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All stories are anchored in place and time. As writers, we make them feel real through descriptions of era and locale, which come to life through objects, people, and their emotions. Description is critical to building a world, but it has its’ own hazards. Put in too much detail about your characters and whoever is reading may put the story down. Too little detail will turn your characters into talking heads. How do we choose what to describe, and how to describe it? The advice I’ve found to be extremely useful is to stick to details that are relevant to the story. To me it means only using the details that move the plot along. Now, how do I figure out what those are?
Let’s try and divide description into two types: physical description, and world design. The first one is like the interior of a house: the paint, the furniture, the lighting. The second is the structure, the layout of the house, with all of the floors, the basement, the garage and all. Both have two roles: they create a mood and propel the story forward by supporting the plot. The first role is straightforward, and here’s a good example where description sets the mood well:
"At a quayside, a car transporter opens its heavy-jawed cargo doors to emit three thousand family saloons which have spent twenty days at sea since leaving their assembly plant at Ulsan, on the Korean peninsula. These near-identical Hyundai Amicas, smelling of newly minted plastic and synthetic carpet, will bear witness to sandwich lunches and arguments, lovemaking and motorway songs. They will be driven to beauty spots and left to gather leaves in school car parks. A few will kill their owners. To peer inside these untouched vehicles, their seats wrapped in brown paper printed with elegant and cryptic Korean entreaties, is to have a feeling of intruding on an innocence more normally associated with the slumber of new-borns."
- Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
Although there are quite a few things he says about Hyundais, each detail carries its’ own weight, and the little scene ends up feeling eerie. This, however, is a literary, non-fiction example. What about other genres, like speculative fiction? Imaginary worlds force us to say a lot about them, so, in order to sustain any kind of plot momentum, it may help to do some world design first.
World design means picking the best place for every scene, the best cast of characters, the best time, best weather, etc. Some setting fits so well to certain types of action that it became cliché. Take any zombie book. Inevitably, the survivors end up couped in a hospital or a military base at least once. Those places are always plot-relevant because the survivors end up in them needing supplies or looking for the cure. It’s another problem altogether that there’s only so many zombie-stormed hospitals we want to read about… Let me just say something I realized through my own writing: cliché setting is often a red flag for cliché plot.
But cliché, fresh, or gently used, you may end up happy with your location enough to spend time adding physical description to it. How do you choose which details are going to help the plot, and which are too much work to read?
Usually, if the detail is not going to get used or referred to further in the story, it’s not relevant. For example, if you mention that your character is a sleepwalker, don’t let that information just sit and decay. The reader will forget it, until that critical moment in the story when her sleepwalking either causes trouble, or is used to resolve some dramatic conflict. This is when a detail crosses the line from creating the mood into supporting the plot, and the more such details there are, the richer the story would appear.
Here’s a great example from a science fiction story set in a retro future where the dead sometimes revive and remain among the living:
“A priest stepped from the shadows. He was young, not happy with his job. He bowed his head and made the sign of the cross. “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, the Lord giveth back. The Lord… can’t seem to make up his mind lately. Amen.” He put a dab of holy water on Donner’s forehead and fled.”
- Michael Dempsey, Necropolis.
The whole reason for this micro-scene to exist is to show that the world that accepts the dead back is scared and confused. The emerging mood grounds readers in collective terror and disgust. But this is not enough. Life after death and the human mind get examined over and over throughout the book, calling for more similar little passages.
Bottom line, all action needs an appropriate place. I’m not talking about car chases here. Action can be a baby sleeping, but it can be a baby dozing in his mother’s arms, or it can be suspended in a capsule on one of those human mill trees from The Matrix. The details you chose can be a powerful support for the action. You may not want to go on about your Victorian heroine’s dress when the most important thing in the scene is her steam-powered prosthetic leg she uses to knock out the villain. Both world design and physical description through relevant detail can create amazing worlds, where everything that happens, happens for a reason.
Ana Turner is CC's Nastia00. Her personal blog is at anaturner.wordpress.com, Worlds Out Of Words.