Updated: Feb 15
Hello fellow travelers, This blog is an addendum to my blog, how to write a sentence, and a video I did on Show Don't Tell.
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Back to the blog.
What I look for in a good scene is immersion. Does the text give me the sense I am there? Am I seeing what the character experiences? Am I feeling the tension of the situation? This is also reflected in my attitude to World Building, as described in earlier blogs.
In terms of writing ability, creating immersion is also what separates the wheat from the chaff. Describing the environment and actions required to immerse the reader takes a lot of work. And it's just a fact many do not invest the time and imagination required to create those conditions.
Not every sentence needs the be a tour de force of world-building. But when you want to leave an impression on the reader, a certain set of criteria needs to be met. In this blog, we'll discuss these point, by point. Here is a summary
- Be clear in your language
- Avoid adjectives and abstract words
- Setup the stage
- Clarify the perspective
World Building I define as, how characters interact with a situation and their surroundings. It's not just the world. It includes their reactions to said world.
To create immersion, writers have to use 'tricks' to grab the reader's attention. To make them focus on the right details and actions. To create immersion, sentences need to be clear, and the perspective needs to be obvious. Objects need to be introduced and defined just specifically enough, so the reader understands what these objects are, where they are located, what makes them unique, and so on.
Nothing breaks immersion more when the reader questions the situation. For example, when objects just appear in a scene. I call this the pop-up effect. A style of writing in which items or environmental details just appear out of nowhere in the middle of a scene even though they were in clear sight of the characters all the time. It creates an effect similar to what you see in AI-created music videos. Here is an example if you are not familiar with those.
This gives the impression that a field of grass can turn into an elaborate jungle as the scene progresses, as if these trees spontaneously materialized. I've seen the same in scenes taking place inside urban environments where palaces and crowds just appear from thin air. But before we get to that, let's discuss some other beginner's traps.
Clear versus abstract; Show, Don't Tell.
Novice writers often use abstract or unspecific language to describe actions. Phrasing it that way already makes it sounds counterintuitive. Think about it. Instead of describing an action, you use unspecific language to suggest an action just took place.
Abstract language can be a phrase like, "When he got out of bed, he had a splitting headache." Seems obvious enough, right? But what does it mean when that character starts his day? How bad is the headache? Does he still function? Is he dizzy? Does he have a fever?
Instead, how about describing the symptoms instead?
"John was sweating all over as he woke up that morning. When attempting to lift a leg out of bed, his stomach felt it was shrinking in size while his heartbeat was pounding against the inside of his skull."
Recreating real-life experiences is a big challenge. And we do not experience these in abstract ways. We are startled by unexpected noises. Seeing things move at the fringes of our vision. By people's tone of voice. And all of these events and interactions can be colored by our state of mind and past experiences. The same goes for descriptions. A word I grew allergic to is 'tall'.
"A tall man stepped in front of Igraine."
What does that mean? How tall? Tall compared to what? For example, Igraine is a small woman. So, any man taller than 5,5 is big for her. How to remedy this?
"A man 6,6-foot in height stepped in front of Igraine."
It is more specific. There is no doubt now he big he is. But it lacks something. What is it?
Let me include our definition of World Building again. How do characters interact with a situation and their surroundings?
"Just when Igraine turned around to walk away, her vision was blocked by a plaid shirt. She stepped back and raised her chin to look the man smelling of tree bark in the eyes. From beneath a dark unibrow, the bearded man stared down at her with his arms crossed while mauling a piece of gum."
Now we know what a 6,6- foot man looks like and how it relates to Igraine in size and altitude. We can even infer a bit about his profession and/or lifestyle. This, dear reader, is what we call Show, Don't Tell.
It doesn't say the man is a lumberjack, but we have reason to assume he is. We can also predict how Igraine would respond. Why? Because we can imagine how we can respond in this situation. Speaking of situations...
Setting the Stage
Imagine you are about the watch a stage play. The lights dim. The curtains are drawn aside, and the decor gets revealed. It can be a forest, a castle, or an office space. At that moment, you know what to expect even before the actors walk on stage.
