“Nature’s first green is gold….”
In other words, the trees have finally leafed out.
When I was a cheerful young undergrad going to school in Arkansas, I thought that mud-time was something that Frost made up for poetic purposes; likewise, the birches bending “to left and right/Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” Then I moved up here, and realized that he’d been making his poetry out of sober observation all along.
As do we all, even if we’re writing stories set in worlds completely of our own imagining.
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.
Today’s peeve, for those of you who are collecting the whole set (also for those of you who aren’t; I’m not particular) is orbs.
Not the literal ones that are carrying out material functions, such as being part of some monarch’s regalia, and not the non-material ones that are nevertheless actual visual artifacts that can occur in flash photography.
No, I’m rendered peevish by the sort of romantic over-writing in which characters never have blue or green or hazel eyes – instead, they’re graced with sapphire or emerald or topaz orbs. Pity the poor character with brown eyes, who has to deal with chocolate orbs instead.
(It is probably fortunate, both for the characters and for the reader, that this particular school of over-writing tends to bestow evocatively-colored orbs only upon the sympathetic characters.)