Fantasy Writing: What to Explain

I’ve read a lot of advice for and from writers over the years. One article that I read many, many years ago (don’t recall by who), stuck with me because I thought it was sort of absurd. The author claimed that every little thing in a story needed to be explained in-depth, in story, for readers to understand the tale as it was meant to be understood. This writer thought describing a starship to the minutest detail, even it took several pages, would engage audiences and immerse them in the world, rather than elicit boredom.

At the time, I shrugged because I thought it extreme, but I’ve seen the question crop up now and again, especially concerning fantasy and world building. Some authors believe a multi-page history of terms and concepts should be written, others believe that the reader can figure out certain ideas through context.

I fall more on the “readers have a mind, they should use it” side. I believe readers can see a word or concept in context and figure out the meaning without a wiki-style definition. I remember how many people asked “What does ‘sera’ or ‘n’wah’ or ‘ceruval’ mean in the Elder Scrolls games?” I have found one can pick it up from context without having to know an exact definition. If a mace-wielding bandit rushes at my character screaming, “N’wah!” there’s a good chance it’s not a nice, polite word. If a polite high elf calls my character ‘ceruval’ in a calm, respectful voice, there’s a good chance it’s a term of acknowledgement. I don’t really need to know that ‘n’wah’ means asshole or something similar to understand what’s going on (mace-wielding bandit isn’t happy I’m in their cave and is attacking!).

Concepts can be a bit trickier to introduce without explanation, but sometimes I think allowing a reader to create something of a character or plot on their own can lead to a more immersive environment. I think it makes them more involved with the characters and story. For instance, Cloverfield succeeded (for the most part) as a movie because audiences had to guess from the beginning what kind of monster could cause such destruction. People’s imaginations came up with what they, themselves, considered scary, and it made the movie more intense. The director’s vision of the monster wasn’t necessarily what the audience found terrifying.

Which is scarier: Extant monster or red eyes behind the trees?

I realized this when I first watched the 1963 movie The Haunting. Special effects were not exactly CGI at that point, and monsters and ghosts and goblins came across as silly much of the time. To avoid this, the director decided to show the results of what the entity did, not the entity itself. Let’s look at the classic scene, of the wooden door bending inwards after the loud banging sound of footsteps stopped outside it. What entity could do that? Was it really the ghost of a woman? Would the door break? If it did break, what would the crumbling structure reveal? I created a very scary ghost all on my own, without a visual from the movie. The actual ghost wasn’t needed. I believe it made the movie that much more frightening, because I came up with something that I personally found scary.

I do this in my own writing. At one point, I have creatures that emit cold chasing the characters, but they cannot see them, so the reader doesn’t know what they look like. The reader can imagine the creature and its appearance, and their image of the monster will likely be scarier for them than any lengthy description on my part. This doesn’t work all the time, but it can in some situations. Why not use it?

It’s true, some fans prefer everything spelled out, to the letter. That’s what world-building wikis are for😊

Shiobe Rising: Wellspring Dragons Book 1 and Trouble in Tindrel: Wellspring Dragons Book 2 are available for download in the Kindle and Barnes and Noble ebook stores. If you like what you read, check out the Wellspring Dragons World. Support me by buying me a Ko-fi!

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