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A few weeks ago I talked about the horrors of managing physical space in your writing. As an author, you have to be your readers’ eyes and you aren’t going to be able to sit down with them and draw a diagram if they don’t understand the scene you’re trying to describe. That’s unless you write illustrated books, of course, but that’s a whole new can of worms which I won’t open just now.

Today I want to touch on the challenges that fantasy writers face in this area. If managing physical space is ‘writing on hard mode’, then doing it in a fantasy book is more like ‘writing on hard mode while blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back’. Similar problems also extend to other genres that take place in worlds very different to our own such as sci-fi or some horror. The fact that these genres take place in very unfamiliar, alien worlds means that we lose a lot of the tools that are usually essential for clear description.

What We Lose

The first thing that you are going to struggle with is the use of similes. Normally, a scene can be very quickly established in a reader’s mind by comparing it with something they are already very familiar with. For example, “The clock tower bore an old-fashioned

Image by Aldaron

Don’t even get me started on how hard it is to describe something that exists in the real world but not in the fantasy world from your protagonist’s point of view… -Image by Aldaron

dial and steeple which reminded Gary of Big Ben.” It’s not a perfect example, but you get the idea. But in a fantasy world, these references may not make sense. Even if you are writing in the third person, from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, it will break emersion if you make reference to objects or places that do not exist in your world. And if you write in the first person or with a narrator that takes your protagonist’s perspective into account, heaven help you. You will be limited to referencing only what your character knows about and it’s quite likely that Demon Spawn Gary from the centre of the Earth has never seen Big Ben, even if it does exist in this world.

Another thing you may lose is a sense of basic expectation amongst your readers. In other words, common sense. It’s no good to say that “it was an average sized space port” because your readers have no basis for that description. Even if you are describing something fairly familiar such as “the harbour was big enough to hold five boats”, your readers may still be questioning whether boats in your world are the same size as boats in the real world.

What We Can Still Use

There is one way to claw back our precious similes. If you can establish a particular part or your setting very clearly using simple descriptions quite early in the story, you may be able to refer back to it later as a sort of unit of measurement. For example, if we know that our protagonists house “was barely big enough to count as a house at all as it could be crossed from one side to the other in ten paces and the ceiling was so low that a tall person’s head would brush against it”. Then you can tell us later “Gary was sure that 100 copies of his house could fit within the space port”.

Don't worry - I know pitt bulls are big softies really. How could you not love that face!! -Image by John Lafornara

“The horrifying alien creature loomed over Gary”
-Image by John Lafornara

Another technique is to design your protagonist such that the fantasy world they are entering is as new to them as it is to your readers. If Gary is already a Space Captain then why would he think twice about jumping into hyper drive? It’s second nature to him so he wouldn’t dwell on it long enough to merit much of a description. But if Demon Spawn Gary has just emerged from the centre of the Earth and has never flown on a space ship before, it gives you an excuse to take more time over describing everything he sees.

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