Writing is not a photograph but a charcoal sketch.
Vision involves simultaneous processing: one glance gives you the whole picture. Writing is sequential. If you describe all that you see (and hear and smell and feel in your body), you need to stop the storytelling.
Some writers actually do it. I once started reading a book, until I got to a description. It went on for at least three pages. It may have extended beyond it, but guess what, I don’t know. I stopped.
The right amount of description is what stays invisible.
Please read this extract from Liberator, the lead story in Bizarre Bipeds. I have deliberately chosen an episode well into the story, so you can see how I use description for continuous reality building. I hope that, even without the intro stuff in the first chapter, you’ll get to know and like my little friend Mirla.
Please read it, for pleasure. It’s only 700 words.
7. Across the Plain
- The treeless plain was terrifying in its dark emptiness. An unblemished starry sky stretched above Mirla as she sped toward the still all too distant river.
Ranla had told her, at their last meeting, that they were going to hunt sodoros next. The huge slitherers-with-legs were a famous delicacy, but few people of the village had ever had the pleasure of the taste. The river had been just too distant. But now that they were almost at the shore, people might as well taste sodoro steaks. Mirla stopped for a moment, and took a deep drink from her waterskin. Then she bounded into motion again, resting her most tired leg.
Soon after, she sensed movement somewhere to the south, and instantly dropped to hide in the long grass. She knew that terrible beasts roamed the plains at night. She lay there, heart thumping ⎯ but she just had to reach the shelter of vegetation along the river before the light of day would reveal her presence. So, slowly she raised herself. First she scanned all around, then turned all three of her eyes southward. She was almost sure that she saw several shapes. Probably it was a herd of grazers of some kind. She raised a leg and started to bound again.
Slowly the stars moved in the sky, and gradually the dark horizon became jagged ahead.
Puffing, at last she stopped among the trees lining a near-vertical cliff, which she knew dropped down to the river. It had to be one of the famous Cliffs of the Magic Stones. She drank the rest of her water, then hunkered down and ate while waiting for dawn. A glow attracted her attention. It rapidly approached, then stopped less than eighty-one bounds away. A blinding square of light appeared, then a moving, very complex shape blocked it for a moment. Mirla wanted to run. She wanted to freeze and do nothing. Instead, moving with stealth, she eased closer so that she could see what went on.
Two bizarre shapes carried a long, thin object. They just had to be the monstrous people from the stars. Their height overawed her. One had a thick body. The other, slightly shorter one was thin and wiry. Perhaps that was still a male?
Mirla noted with surprise that they only had two legs. How strange. Why didn’t they fall down? Their pattern of walking was a sort of a lurch from foot to foot.
Also, they definitely only had two arms, and there was that odd knob on top of the body. She didn’t know which way they might be able to see, but assumed it would be in the direction of their progress. She stayed behind, getting closer. She could now hear their heavy breathing.
Then, with a shock she saw that the object in their hands was the limp body of a third person of their own kind. The thick-bodied monster held it under the arms, with the body’s two arms and the top knob hanging down. The thin monster held the two legs. They stopped at the edge of the cliff, and she heard a very deep voice say something. The front one turned around, then they stood parallel to the cliff. They put the body down, and the smaller one kicked it hard, in the top knob and in the chest. The other monster made a weird, deep, repetitive sound, something like “Har har har har.”
Both of them bent and picked up the body. Three times they swung it, then hurled it out over space.
She heard a thud after what felt like a long time.
Suddenly she realized her danger, and slid behind the gnarled trunk of a tree. The two monsters walked past her, still talking in their deep voices, making sounds that were without sense to her. They entered their magical device, which flew off northward.
That’s when she started shaking. How could they kill one of their own kind? They were utterly alien of course, but there was no mistaking their actions. The smaller one had been angry, and intending to hurt. She didn’t know if their victim had been dead already, or merely stunned, but she was certainly dead now!
I hope you haven’t noticed much in the way of description during your first read. Actually, there is quite a lot. Please read it again, and find all instances.
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