Addressing the elephant

Dapper Cthulu Diana Levin.jpg

Dapper Cthulu by Diana Levin. You can find (and buy) more of her work here

When you’re setting a scene you have to give the reader all the information they need and not a jot more. You must sum up a location’s feel (which might encompass smell, background noise and even air pressure) as briefly as possibly. You can’t overload the reader with detail, but you must give them the vital information.

It is, in other words, bloody difficult.

My general guide for description is to put in anything the protagonist/POV character would notice in the order he or she would see them. Thus: people first, then obvious abnormalities, then temperature/smells/sounds and then, if we get that far, into the mundane.

But there are so many exceptions. It’s almost a trope now, but I’m noticing more and more the delayed surprise:

It was a totally normal park. Playground with its swings and slides; bowling green with its perfectly manicured surface, and standing proud in its midst, bearing the pavilion roof like a parasol, the Great Lord Cthulu in all his glory. As His tentacles dismantled the remnants of the Eastbourne Ladies’ Bowling Team, I knew it was going to be one of those days.

In less ridiculous setups you’ll have the POV character entering a room; you’ll have every single detail lovingly described, and then some sort of dismissive comment: “of course, I couldn’t take it in properly as I was distracted by the eviscerated corpse lying in the middle of the floor.”

This sort of thing works for humour or for situational irony but it breaks the rules of common sense. As soon as you go into a new space the most important thing will immediately catch the eye: to deny the reader this sort of elephant in the room is something you can do once, maybe twice a novel, no more.

I recently read a novel where the climax was set in a wedding. The cheat started several scenes before, however, when the wedding invitations turned up without the name of the groom. That information is so basic that its omission because the largest, most obstreperous elephant in the history of pachyderms. Lulu got nothing on this papa.

But it got worse. The wedding arrived – and the groom still wasn’t named! He became a sort of giant, floating question mark that dominated proceedings without doing a thing. The longer it went on the more ridiculous it became. There was no way the eventual reveal could have been anything but a disappointment.

So: don’t try and be clever. Address the elephant.

I don’t actually mean that. Do try and be clever. Take risks. Experiment. Just be aware that there’s a damn good chance it won’t work. Not the first time you try, at least.

The problem with scene-setting is that it takes time: not time in the writing, though that can be considerable, but in the reading. The easiest way to kill excitement is to take time to describe the surroundings, thus:

I turned into an alley and was brought up short by the sight of three skeletons mugging an old lady. The alley was thirty feet long and narrow enough to touch the sides with a bit of a stretch. The cobbles underfoot were treacherous, mortar long-since eroded and slick with grime. The first skeleton was the tallest; the second had only one leg but sported a pith helmet of the sort adored by Victorian explorers. The third seemed to be that of a dog walking on its hind legs. The old lady was about 5’2” and wore a bonnet decorated not with ribbons or flowers but with a hedgehog of tiny blades.

I hoisted my riding crop and stepped forwards…

At which point the reader is wondering what the hell the skeletons and their victim doing whilst the protagonist was itemising every item in sight (plus smell and sound, of course). Were they looking impatiently at their watches (I assume all skeletons have waistcoats and fob watches. It’s practically a law)? Were they bitching with the old lady – “Ooh, protagonists today – You remember that nice young Conan? I’d have been scattered across the floor already…”? Did they do the old Police Squad freeze?

It’s an alley. Unless there’s some crucial plot-thing – maybe it turns a sharp corner that someone’s hiding behind – it’s an alley. Add in one smell, one texture and move on.

My sanity is slipping away. I can feel Cthulu’s dread appendage on my shoulder and I fear I begin to rant. Time to do something mundane like make a potion a nice cup of tea*.

If you survive the Dark Lord’s attentions I’ll see you next week. Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter @RobinTriggs.

*A sure sign of madness as I don’t drink tea. Sorry. I wish I did, but there you are

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World leader pretend

Building a world is not just about fantastical kingdoms or the sins of a solar empire. It’s about the mood you sprinkle throughout every bit of your story. And you can create the world in the simplest ways because humans are stupid.

Every single word you use has a whole host of connotations surrounding it. Words don’t exist in isolation, they rely on context to sharpen and focus their gaze, and each word you choose carries weight beyond the simple.

For example: ‘A rat skittered from a pile of rubbish’. Without any further clue I bet you placed that scene in the sort of place you most associate rats and rubbish; for most of us probably a scene of urban decay (for me it was the alley behind my old flat) but if you’re from the countryside your impressions may have been different.

The point is that you don’t need many words to form an image in someone’s mind. Mention weeds poking through broken concrete and you create not only a picture but an atmosphere. Replace ‘weeds’ with ‘wildflowers’ and the mood changes.

