There’s a common misperception that fantasy is about the imprecise, the ephemeral, the unknowable, and therefore the usual rules of writing and art do not apply. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in fantasy, one must be more precise in order to create a plausible otherworld.
That’s all well and good, and many, many articles and books talk about worldbuilding with an emphasis on how to create fantasy worlds that capture readers’ imaginations. But how do we develop that precision?
In learning to draw, the phrase “training the eye” refers to learning how to see so that one can reproduce what one sees. The student learns concepts such as negative space (it is sometimes easier to draw the outlines of what isn’t there in order to get at what is there) as well as light and shadow. In writing, we can learn to hone our descriptive skills in much the same way.
Close your eyes and imagine a room in your home. It matters less which room, than that the room actually exists. Now, imagine you are standing in the doorway of your room and look to the left. In slow motion, look around the room in clockwise direction, slowly enough that you see everything in your mind’s eye. Then look up at the ceiling, then down at the floor.
Set a digital timer or the one on your cell phone for five minutes. Now, take out a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and quickly, working off the top of your head, write down a list of everything you see. Keep going until the timer stops; if you forget anything, just jump forward from where your eyes are currently and write down the next thing you do remember. Try to keep the pen moving for the entire five minutes.
Try this same exercise tomorrow. See what’s different about your memory the 2nd time around. Then try a different room.
Next, write a one page narrative using this room. Write it from the point of view of a character entering it for the first time. Maybe they’re there to buy the house. Maybe they’re an alien or a foreign creature who happened on the house. Maybe they’re a dog or cat. Whatever the case, use details from your list to salt and pepper your description.
The more realistic details you can put into your scenes, the more real they’ll feel to the reader. This exercise segues well into creating a world that doesn’t really exist. The more clearly you can see the otherworld in your mind, the more details you can put down on paper, the better able to season your description you will be.
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
– E.E. Cummings
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