Make All Their Dreams Alive (or not?)

On the topic of writing for fantasy and science fiction, there is a fine line in regard to what details, you, as the author, should be aware.

As a master of fine art in painting and design, one issue with image-making my classmates (students and colleagues) at my school had frequently glossed over had been the factors of focus and the level of rendition. How detailed should one portion of the composition be in contrast to another? Sometimes that’s a tough question; elements such as distance, weather and atmosphere could cloud or denature the portion in question.

When writing fantasy and science fiction, it isn’t quite as involved. I would always err on less being more for these genres. Some of the best sci-fi/fantasy out there refuses tight, painstaking descriptions of featured technologies, creatures and otherworldly designs, not just for eyeflow and pace, but for one inherent attribute of those genres – fantasy.

J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t go into explicit description of the Nazgul or the orcs. All we knew was that they were big, bad, dark and twisted elves. Stygian boogeymen that wanted the main characters roasted on a spit. Good enough.

Not a lot, but fantastic!

Why is this important? When you read fantasy, the goal is not to simply enjoy fiction, but to fantasize.  I, as the author, cannot do that for you, dear reader. Sure, the cover illustration can impose the overall tone and mood of the mystical setting nestled in between the preface and afterward, but you, as the reader, must use your imagination to fully appreciate the experience of whatever guidelines the author had set as a basis – a springboard – for your mind’s eye. It will make a profound reading experience for your audience when you go minimal with the glitz and gloss. Not too minimal, or else you’ll only confuse your readers unless they have an immense tooth for imagination. Don’t assume they do, but don’t hand it to them on a platter either. You’ll ruin the story’s beat.

Horror is a different matter altogether. I employ many elements of horror in my writing as it punctuates my plots. Horror is visceral. You must, with a surgeon’s scalpel, at these points render the grue and the gore, the stink and the terror and woe of your horrific scene. Go crazy in describing the sweaty, fat cannibal who sings in a high-pitched shrill and reeks of spoiled milk (ugh). Horror is a mood while fantasy is a state of mind, and ultimately, a chore. Your chore as a reader. Again, I cannot do that for you as the writer.

It’s like upshifting and downshifting a car. When your fantasy must delve into horror, punch up the detail, and then put on the brakes when the fear settles. H.P. Lovecraft was a master at crossing these genres. When the elements of fantasy confronted the protagonist, he would describe these wondrous monsters in abstract terms, and so, the terror in which the stories were set mutated into surreal fantasy. His Elder Gods defied description because they were physically unknown to humanity. They were fantasy. We all fear the unknown in some ways and, as such, Lovecraft’s fantasy fell back into horror because of that. Like I said, it’s a fine line.

Give your audience what they want – the work of fantasizing. You, the author are the boss and your readers must make the product.


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