This is what you’re doing when you’re world-building. You’re not trying to describe everything that moves or everything that the character sees or feels. You’re trying to pick the points that are either integral to the plot or create an emblematic link in the reader’s mind. You’re trying to find the touchstones that illuminate not only what you’re focussing, but on the situation as a whole. And those touchstones have to be unique; clichés (and both examples I’ve given here might be considered clichés) are Right Out.

The universe of every story is to some extent a fantasy. Very few novels exist purely in the ‘real’ world; they all have their frameworks that need to be defined. Even Dickens, the arch social commentator of his day, had to build a world that only existed in his mind. The wild marsh from the early stages of Great Expectations; it might have been based on a real place, but he had to define the harshness of the world from the same toolbox as the creator of an epic fantasy. Miss Haversham’s house could’ve been drawn by Stephen King.

Worlds aren’t just about political structures; they’re about the every day lives of the protagonists. And because the human mind is so amazing, describe the floor (carpet or lino? Dirty or clean? Does it muffle the sound or create echoes?) and you’ll find you’ve described the walls and ceilings also, and possibly the state of mind of your character as well. It tells you something of a person if their bedroom is shared by generations of the same family of spider. Are the knickers strewn on the floor or neatly laundered and folded away?

This is world-building. It’s all about the subtle little words you slip into action; no stopping to gaze around at your surroundings; it’s about graffiti or posters or perfectly manicured lawns. It’s the smell of damp, the whisper of wind in the trees. It’s the things delicately woven into the background that the reader barely notices but still influence the way they feel in this world.

Sometimes you’ll need a wadge of description if you need to describe something completely unexpected: and if your characters are searching a bedroom, say, or are having their first glimpse of a new planet, a look around is entirely necessary. But the real skill of writing is to give the readers something utterly normal and yet feed them the information they need to fully experience that place – without them ever noticing the writer’s hand.

Know thyself

The better you can picture something in your head, the better you can write about it.

I’m not exactly sure how this works, but it does. Even if you barely describe an item or a room in passing, the clearer the mental image you have the sharper the interaction – with both the characters and the reader.

That’s not to say that you should start working on the interior décor for your entire world before you start writing. Your first draft should focus on getting the story down and you can fill in details later. But it’s worth bearing in mind. Draw diagrams, if that helps, of rooms and wildernesses (wildernii?) and continents. I can’t draw at all; I’m constantly cursing my inability to set things down in the right order so the lines cross in the right way. But that doesn’t matter. Even the act of trying helps fix these details in the mind.

I think what happens is that you subconsciously slip in details as you then work on the story. People cease to live in a formless vacuum but instead start to interact with their worlds. They pick up case-notes from a paper-strewn desk, for example, rather than from the void. Things happen in a real, solid world rather than a swirling fog of uncertainty. You also avoid mistakes; you cease to cram masses of furniture into a place you’d previously described as small.

Which is not to say that your work should be overloaded with description. On the contrary, it’s vital to be able to slip details in minimally, unobtrusively. Conan Doyle describes Sherlock in one paragraph and then barely mentions his appearance for the rest of the series. Be subtle. Use descriptions to give character and mood rather than to just inform. We never want the old role-playing cliché: ‘The door opens onto a corridor. It is eight feet wide and fifty feet long. At the far end is another door. A pair of orcs are guarding this door. On seeing you they raise their clubs and…’ (I originally said ‘heft their clubs’, which would have been better as the word heft gives an impression of weight and size in addition to the description of the action).

As I’ve been rewriting Australis I’ve come to realise just how little I knew my own world. Although I wanted a functional world of anonymous corridors, I didn’t know well enough where people would be going from and to. And whilst I knew it needed bars – and created some – I had not enough sense of where they were and how people got to them. What might happen outside? So I’ve created a boulevard, an old main drag where shops, cafes and the like will be based. Which in turn gives me a greater opportunity for plot twists and character development and…

This general advice follows equally well for building your characters. The better you know somebody, the more realistically they’ll behave and speak. This is why you see all those ‘character creation templates’ in writing magazines, given out at conferences and the like. You might never need to know that your lead character’s daughter plays the mandolin, but every little detail you add helps them grow as real people in your mind. And the better you can summon up their deep motivations the more rounded they’ll appear on the page.

Which is why I’m going back to the beginning to my next series of rewrites. I’m realising that, whilst they’re far from cardboard clichés, I don’t always know why my characters are behaving as they are. And if I don’t know how am I going to expect the readers to really believe in these people? I’m not saying it’s necessary to know everybody’s deepest neuroses down to the nth degree; I’m too lazy for that. But even the briefest sketch of the major characters will help me draw them better. Then I’ll know how they’ll furnish their apartments and whether they’d be sticklers for order or have that paper-strewn desk upon which is a fine layer of cigarette-ash, disturbed only in one corner where a small envelope lies…