Editor’s Note: Chris Beckett is a university lecturer living in Cambridge, England. His short stories have appeared in such publications as Interzone and Asimov’s Science Fiction and in numerous “year’s best” anthologies. His latest novel is the gripping, sinister Dark Eden. Read on as Chris talks about what it was like to create the world in which his book is set.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine….
Famous and beautiful lines from Midsummer Night’s Dream, but do you know what eglantine looks like, or even wild thyme? Of the six flower species named, I could only actually picture two until I took the trouble recently to look the others up. Yet the words still evoked a scene. Descriptive writing doesn’t really function like a construction kit.
Imagine if Shakespeare had interrupted Oberon’s speech and had a narrator step in to explain what each flower looked like. This would in theory provide more information to assist us with visualising the scene, but in fact it would have the opposite effect, breaking the illusion that a real Oberon is talking about a real place. Good evocative writing is like an illusionist’s trick: the audience’s attention must constantly be directed away from what, in a literal sense, is really going on. And this is much more important than ensuring that the reader sees the imagined world in precisely the way the writer does, because it’s the basis on which everything else will stand or fall.
This presents special problems for writers seeking to evoke completely alien scenes, such as the world in Dark Eden. Shakespeare could rely on his audience already having some sort of mental picture of a flowery bank, but my readers have obviously never been on a planet without a sun in a luminous forest of geothermal trees. There was an awful lot to tell, and yet I still had to be very careful not to overdo the exposition, and spoil the effect entirely. And, since all the narrators of the book have lived in Eden all their lives and possess only the dimmest notion of Earth, I couldn’t even resort to comparisons with familiar Earthly things.
One of the techniques I used was to provide information, as much as possible, in very short bursts. For instance, in Eden the trees constantly pump their sap up and down between the surface and hot rocks deep underground, and I have the narrators refer regularly to the distinctive sound this makes – hmmmph hmmmph hmmmph – in order to keep the reader in mind of it. This isn’t strictly realistic – Eden people wouldn’t really keep referring to that sound any more than we on Earth go on about the presence of the sun – but each mention takes only a second or two to read and I think I get away with it!
Quite a lot of information can be smuggled into the text in this sort of way, and of course there are moments in the story-telling when the pace naturally slows down for a bit, and a somewhat longer exposition can be fitted comfortably into the rhythm. However there is still a severe limit to the amount of background information that can be safely included without danger of overload, and this means that instead of trying to tell your readers everything, you have to provide encouragement to them to use their own imaginations. To return to the analogy of stage magic, I think this is a little like being a hypnotist. The hypnotised aren’t really in the zombie-like state that people sometimes imagine: rather the hypnotist has to have enough authority to persuade them to voluntarily surrender control and play along.
Writers achieve this trick in a lot of different ways, but I think an important part of it lies in convincing the reader that there is a world there to be imagined. For this reason, even though a description doesn’t really function like a construction kit, details can be crucial. Try imagining “a white room.” Now try imagining “a white room with an old dial telephone lying on its side in the corner.” I’ve really given you no additional information about the room in the second example, but I think you’ll agree that it’s much easier to accept it as a specific place.
One of the ways this works, I think, is that it persuades us as readers that the author has something specific in mind. I hate it when I sense that a writer hasn’t bothered to picture a scene, and it has an instantly deadening effect on my imagination. (Why should I bother, if the author didn’t?) Oddly enough, unexplained details can sometimes be particularly effective here, as long as there aren’t too many, and as long as the author convinces us that he or she possesses the knowledge that we lack. I might not know what musk-roses are, or eglantine, or even wild thyme, but the words still conjure up much more for me than mere generic “flowers.”