Friday, June 3, 2016

Blank Worlds

As an aspiring writer, I have naturally read a lot of stories. Many of these were published works, but I have also had the chance to read plenty of amateur stories, some from friends, some from the internet, and some that I wrote myself. Among these, I noticed that description was often forgone to get to the action quickly. As a teenager, I wrote my stories as I would watch a movie, focused on what the characters were doing, leaving everything else ignored in my peripheral vision. When I read similar works of others, though, I learned the truth: this style of writing presents an amorphous, blank world.

Consider the following opening to a story:
        I woke up in a strange, unfamiliar place. Looking around, I saw a man approaching me.
        “Are you all right?” He asked.
        I nodded.
        “I’m Graham Horner,” the man said, holding out his hand, “Nice to meet you.”
        “I . . .” my mind was blanking. “Christian Horst.”
        Graham smiled. “We don’t see many strangers around here. Come inside. There’s a phone, if you want to call someone.”
        “No cell?” I asked, following him.
        “We don’t get reception out here in the middle of nowhere,” he replied.
        He led me into a building, and gave me a drink.
This interaction is unpleasant to read, and provides no incentive to continue. It was merely light gray text on a dark background, so you may have imagined it taking place at night, or in an underground complex, or perhaps even in a sort of cloudy limbo dimension. No matter which, unless you have a particularly active imagination, it was a blank canvas waiting for a picture that was never painted.

Stories are almost always presented as black words on a white background,
 so worlds without sufficient description usually look like
 a white expanse with black outlines.
Now consider another version of the same introduction, but with description added.
        I awoke to feel the prickling of stiff grass beneath my back. Warm sunlight pressed against my face, and my vision was a gray-tinged red under my closed eyelids. The air smelled of mown grass on a summer afternoon. I opened my eyes and my hands instinctively snapped over them, triggered by the sudden intensity of the sun burning into my head. I sat up, making sure I was pointed toward the ground instead of the sky before trying again.
        This time, when I opened my eyes, I found myself on a wide lawn hemmed by tall trees in the distance. I thought there might be a gravel road near them, though it was hard to tell from this angle. All this I saw through the bluish filter your eyes get when you stare at the bright red insides of your eyelids for too long.
        A shadow appeared next to me and spoke in a man’s voice. “Are you all right?” I turned to see a slim man in a faded blue button-down shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. His leathery tan skin showed a few faint wrinkles around his eyes, and he sported a brown mustache with wisps of gray in it.
        I shook my head. “Where am I?” I said.
        “Oak Valley Community,” the man replied, holding out a hand to me. I took it, and he hauled me to my feet with a strong grip. He was almost as tall as I. “My name’s Horner. Graham Horner.”
        “Christian Horst,” I said. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Horner.”
        The man waved his hand, gesturing me to follow him. “Why don’t we go inside. There’s a phone, if you want to call someone.”
        “No cell?” The grass crunched softly under my shoes as we walked across the meadow.
        “We don’t get reception out here in the middle of nowhere, Iowa,” Mr. Horner said, “but we have phones in our homes and the Common Building.”
        Between us and the treeline stood a wood-sided single-story building with a steep roof. The Common Building, I assumed. It reminded me of a small school, or maybe a church. For all I knew, the community used it as both. In front of it ran a dirt road. I guess I was right about that after all. We climbed a set of concrete stairs to a screen door, on the other side of which was a wooden door for when it was cold out.
        I passed into the large room with small windows and a floor covered in beige tiling. The walls were lined with wooden benches and a few stacks of chairs. To my right, a counter was cut into the wall, behind which was a kitchen.
        As I looked around, clouds suddenly covered my eyes in a haze of lightheadedness. Mr. Horner must have noticed, because by the time my vision had cleared, he was holding a cup of water toward me, which I accepted with thanks. It felt refreshingly cool on my lips, and tasted slightly of minerals. It must have come from a well.
Though it took much longer to get to the action, this version was immeasurably better than the first. Right off the bat, it opened with a variety of sensations, taking the empty canvas and painting across it in multiple layers. Each step added new colors as the scene evolved. Even if it does not look like the kind of story you would be interested in, you might be motivated to keep reading for the immersion experience alone.

There is one other way to give color to a world, and that is to provide a picture along with the text, perhaps cover art. But that does not solve the problem, only one of the symptoms. When writing books, the whole purpose is for the authors to share their imagined experiences richly and fully with their readers, and that can be done immeasurably better with a strong descriptive verbiage.

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