More Than Meets the Eye

It’s time to talk for a minute about description.

A story needs description, as part of the process of enabling readers to re-create the imagined world of the story inside their own head.  In science fiction and fantasy narratives in particular, description does more than just paint a picture of a slice of contemporary consensus reality – it’s part of the world-building, the process by which the writer calls into being a fictional milieu which is not part of contemporary consensus reality at all.

Most journeyman writers can manage telling the reader how things look and sound.  We’re used to filtering our experiences of the world through the senses of sight and hearing, and those details come easily to mind.  But effective description needs to involve all the senses, including smell and touch and taste.  In practical terms:  if your characters are standing out in the snow in the middle of a snowstorm, their feet are going to be cold.  And if they’re in the common-room of a busy tavern, they’re going to be smelling the burning logs on the fire, and the sweat of the patrons, and the scent of whatever good stuff is cooking.

(A quick tip:  If you really want your description to connect with the reader on a straight-to-the-animal-brain level, go for the sense of smell.  The right remembered scent – the fishy, salt-water smell of the wind off the ocean; the crisp, almost spicy smell of birch logs burning in a wood stove; the smell of nervous sweat and recirculated air in the cabin of a jetliner that’s waited for too long on the runway – can carry the reader exactly where you want them to go.)

Bear in mind, though, that lush sensory description can get overdone.  There’s no need to give absolutely everything in your narrative the detailed treatment –save it for things that are important to the story because they advance the plot, illuminate the theme, or reveal character.  Because if everything gets the detailed-description emphasis, then nothing is going to stand out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s