Describing the Familiar

I recently received this message from Inquisitor Engels, which got me thinking:

I was reading Graham’s blog post about tie-ins and such and it got me thinking. I’ve written a small amount of fan-fiction (one is hanging out in the Stories and Art forum somewhere) but I’ve always come down on the line that tie-in fiction has the luxury of not having to establish the universe to the same degree that a stand-alone fantasy or sci-fi novel might.

One of the things I liked about “Raven’s Flight” in particular is that you didn’t spend a paragraph describing about what a bolter does like some other BL authors, but I suppose that’s a double edged sword.

I suppose this is even crazier in your Fantasy books (which I also enjoy, even though I’ve only found time to read Malekith) since there’s nuances and relationships that have existed in players’ minds for three decades?

Where do you draw the line as an author in general, and a BL author?

Start from Scratch

Although I am sure at least 90% of the readers of a BL novel are existing fans, I never assume this is the case. It might be easier to forget about establishing the setting for new readers, but it would be pure laziness. I never take it for granted that the reader knows what an elf looks like, or an ork, or whatever.

As I’ve remarked previously, most of Warhammer and 40K exist as very broad backdrops, and the amount of additional detail needed for a particular scene doesn’t change whether the world was created by the author or someone else. I would never simply say “They saw the hive city on the horizon”, with the assumption that people will know what I mean b a hive city. I will describe the towering edifice piercing the clouds, the smog banks gathered around its foothill-like suburbs, the millions of twinkling lights and the vapour trails of dozens of shuttles enetering and leaving the gaping holes of its docks.

It goes back to a mantra we had in games development about background, which applies equally to description in novels: evoke, inspire and inform. Some writers only use the last of these – description exists to inform the reader of what is happening. That isn’t enough for me. The descriptions of the world should evoke a response in the reader, whether that is horror, delight, humour or awe. And it should inspire their imaginations, making them think beyond the context of the scene, maybe creating an image in their head that remains for hours, days or even years.

You can never tell what it is that will set off someone’s imagination like that. It might be a single line, a piece of dialogue, even a character’s name, or an entire scene. A reader might be previously informed about hive cities and their billions-strong populations, but not until a particular description do they get excited by it, swept away by an author’s portrayal that captures their imagination in a way that nobody else has done before.

And the same is true of the humble bolter, or a space marine, or the Worlds Edge Mountains, or anything else that one might reasonably assume readers know about.

Less is More

On the whole, I prefer to leave as much as possible to the reader’s imagination. This became increasingly apparent – and necessary – while I was writing The Purging of Kadillus. In that novel, there are lots of battles, and all of the battles take place between space marines and orks. To describe every fight in the same way would get awfully repetitive. In terms of action, it is important to focus on the narrative of what is happening, and only delve into the detail if it helps inform the image in the reader’s head. It’s like a lot of modern CGI-heavy movies; many of the action sequences are just not that good because they’re put together frame by frame by nerdy graphics guys to show off the twiddly bits they’ve put in, rather than doing what they’re supposed to do – tell the story.

It is often quite hard to describe things in a meaningful way. Beyond basic shapes and colours, trying to physcially describe something can be very difficult. Take a plasma cannon for instance:

Plasma death, Astartes-style

You can start with talking about its bulk. And there are some cables. And a glowing green ridged bit on the top. And the muzzle? How do you describe that? More importantly, what does the reader learn about plasma cannons from its physical description? Not a lot. The effect of a plasma cannon, that’s something else. The ravening ball of energy, the blast that tears apart the foes, the ear-splitting shriek of the detonation. That adds texture to the scene.

With regard to the example you gave, of bolters in Raven’s Flight, I kept the descriptions deliberately vague because it would be a distraction to go into detail when there are so many other cooler thigns going on – a Primarch ripping apart a tank and hurling the shards through the enemy, for a start. Also, as Corax is the focal character, his sheer badassness means that he isn’t concerned about bolters too much. The reader’s attention is directed by the character’s attention, and it’s the streaking rockets and lascannon beams – the things that can really hurt Corax – that are the thing I wanted listeners to be fixed upon.

Description is Narrative’s Bitch

A writer should feel no compunction to describe something purely for its own sake. This is especially true in fantasy and sci-fi, where huge effort can go into world-building. All elements of that world, and all the descriptions of it, exist only for you to tell a story. If the story, the scene, doesn’t lend itself to describing something, don’t do it. This is very true of characters. Nothing makes a scene stumble like a pointless description of a new arrival right in the middle of something else going on.

I also think that author’s need to trust their readers to imagine the right thing. Some writers want to nail down every little thing in the reader’s head, so that they know exactly what x looks like, exactly how y talks, exactly how z did a particular thing. It’s not necessary. Writing has a huge advantage over other art forms – it allows the creator to leave some of the details to others. Where there are fuzzy patches, the reader will fill in the blank canvas if needed; and if that fuzzy patch isn’t important at all, the reader will happilly leave it blank and carry on.

There is a caveat to this though. If a test reader or editor says that he or she couldn’t picture what was going on, or got confused, then it it probably a good idea to put in a bit more. Like cooking, it’s easier to add more ingredients later if needed than to take them away.

Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 12:37 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great breakdown, and I totally agree :-)

  2. Great entry, I think you nailed the the place of a description perfectly with your 3 key words : “evoke, inspire and inform”. That made my day : ) Your posts are always interesting and informative.

  3. Very helpful and inspiring Gav, thanks!


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