What I Learned from Xiran Jay Zhao – The Art of Almost Never Using the Same Setting Twice

*This is a spoiler-free post.

Hello and welcome to the very first installment of a new series I’m calling “What I Learned From . . . ,” where I’ll be talking about one thing I learned from an author I’ve read.

This series is ridiculously long overdue; I love reading and I learn things from authors all the time. I think I’ve shied away because sometimes I learn things from authors’ mistakes and I never want to come off as anything but respectful. But I decided I’m just going to focus on authors I’m a huge fan of.

Which is why, today, I’m talking about Xiran Jay Zhao.

I learned a lot of things from reading Iron Widow, but one thing in particular stuck out–a pacing technique that I think is next-level amazing, so I had to share it here:

Zhao’s Technique of
Almost Never Using the Same Setting Twice

I mentioned this in last week’s post, but Zhao almost never uses the same setting twice in Iron Widow.

And, just to be clear, Iron Widow is not an epic journey Fantasy; the novel does not center on a quest from one part of a world map to another. It’s actually fairly stationary.

But it doesn’t feel stationary at all because even though the characters stay in certain locations / return to certain locations a bunch of times, Zhao almost never reuses the same part of those locations. For example, the second scene on an estate might take place in a gazebo on the grounds instead of returning to the office used in a previous scene.

What does all of this bring to the plot?

Mobility & a Hook

Zhao’s use of settings made a fairly stationary plot feel incredibly mobile. Even when it returned to places we’d already been, there was a certainty in the back of my mind that something new would happen in that setting, conveyed by literally new sights to catch my interest.

It got extremely addictive almost immediately.

Like, you’re already reading Iron Widow because you’re really into the characters and the drama is so good–but also, subliminally, you’re excited to see where the plot literally goes next.

It’s Also a Vehicle for Descriptive Writing . . . & a Hook

Zhao has such an affinity for descriptions; she just goes in describing a cool new setting in a way that blows your mind, and reading how she describes things immediately becomes its own hook, which I haven’t experienced since reading The Vagrant, by Peter Newman.

But to stop myself from devolving into how great Zhao’s descriptions are, I’ll just say that the point is, if you’re great with descriptions, continually introducing and describing new settings the way she does might be the way to go for you.

At the very least, it’s worth an afternoon writing exercise.

Using Settings-Within-A-Setting
Can Also Make Scenes More Memorable?

I seriously feel like I can recount everything that happened in Iron Widow beat-for-beat, in perfect order.

On one hand, that might be because the plot and characters were so memorable and the drama was so juicy.

But I also think it’s because I remember the graduation of certain settings-within-settings, which I’m going to call micro-settings from here on out because it’s easier to type.

What I’m getting at is that I remember, and can clearly differentiate, the scene that took place in the living room of the one apartment and the scene that took place in the kitchen of that same apartment.

And I feel like there’s an inherent value there; I don’t want to make this post too much longer, but there’s absolutely a dissertation in the application of Zhao’s micro-settings. How they can be used to create visceral associations to specific moods; how reminders of those micro-settings can snap a reader back into those moods very easily. How they can be used to convey character growth by only returning to a micro-setting from previous scenes when characters and / or circumstances have significantly changed.

But, more than anything, how they can be paired with significant events to make those events–and the scene where they happen–more memorable.

Also, if you write a dissertation on this, please let me know where I can read it. Not a joke.

Finally, I Mean . . . Why Not?

If you’re writing a fantasy novel . . . you can just do this with your settings and there’s no consequences. You aren’t beholden to a budget; you can use whatever settings you want for whatever scenes.

Disclaimer: I definitely I get why you wouldn’t though. And I understand that maybe you shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong, in any way, with reusing specific rooms for multiple scenes. In fact, doing so might be essential to your WIP–especially if you’re writing a location-based story; off the top of my head, something like Harry Potter relies on returning to certain locations to make the audience feel familiar with / comfortably rooted in Hogwarts. But even if a story only reuses one setting, that setting can be pivotal to cementing a vibe (like the conspiratorial feel of Mistborn being bolstered by returning to the gang’s hideout).

That said . . . you can still make your stationary story feel incredibly mobile if that’s something you want to do.

And even if it isn’t, I can’t help feeling like it’s worth remembering that we can make our stories take place wherever we want. Even if it’s within a small part of a setting we’ve already established, that tiny bit can house a really awesome moment. And why shouldn’t it?

~~~

Thanks for reading!

It felt great to write this one. In the wide, messy spectrum of stuff I post on this site, this felt like Content Prime. Like this series is what I should’ve been writing from the beginning, combining my habit of over-analyzing things with my love for writing Fantasy. Seriously, if I could add a spreadsheet to this somehow, it would be the single most me post I’ve ever written.

Anyway, I post every Sunday and sometimes Monday. If you enjoyed what you read, I always appreciate Likes and Follows. They both help steer the direction of my future content and build my platform.

Because I forgot to say it last week, to anyone doing NaNoWriMo 2021, I wish you good luck! I believe in you! And also, if this is your first time, you just took the super important step of starting a WIP. No matter what happens, that’s an amazing first step that takes a lot of guts and it’s worth celebrating . . . in December. You have to work on your work count for today. Hang in there!

Anyway, until next week, take care, stay hydrated, and I miss D&D. Yep–I’m using these salutations to vent; I miss D&D, guys. The next time you play, please roll a natural 1 just for me. And when you do, raise a clenched fist and shout, “Damn you, Louis Santiago!” as loud as you can. And when your friends are like, “Who’s Louis Santiago?” don’t tell them. LOL Just be like, “Ya know. Louis Santiago. Anyway, did I drop my sword?”

. . . These salutations are getting weirder and longer every goddamn time–I swear.

Anyway, bye!

Published by

Louis Santiago

I'm a fantasy writer based in New York. One of my short stories, "Aixa the Hexcaster," was published at Mirror Dance Fantasy. You can read it here: http://www.mirrordancefantasy.com/2016/09/aixa-hexcaster.html.

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