I have an unabashed love for science fiction and fantasy. I grew up on Star Trek (the Next Generation, mostly), and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was possibly the first full book series I read start to finish. The ability of a writer to completely transport an audience, be it one reader or a million viewers, to a completely alien landscape populated with outlandish characters is one of the reasons I became a writer myself. And yet, for all of my source material and inspiration in these fields, I struggle to write science fiction and fantasy.
My problem is, I believe, twofold. It deals with world-building and pacing. The world-building aspect is not one of building the worlds themselves, no; it’s trying to build the world while also telling a story. The world, no matter how expansive or intricate its design, is merely set dressing. It’s the backdrop against which the story takes place. And what is a story without characters?
Even if there are good characters, though, the pacing problem tends to arise. There’s a habit in some writing I’ve seen in these genres where the action or conversation will stop and description will take over. Tolkien and Martin spring to mind. They’re both writers I deeply respect, but man, they can go on sometimes. While some of Tolkien’s descriptions of landscapes lead to the breathtaking vistas we see in the Lord of the Rings films, and Martin’s in-depth cataloging of grand Westros meals can be mouth-watering, it sacrifices time with characters or plot advancement for the sake of world-building.
The thing to keep in mind, as far as I’m concerned, is that these characters who inhabit these worlds do so the same way we do ours. They coexist with wonders and strangeness the same way we do with things like airplanes and the Internet. Imagine if a writer broke up the action in a tense modern thriller or a detective yarn to describe the interior layout of a 747 in detail, or explained exactly how communication between one computer and another works. I personally don’t think that story would get very far.
While some description is inevitable, especially when it comes to these strange new worlds, I have come to understand that such descriptions should be used sparingly. A quick verbal sketch of something new and interesting may be required for context; I think the description should be made as concisely and quickly as possible. And I don’t believe that in-depth descriptions should ever be used anywhere near the opening of a story.
Consider the opening of Blade Runner. The scene in which Leon is tested could take place in any modern building. The only hint of sci-fi trappings is the device on the desk. It concerns itself first and foremost with character moments and building tension. Instead of showing off how awesome its effects are, the film paces itself, only revealing as much as it needs to in order to set scenes and move the story along. Jurassic Park is another fine example. It’s around 40 minutes before we even see our first dinosaur in full, but the build-up is done so adroitly that we are just as invested in the characters as we are in the spectacle, if not moreso. It’s something I’ll be keeping in mind as I get myself together for my next large project.
How do you feel about writing weird worlds? Would you like to see more description in such tales, or less? What good examples come to mind when discussing these stories?