Describing the world in multiple layers

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Here’s a snippet from Tracy Baptiste that combines a few different ways of describing the world. 

The character in this snippet is a monster called the jumbie. The physical world is a thick forest.

The jumbie crawled with ease over thick trunks and gnarled underbrush, even though night in the forest was pitch-black. After centuries of moving among these trees, she knew the paths through the dark and tangled roots as if she had carved them out herself. The branches that caught at the hair of humans and the picker bushes that scratched their skin never hurt her. She knew each one. She also knew when people had walked through them. She could smell their blood on the edges of thorns and the scent of their skin on even the tiniest thread that got ripped off of their clothing.

Let's break this down:

  • Establishing world through character action: First, Baptiste sets the scene with the jumbie interacting with the physical world. Note that this sentence by itself contains expanded detail: it's not just a forest, it's thick trunks, gnarled underbrush, pitch-black night.
  • Adding history: She gives us some history of the jumbie's intimate relationship to the forest.
  • Expanding on details: Baptiste expands on the jumbie's knowledge by describing specific details about the forest.
  • Showing meaning and value: Finally she tells us how this intimate knowledge of the forest means that the jumbie can track humans, and she expands on the detail about how this power works.

Good question! 

It's doing all three at once, and that's often what good writing will do: describe world, character and action all at once, in a way that feels effortless.

Imagine if someone first described a character in detail, then described the world they were in, and then finally listed off all the actions they took. It'd be a boring story.

Instead, good writers will combine them so you learn a bit about the character and their world through the actions they take. 

Kirra climbed over the metal and wire fence and dropped into her own yard. The main gate had been rusted shut since before she was born. While the hooks at the top of fence could tear your clothes, Kirra knew how to climb over without getting snagged. When she was younger, Mama would pick her up and place her over; now she was grown she jumped it by herself. It was a test. Mama said that anyone who couldn’t get over the fence could stay outside.

Notice how this example uses the same building blocks, but adds a bit more history.

Agatha swooped low over the maze of rooftops, so close that the bristles of her broom swept snow off the chimney caps. To think she had once been afraid to fly, scrunching her eyes closed and clutching Granny’s waist as they soared above the crowded streets! Now, Agatha wove gracefully between columns of smoke, dancing on the edge of the glow cast by street lamps. Flying was freedom. She waved at the children who gasped and pointed as she passed over them, and laughed at their squeals of delight as she showed off with a loop-de-loop.

This example follows the pattern of the snippet, but it adds more detail about the character action than the physical world. 

Does it work? Well, how clearly can you picture the scene? How much detail can you see?

That's a sign of whether or not the description has worked.

Even though this example might have more action than the others, the details about the maze of rooftops, the bristles on the broom brushing snow off the chimney caps, columns of smoke, dancing glow of the streetlamps, the children in the streets below: these all paint the picture.

Here is an inspiration image for you to use if you would like:

(Click on the image to blow it up and see the detail, or view the original here.)

To write a good scene, ask yourself some questions:

  • Who are the characters in this world? What are they doing? Why?
  • Are they all doing the same thing?
  • Who will I focus on?
  • What physical elements are in the scene? How might characters interact with them?
  • How would these elements feel or smell?
  • What history might be behind some of these elements?
  • What could be the significance of any of these elements?

You don't have to have all the answers before you start writing. Let your mind wander through the image, until you come up with a starting point, then start writing and come back to the image when you need help.

Hint: It's totally normal to have to rewrite and rearrange your work as you go! You only figure out what you want to write by writing it!

Write a short scene that conjures a vivid picture of a world and the objects in it. Use character actions, history, expanded detail, and judgements to add layers to your description.