Becoming completely immersed in a book is the best feeling. The outside world dissolves beneath the words on the page, and I am instantly transported into the story. I feel what the character feels; I experience what they do. As a reader, there’s no greater adventure.
But as a writer, the ability to pull myself into that meditative state of immersion is one of the best parts of the entire process! It’s also the thing I’ve had the most trouble with. As an over-writer, I go all in on description, often doing the exact opposite of what I set out to do. Over the years (and after plenty of killed darlings), I’ve discovered a few hints and tips that have really helped my environments come to life.
The first – and arguably the most important – aspect is that all written environments should stimulate the five senses: Sight, Touch, Smell, Taste and Sound. In the early days, this was my biggest mistake: I used to focus primarily on Sight. While I am all for a visual description, just focussing on this one sense can make the world feel flat. By its very definition, it’s one-dimensional, almost like watching your favourite movie on mute and without popcorn – and what’s a movie without popcorn? So, when I’m just visualising a scene, I actively ignore Sight.
Usually, I imagine I’m standing in the place I want to describe, then I close my eyes. What do I hear, smell, taste? For example…
You’re walking barefoot on warm, soft ground. A cool breeze blows against your face, the gentle hum of breaking waves tickle your ears as seagulls caw overhead. Heat prickles your skin, you taste salt upon the air, and thick humidity saturates your lungs. Where do you see yourself?
From that brief description, I see myself on a sunny beach somewhere (gosh, one can only hope), but nowhere in that snippet do we actually see the beach. Yet, all the other senses point to our location, even without an explicit visual description.
Right, I now know I’m on a beach, and my senses are tingling. Only now do I add the visual detail. With this, I usually start big, then go small – and the more specific, the better. This is where photographs really come in handy, especially for describing the subtle little nuances in an environment (I can’t tell you how many photographs of half-withered trees I have clogging up my phone’s memory). So, going back to our example, what obscure bits of detail can you add to help paint a clearer picture of that beach? And I wouldn’t worry about adding too much detail, especially in the first draft. Go all in; you can always edit any superfluous bits later.
Walking down the beach that stretches into the horizon, you realise the sand is black. Millions of smooth grains envelop your foot with each step. You watch the sand tumble over your toes and catch the fleeting glimpse of minuscule conical shells, rolling with the rest of the grains and speckled with tiny pink and grey spots.
Now I know what the beach sounds, feels and looks like. But it still doesn’t feel truly alive just yet. I get around this by adding a touch of environmental realism. I’m a sucker for adding realistic traits to my imaginary locations, as I feel this increases the authenticity of what I’m trying to create. I also keep in mind that even imaginary environments – and people – are dynamic, and respond to their surroundings accordingly.
You suddenly realise how hot it is, and that black sand is no exception: after it’s absorbed all the sun’s heat, it’s searing hot and burns your soles. You immediately leap from the sand, heading towards the sea’s naturally cool waters, but at least the sand will exfoliate your feet on the way.
Of course, not all the environments we create are going to be rooted in the real-world. After all, half the fun of fantasy world-building is to create impossible places! Even for these magical, unrealistic locales, I still like to add in comparisons to common, real-life objects/locations (where appropriate to the story/genre). By doing so, I find it makes even the most impossible environment more immersive, because it immediately becomes tangible, especially if multiple senses are engaged.
As you’re hopping from one piece of hot sand to another, you realise the sea has turned a bright, fluorescent yellow. It reminds you of the fluid from a highlighter pen, and you even detect its familiar, sickly scent of chemicals in the salty air. Still, nothing can deter you at this point. You thrust your burning feet into the cool yellow water, and it sizzles around your toes. Delicate bits of steam waft up and you realise, to your great surprise, that it smells like freshly baked pancakes dipped in icing sugar…