I’m blogging at the moment about working to develop my second novel Adept. One of the things I tend to leave out in a hurried first draft is description.
I went to see the film Allegiant recently, the third film in the Divergent series. I had just finished reading the second book and started the third, and was eager to see how the film would differ from the book (don’t worry, no spoilers!).
Divergent is set in a post-apocalyptic world, in a city enclosed by a wall. The people are told that it’s not safe outside the wall. We find out during the series that the city is Chicago. In the centre, the city is sleek and modern. But the further out you go, the more neglected and derelict it becomes. The descriptions in the books are very good, and it’s easy to picture derelict skyscrapers, streets and houses alike.
The great thing I found when watching Allegiant was that I recognised the buildings and the cityscapes. The film makers had brought the descriptions in the books alive, and I felt like this was not a new place, but one I already knew.
I have been challenged in my writing to give my readers a sense of the surroundings as well as what is going on. For a long time I had no idea about the internal layout of the Kestrel space ship (see my drawing above), and didn’t bother to visualise the different planetary locations either, unless it was necessary to the plot. Watching the film really brought it home to me that without descriptions, the reader can’t get truly immersed in what’s happening.
How about this from chapter 1?
The door clanged shut, the bolt shot home. Shom Reuel looked around the cell. It had dirty stone walls and floor. The ceiling was metal sheeting, with a fluorescent light in a cage in the centre. There were no windows.
'So much for a clandestine mission,' said Daniel Hoy. 'Parks and his bright ideas, he had to rush into things.'
Hoy checked out the door. It was heavy metal, the hinges were on the outside, and there were no electronics like key pads or hand print recognition systems. It seemed the security systems were all mechanical.
‘We’re not going to get out of here in a hurry.' Hoy signalled Reuel to check the room for monitoring devices. It didn't take him long.
‘Hanging about in the street is not a good idea either,' said Reuel. 'I think that man was already suspicious of us.'
'So Parks went and asked him for directions! It’s his fault we’re in this mess!' Hoy snapped.
Reuel looked round, startled. He wasn’t sure how to read Hoy’s suddenly reddened face. These peachy-toned humans with head hair instead of spines were still difficult for him to read. At home on Altair the nuances of his people's cranial spine quivers were there for all to see. None of his species would dream of speaking so harshly of a senior officer, such behaviour would be unconscionable.
'Where is Commander Parks?' Reuel asked. 'They took him away as soon as we were arrested, and that must have been an hour ago. Did they say anything when they were questioning you?'
'Reuel!' Hoy snapped. 'No ranks. We're sociologists, remember? Come to study a new alien society. I said nothing. What did you say when they questioned you?'
'Sorry, sir. I stuck to the story and told them I was the junior member of the team and did not know the details of our expedition.' He struck an exaggerated humble pose. 'I am here to fetch and carry. They should ask Mr Parks.' He cancelled the pose. 'Where is he?'
As you can see, in that short passage I get in the description of the cell and the door, and by talking about peachy-toned humans you realise that Hoy is human, but Reuel is not. I then mention Altair and cranial spines, so you start to know about Reuel. This goes along with the dialogue and the story, so it’s not too much.
I hope you got drawn into the passage, because it’s the beginning of the book, at least for the moment. Who knows what will change when my editor gets hold of it?