Medievia Mudslinger

November 24th, 2002

Mudslinger Writer's Guide - Part 14 - By Excrucior

Hey - look at that!

You have objects in the game, be it a sword, an obelisk, a house, a piece of food or a jewel. What makes each of these distinct? A reader has an image in their mind of what each of these will look like, but is it the same as the image you want to portray? This is where your skill as a descriptive writer comes in. Remember this when you think about the game - our builders are very special people.

You have your character looting a jewel, for example - fine. What sort of jewel is it? You can define it better by mentioning that it's an emerald so that people know it's green. Then you have to consider other aspects about it. Jewels come in a number of ways - is it a cut emerald or a rough gem needing working to be valuable? Try the following -

Jim opened the casket and peered inside, holding his lantern up to illuminate the interior. He caught his breath as he spied a jewel which he took, afraid that the guards may return soon.

So, you have the guy stealing a jewel from a casket. Let's define it and put a picture into the reader's mind with descriptions.

Jim opened the iron-bound casket carefully and peered inside. He held his covered lantern up so that he could see inside, directing the little light it gave to the interior. A green glint came from something below - an emerald! He caught his breath as he glanced around quickly to check for any sign of the guards. His hand slowly worked into the small chest and grasped the gem, feeling the smooth chill of the facets against his fingers.

There are a number of descriptive terms in here - adverbs and adjectives. An adjective describes a thing whilst an adverb describes an action.

Adjectives in the above piece include - iron-bound, covered, green, small, smooth.

Adverbs include - carefully, quickly, slowly.

I did a little reworking of the basic text and included a lot more descriptive text. Which one works best for you? Which tells you more about what you can see?

Now, it must be said that adjectives and adverbs are like the ingredients in a recipe. Too much of any and you spoil the effect, just as if you have too little. A sentence will only take so many descriptive terms before it bows beneath the weight and breaks. Try the following -

Jim opened the solid, oak, iron-bound casket carefully and peered inside cautiously. He held his elegant, expensively covered lantern up so that he could see inside, directing the little light it gave to the dark and dismal interior. A bright yet eerie green glint came from something below - a valuable and rare emerald! He caught his breath as he glanced around quickly and fearfully to check for any sign of the guards. He slowly, carefully and cautiously worked his hand into the small, tiny, oak chest and grasped it, feeling the smooth icy, frosty, chill of the facets of the gem against his fingers.

That's extremely overdone, with many repetitious comments, but I think I made the point. Use adverbs and adjectives as an enhancement and don't overdo them. How much is too much? That depends on the situation. If you want tension then it's generally best to leave them out unless it's a basic or essential word. By this I mean something like grabbing a hot pan, or diving into an icy lake. In Jim the thief's tale above, you need tension there - is he about to be discovered by a guard or is a trap going to spring on him? You also need to make the reader aware of what is going on. I'd personally go for a halfway house between the two examples above

Save description for a slow part of your tale. If the main bad guy enters to fight your protagonist, don't give the reader several pages of description to show what he's like. Sprinkle a few things in and about - "He drew his pitch black sword" etc - instead of putting it all at the start of the new scene. Always remember to show instead of telling wherever possible (see the tenth section about this concept).

Try this description.

"A polished checkerboard floor..."

Some of you should recognize this. It's from the New Adventurer's Guild and was one of the first things to attract me to the game. It was a simple comment, and yet it had a powerful image with it - the light reflecting from a heavily polished floor that was alternately laid with black and white tiles. Simplicity works when you use and sensations that are familiar with other people, but it works best when they are the right words.

Take into consideration that you have five senses. Many writers only deal in what people see, for the most part, and lose a lot because of it. You can see, feel, taste, smell and hear things. Use more than one at once. Maybe Jim looked around for the guard, but he also should have been listening as well. He could feel the coldness of the emerald, but if he had to carry it in his mouth (pouches full, having to use both hands - whatever contrived reason) you could suggest it tasted of something (jewels don't taste of anything, unless they're coated with contact poison to deter thieves... but that's plot). Try and work in as many normal senses as possible because you use them all the time, often without realizing it.

I did say normal senses. We're writing about a fantasy land with magic. Certain spells give special senses to people - farsight, for one, allows you to see beyond the confines of the local area in one direction; wizard eye allows you to see all around; sense life lets you see hidden life forms, and so on. You should really try and define these as distinct from each other if using one or more of them - a sense of vertigo as you cast wizard eye from the height your senses reached; the sudden return of your consciousness as you look far along a road or corridor - whatever. Who's to say there's only one form of magic sense?

Another very useful way of describing something is to use the two comparatives - namely metaphors and similes. These two methods give imagery to the reader, using aspects familiar to them.

A simile is where you compare the aspect (object or emotion or happening) to something. In most cases you can define a simile by the words 'like' or 'as'. Examples -

The cavalry rode over the hill like a tidal wave, crashing onto the enemy's flank.

The man's snoring was loud, as if he was an ogre wearing a human's skin.

The guardsman's face turned red in anger, slowly, like an apple ripening in the summer's heat.

Metaphors are where you say that something is something else, taking the aspects of the thing you are using and conferring them upon the actual object.

The cavalry crested the hill, a tidal wave that crashed upon the shores of the infantry's beach.

The ogrish snores came from a man in the bed, heavy and ponderous, rattling the foundations of the building.

The wagon was the remnants of a woodcutter gone mad, splinters and fragments laying in all directions.

There are two main rules with similes and metaphors, and you should observe them at all times.

Firstly, what you are comparing the object to should be recognizable to the reader. If there's no empathy, it won't work. It also has to be something within the genre of the piece - comparing a party in the godhalls to a rowdy dockside tavern would be good, but comparing it to a nightclub with thumping beats and sweaty bodies would be an anachronism (although surprisingly accurate).

Secondly, don't use them. You may be surprised by this statement, so I'll qualify it. Don't use them as you often see people using them. They are often overused and too long for the task at hand. If you put them in then be careful to be sparing - it's the ingredients thing again.

I'll elaborate more on this. Remember the size of scales I mentioned before? You can be in a combat scene with a wide view of the battlefield, and you can use the metaphor of the cavalry like an ocean wave etc etc etc - that's not too bad. It would be too easy to overelaborate the point, talking of other sea based phenomena such as spray, spume (another kind of spray, in case you were wondering), wavelets, tides and docks. I've seen too many examples in mainstream fiction where the metaphors and similes were too long, losing the effect. Simplicity is often the best way. Try these two examples -

His sword crashed against the man's shield like a thunderclap. The blow sent his foe backwards in shock, leaving him in a poor defensive stance.

A thunderbolt was his blow, shriving the air in twain as it clashed and echoed against his foe's shield, its impact sending out a shower of sparks as it grounded. The enemy staggered back, shocked, burnt and unmanned by the ferocity of nature in all its glory...

Description is a powerful tool to make the reader see what you want them to see. You have a mind's eye image of what is happening - let them see it, but don't drown them in it.

Next - Looking at things in perspective or time.


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