Movie openings are very much the same way. Sometimes you get an opening shot of a city, maybe some radio commentators in the background describing the state of things. In fantasy films, we have a narrator telling us a myth or prophecy to put us in the right mindset.
For written stories, this is no different. When the scene starts, the environment needs to be obvious, and the important props need to be in a logical location.
This can a simple statement such as, "Igraine was sitting in her bedroom when..."
Later statements such as "she lay down on her bed" or "she walked up to her dresser" need no further clarification because these are items we expect to be in a bedroom.
In more complicated settings, such as outdoor environments or fantastical settings, there is more leg work to be done at the start of the scene. Every writer will develop their own way of immersing a reader in the environment. But they will all set the stage so the reader doesn't get the feeling of trying to solve a puzzle.
I prefer to start with a relatable wide-angle shot and gradually zoom in on the most relevant(!) details. By most relevant, I mean you can't describe everything. More importantly, readers can't remember everything. The longer you make your descriptions, the less the reader will recall. In this situation, less is most definitely more. I, for instance, don't mention every individual article of clothing when introducing a character unless it makes the character unique, such as a corncob costume. Or gives you a particular impression. "Like, the pale man wore all black, including a wide-brimmed hat."
That is why I prefer Orwell's approach, which focuses more on atmosphere and emotional perception.
"I noticed an old man walking through the gutter, whose gait was that abhorred it made me cringe with pity. I could feel my joints aching as he shuffled forward, hunched over as if he still bore the weight of the coal on his back." (Not Orwell)
Facts don't care about feelings. But feelings sure care about facts. Including emotional reactions in your descriptions can really make the observer as the subjects of your stories come to life, as they don't just describe the world but also how the characters perceive it. BUT, as discussed in the first section, don't use abstract words. Describe.
This brings us to...
Doom. It was a revolutionary game in which players could move through a 3-dimensional environment from the first-person perspective. It wasn't the first First Person Shooter (FPS). But back then, top-down views and side-scrolling games were the norm. Super Mario Brother, Bubble Bobble, Zelda. All good games. But you were controlling a character on screen. In that period, the idea of being inside a game world was a topic of science fiction. But then Doom arrived. It is what set the benchmark for would become the norm in gaming. The concept is that you, the player, could walk through these worlds. Enemies could come at you from any direction. Some weapons only work in particular situations. You could actually discover things that were hidden in the environment. It wasn't just a gimmick. It was a whole new avenue into environmental storytelling.
It also offered new challenges to game developers. Because players could now look at every individual pixel and move in every direction and come from any direction. Developers realized the need to manipulate the player's instinct. Use colors to indicate danger. Use lighting to show gamers where they need to go. Develop art pieces to direct the player's attention to important details.
The same goes for writing. But where can readers look? Isn't it all happening inside their imagination? Yes. But a writer needs to guide that imagination in the right direction. The order of details is important. Ease it into a situation. It's why I often advise aspiring writers to write a sentence as if they are directing a movie scene. How does the camera move? What do you want the reader to see/imagine?
This is why perspective is important. What is the viewpoint? This is something you need to evaluate for every sentence. For example. Is Igraine doing the thing, or is she watching somebody doing the thing?
Igraine grabbed the bottle off the table. As she held the bottle overhead, ready to strike, John was raising his hands in submission.
John froze as Igraine grasped the bottle off the table. John held up his hand as she was razing the bottle above her head. "Hold. Stop. Let's take about this."
To put a reader in the shoes of a character, the perspective must be clarified. Just like a shot in a movie, or the panel of a comic book, the reader must be able to visualize the scene the moment it begins. Basically, you are instructing the reader how to perceive the environment the way you want them to.
"Just when Igraine turned around to walk away, her vision was blocked by a plaid shirt."
We all have experienced it. You turn around, and suddenly there is a person in your way. Here the reader is put into Igraine's shoes. But we could also use the perspective of another character having the same situation unfold. This is why picking a perspective is picking a Player-1 for the story.
What's important is to keep the perspective consistent throughout the story. A wrong choice of words can switch the perspective unintentionally. The editor's job is very important in that regard.
There are many ways of dealing with perspective. You can write a world from the perspective of somebodies journal, for example. Check out this blog for more details on that
For the sake of my time and sanity and copy-pasted a section from our second blog on World Building, part 2. which includes some more do's and don't in writing.
