moria.
The books and movies that transport you best tend to sell the best. Thus, Robert Jordan, whose lengthy tomes came to define the term “fat fantasy,” has been a bestselling fantasy writer for decades in part because he spends a tremendous amount of time bringing his world to life. In romance, Gone with the Wind became a hit precisely for the same reason.
But it isn’t just enough to transport a reader. In Writing the Blockbuster Novel, super-agent Albert Zuckerman points out that you must take the reader somewhere that they want to go. He says that settings need to be sexy. Since he focuses his attention on thrillers, he points out exotic cities around the world as examples of places that people flock to. Paris, yes. Detroit, no.
Zuckerman points out that in every detail, one must consider the impact of transport. Does your hero dine at the KFC in Beijing? There are 2600 of them in the city. (I personally like the shrimp burgers there.) But there are hundreds of more personal, fascinating places to eat. There’s a Tibetan restaurant that sells whole lambs, roasted and covered in cumin, sitting in a kneeling position, complete with a red bow around its neck. It’s an exotic place to eat, and its accompanied by live music, and drunken patrons are urged to engage in dancing contests.
Yet, one has to wonder, what is “sexy”? The answer varies depending upon the reader’s emotional wants and needs. To a romance reader, a sexy setting might be a bungalow on a tropical island like Tobago. To a boy who craves wonder, a sexy setting might be a fantasy world, where he fights trolls from the back of his trusty dragon. To a thriller reader, a sexy setting might be the seamy underbelly of Cairo.
Even places that are dangerous and horrific can be “sexy” to horror readers. In fact, most bestselling horror novels defy the norm. They aren’t set in exotic locations, but instead are set in the modern day, close to the reader’s home. The serial killer may live next door. He may be looking in your window, or hiding in your attic.
Once you as an author determine what your readers crave, then you need to bring that setting to life. That might mean that you need to travel to the location, if possible, to take notes. For that reason, as a fantasy writer I’ve traveled extensively to study castles around the world. My wife once asked, “How many do you need to visit?” I told her, “Until I can feel like I was raised in one, as if I live there.”
Or maybe by sheer force of imagination you will need to document the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of your imaginary world, and then figure out how to create the emotions and thoughts that your reader will want to experience.
Creating a sexy setting takes care and precision, thought and patience.
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Genre - Science Fiction/Fantasy
Rating – PG13
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