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Worldbuilding in Fiction: A Lethal Setting

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

Setting the scene involves a grasp of atmosphere, a command of tone, and effective sensory elements. In this case, I want to explore the options writers have in facilitating their settings. We will observe two stories whose environments have antagonistic roles. My two examples will be from authors that probably have never been compared before - Edgar Allen Poe's "The Descent into the Maelstrom" and Frank Herbert's Dune.

The title of Edgar Allen Poe's short story, "The Descent into the Maelstrom" pretty much summarizes the events that take place. The narrator listens to an old man talk about the natural phenomenon of the maelstrom. During this story, he becomes overwhelmed by the whirlpool's presence even though he is a safe distance away:

As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived that what seamen term the chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly changing into a current which set to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each moment added to its speed -- to its headlong impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea, as far as Vurrgh, was lashed into ungovernable fury ; but it was between Moskoe and the coast that the main uproar held its sway. Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion -- heaving, boiling, hissing -- gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except in precipitous descents.

Though our narrator is not in any danger, the profuse details continue to press urgency and fear. The compression of these action words, 'heaving', 'boiling', and 'hissing', between two other active descriptions ('phrensied convulsion' and 'gyrating') all are meant to create a violent image of the sea, a living sea more so. This continues:

The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.

The final words describing the sounds of the maelstrom, 'appalling', 'shriek', 'roar', and 'agony', all come together at the end of a long descriptive sentence, punctuated by descriptive clauses, all of which slowly descend the whirlpool - beginning at the edge, then to the wall, then to the speeding and descending motion of the water, and finally, the descriptions noisily collide at the bottom. This excerpt on its own demonstrates Poe's poetic ability and may inspire writers to allow a role for their settings.

Another example comes from a world I will soon enjoy again with Dune: Messiah. In the meantime, here is an excerpt from the first installment:

"When the worm has gone, one may try to walk out," Kynes said. "You must walk softly, avoid drum sands, tidal basins - head for the nearest rock zone. There are many such zones. You might make it." "Drum sand?" Halleck asked. "A condition of sand compaction," Kynes said. "The slightest step sets it drumming. Worms always come to that." "And tidal dust basin?" the Duke asked. "Certain depressions in the desert have filled with dust over the centuries. Some are so vast they have currents and tides. All will swallow the unwary who step into them." Halleck sat back, resumed strumming the baliset. Presently, he sang: "Wild beasts of the desert do hunt there, Waiting for the innocents to pass. Oh-h-h, tempt not the gods of the desert, Lest you seek a lonely epitaph. The perils of the -" (Dune, p. 149)

When I came to this part of the book, I quickly became agitated. Not at the author, but at the never-ending challenges the planet had. I was tolerant of the initial circumstances - overwhelming heat and limited access to water. Then it was the storms, then the worms - and that bothered me enough to where I thought, okay, yeah, this will be very tough to overcome. But no! Behind all of this was an extra layer of oppositional forces. Not to mention the other political and familial conflicts the characters were facing.

Settings like the desert and the sea are only two examples. It is clear that adding challenges to survival allows a reader to feel concerned for your characters and to even foresee the circumstances they will encounter. Knowing of the danger already primes a reader to think, what if this happens? what will this character do?

Though this article concerns lethal settings, do not feel that you have to create such extreme danger to inspire interest in your works. There are other ways to create tension. Take for example my article on how to create sexual tension.

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