"Then, Bonsart was sitting behind his computer, dressed in his underwear, wondering if he should stop the blog right here or write one last segment. Then he realized he should write something about story perspectives so perhaps his readers wouldn't switch perspectives nilly-willy like that one guy on his Discord... You know who you are."
This is very technical, but something one needs to be wary of. Perspective.
Who is telling the story? Who is the perspective character? I already mentioned the 'All-Knowing-Narrator'! Not to be confused with the "I-persona". The AKN is kinda like your gamemaster in D&D. The AKN knows all, sees all. Its mostly used for dramatic effect to introduce a story. For example, the introduction of the Lord of the Rings movie explains Sauron's relationship to the Ring of Power. It's short, to the point, and explains Bilbo's situation.
Could we have done without it?
Yeah, probably. But in this situation, the legacy of Sauron and the rings hang over the plot like a dark shadow that is always present. Sauron is not an abstract thing in LotR. It's a living entity with agency looming over the other characters, ready to strike anywhere and at any moment.
Then there is the AKN used for comical relief. A common feature in Terry Pratchet's work is the AKN making comical statements about the world and its societies. The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy is another example. These are often exposition dumps. However, here the goal is humor, not exposition in itself.
"So, here I am. Sitting behind my keyboard, pondering what I should write about next. Oh, right. The I- Persona."
A close cousin to the AKN is the I-persona. The I-persona is the narrator explaining to the reader what happened to him in the past tense. Cosmic Horror, Noir, and journ
als are often written with an "I-persona". I've seen people writing short stories in the "I-from' in the present tense, but it feels like a poor attempt at roleplay to me.
Anyway, wrote a whole blog on writing journals, and diaries, their benefits, and weaknesses. Go check it out.
"Again, Bonsart was lost in thought. 'How to describe the difference between the third person and the AKN?' he pondered. They did look similar to the untrained eye. He hovered his fingers above the keyboard and started typing. Maybe his muse would inspire him."
The most commonly used perspective in fiction. At first glance, kinda looks similar to the AKN. But the difference is there.
The AKN, as the name implies, knows everything. Can explain everything. The third-person protagonist can't. The reader follows the protagonist around as it does things, makes discoveries, and reaches conclusions. In other words, the reader never knows more than the characters.
Jimmy was looking at his skateboard buried under the rubble that was once an orphanage. "Did I do that?" he whispered to himself. Suddenly, he heard wailing. It was a man wearing a singed white apron and garrison cap, crawling on all fours across the debris whilst coughing in agony.
Jimmy was looking at his skateboard buried under the rubble that was once an orphanage. "Did I do that?" he whispered to himself, unaware an Ice cream truck containing icicles with an explosive taste had detonated moments earlier.
It is the inclusion of facts beyond Jimmy's scope of knowledge that changes the perspective. It's therefore important what information you include in a scene.
If you want readers to know things some characters don't, you can include more than one Third-Person character in your story. In the Wrench in the Machine. These perspectives are from David Ol'Barrow, Igraine, and Associate 321. That way, the reader can experience events in multiple places. Or experience characters from an outside perspective, changing our perspective of those characters.
But can you switch perspectives at any time?
To indicate a switch of Story Perspective, start a new paragraph. Be it from AKN or I-persona to the third person, or from third-person to third-person. That's all there is to it.
So, in the first paragraph, we get the thoughts and perspective of the character 'Sammy' as she interacts with Bernard. In this paragraph, the reader only gets the outside perspective of Bernard as seen through Sammy's eyes.
In the second paragraph, we switch the perspective of Bernard, which is likely to be different from that of Sammy.
To conclude, to create immersion, one needs to include the right details. This takes a lot of imagination and a clear vision of your fantastical setting. The more alien your setting becomes. The more you need to describe. It doesn't mean you need to know every detail. But you have to mention all the details that matter. The details that make objects unique. During such occasions, I make sketches of locations to get a clear vision and come up with comparisons. These sketches ain't artworks. They are specific enough.
We'll continue our adventures in World Building another time. Don't forget to check out our other blogs on writing.
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