I typically post either tech or gaming articles, but one of my primary areas of interest is fiction. I love to write stories, both short and long, and a major subset of this pursuit is drafting compelling scenes and environments. The environment of a story is important, so much so that experienced fiction writers often tell novices to treat environment as a character itself. The Shire in Middle Earth has as much of a distinct personality as any of the major characters in Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. If you trace the journey of the fellowship of the ring, you’ll find that the disparate lands they travel through each have their moods, sentiments, and personalities. There are many talented writers on Coil, but if there are any novice fiction writers on the platform or people who want to improve their descriptive writing, they may find some of the details in this post useful for their future works. I’m going to end the post with a brief sample of my writing, but I’d also love to see examples of other scenic writing, either self-written or from a favorite author.
When describing a scene, a landscape, a house, or any other environmental object, a writer should try to attach a mood or sentiment to it, reflecting the kinds of emotions that they want to evoke in the reader. There’s nothing more boring than writing that is filled with inert descriptions of a place or an object, like the trees were green, the table was brown, or the sky was blue. By themselves, none of these descriptions help the reader form an emotional attachment to an object or scene; they’re detail minutiae that serve no purpose other than to pad the description of a place. Used sparingly, readers won’t notice them, but if a text is filled with them, it can make progressing through the work tedious. Details are always desirable, but each detail should mean something, show something, perhaps an aspect of a character revealed in the décor found in an apartment, or evoke a feeling of dread and worry for a character caught in a particular environment. Environmental description should be woven into the story in a way that perpetuates a motif or a feeling.
I have this theory that a home bears an imprint reflective of the kind of people that live there. If you’ve ever driven by a house that creeps you out, you’ll understand that sentiment. But why does it evoke that kind of feeling? How can a static object, like a house, evoke the same emotional response as someone who stands a little too close in a supermarket queue?
Part of the reason for this could be psychological or social conditioning. Popular culture depicts settings like decrepit or abandoned homes as frightening, so we are socialized to view them as such.
But I think it goes deeper than that. Art touches on something universal to the human experience. Popular culture, movies, TV, and literature are all an extension of how we make sense of the world. When you walk through an abandoned hospital, or home, and stained sheets are still on the bed, tucked under the mattress even though the walls have partially collapsed and the glass on the windows has long since broken. The waterlogged upholstery on the couches and the dilapidated furniture, some of the cupboards open, some closed, remind me of an imprint – a photograph, taken just before some calamity had struck the people that lived there. It directs our minds to an odd thought: could this happen to my home – something so terrible or frightening that would cause me to flee and leave so many of my belongings behind. Or perhaps, I simply dropped dead, and no one cared enough to notice or gather my things. These are distressing thoughts, distressing feelings.
A landscape can be similar. When describing nature, artists attach a sentiment to it, like wonder, happiness, dread, fear, or foreboding. You can play around with the environment and attach different feelings and connotations to it depending on what kind of story you want to tell. A jungle can be wondrous, new, exciting, or it can be frightening, claustrophobic, and deadly.
A tree is just a tree, dirt is dirt, but what they mean to people is where the emotion lies. A tree can also be shelter; the earth can be nourishment and survival. Even to an animal, territory is life. Appeal not to the rational mind, but to that animal portion of our being – that distant genetic memory of huddling terrified beneath the canopy of a tree, naked, afraid, and vulnerable.
Trees wrapped themselves around the island, coiled like a serpent waiting to strike. In the center of the waterway, stood a great stone, the top almost flat, covered with small trees and narrowing to a point in the water. It seemed to have broken off from the cliff face beside it. We rowed around it. As the inlet narrowed, cliffs rose up on either side. The stone was white in parts and dark as charcoal in others. Further ahead, around a bend in the river, we heard a torrent of running water. Then the cliffs became verdant and green, covered with moss and leaves from small plants growing out of the rocks. There were even a few shrubs with roots nestled deep in the stone, growing upwards at weird angles as they strained for the sun. A waterfall roared down the center of the starboard cliff, cutting through the brush like a scar. A peculiar bridge loomed just overhead, joining two segments of a path that was hidden behind the waterfall. It was at once welcoming and foreboding. The bridge looked to be made of bone, and the arch that held it in place was stained with a slight green. We saw no signs of life, other than the bridge, but I think each of us felt anxious. For some reason, I felt watched. Men from both boats scanned the cliffs as we rowed forward. That’s when we first heard the drums, pounding from somewhere overhead, stone against hide, over and over, then silence, then another drumbeat, further inland, and another. The same pattern, boom, boom, over and over. The captain’s boat drifted up to us.
“We managed to save a few of these from the ship,” Weston said. He tossed two rifles at us, one to me, and one to Lysander. “Just in case.”
“Gods, I hope they’re friendly,” William said.
“And if they’re not…” Lysander replied, patting the rifle that lay across his lap.
From the inlet, we emerged beneath a canopy, where the warmth and humidity made our skin glisten and our clothes damp. Breathing was hard and every pull on the oars seemed to sap more of our strength with each trip through the water. Birds screeched and fluttered, some with long orange beaks and black feathers, others with feathers of blue and white. Mosquitoes, flies, and other insects buzzed and hummed within the trees. We heard the screams of apes, and the sudden rustle of leaves as something bounded through the underbrush. But all we could see were the trees, and the murky water of the river running through the island. We were apart from it all, and I had the unnerving feeling that the island did not want us.
Header photo by Stanislav Kondratiev
Chapter Photo by diGital Sennin