Mary Robinette Kowal once described writing as telepathy. Our job as writers is to communicate ideas from our mind to the minds of our readers through indirect means, sometimes even across oceans and years.
However, no matter how good we might be as writers, it’s also almost guaranteed that what we had in our mind and what our readers will picture in theirs will not be the same. Everyone has different experiences and memories to draw from, and that is what their subconscious will use in creating the mental pictures they form when they read your descriptions.
For example, suppose I were to describe a stone archway with moss growing between the blocks. What do you see? Is the stone light colored? Dark? Dry? Wet? Is the moss frilly or think green clumps? Is your archway set in a larger wall? Holding up an aqueduct? Leading into a castle? I didn’t have to fill in those details–unless they were important to the scene–but you likely saw all of that anyway. A few cues are all that’s needed to tap into the deep and rich ground of a reader’s imagination.
I experienced this in person just this past week. I was in Vegas on business, and we went out to dinner in the Venetian hotel. On the way back to our car, we took a different turn and I found myself outside along a Venetian canal, complete with gondolas, under a beautiful evening sky. I was immediately entranced.
Then I noticed a strange aircraft flying overhead. When I looked more closely I noticed there were several of them, all flying in a loose formation. Then I realized they weren’t even moving. With a mental grinding of gears I suddenly realized the sky wasn’t a sky at all. I was still indoors, and the “sky” was an elaborately painted ceiling with vents in it.
I had been completely fooled. For close to a minute I was entirely convinced I was outdoors. Even when my eyes presented me with contrary information my imagination automatically re-framed it to fit into the context I had created. Eventually, that context couldn’t hold up under the increasing evidence, and the paradigm shift was jarring.
Our goal as authors should be to tie into the psyches of our readers to provide them enough detail to trigger their imaginations, and then keep everything that follows consistent enough that they’re not jarred out of that imaginary realm they construct. Learning to do it both effectively and efficiently is a skill that can be mastered with practice.
It is also important, however, not to assume too much. Readers may have common experiences sufficient to keep up with your descriptions, but take care to be clear. If you present them with a castle wall, for example, and then have your character step out of a door onto a field just beyond, you may wish to establish beforehand that there is no moat and that the open fields come right up to the castle walls. Many readers would not be bothered, but enough might automatically picture castles with moats around them that such a revelation could be jarring.
But, for the most part, if your readers trust you, they will be willing to do much of your work for you, creating awe-inspiring scenes from a few, well-chosen descriptive phrases. They’ll even pick up on contextual clues to adapt their mental images to the right tone. It won’t just be a castle, for example, but a dark castle, wreathed in thunderstorms, without your ever mentioning the clouds.
Sometimes it’s important to present your reader with a very precise image, and so your descriptions will need to go into depth in creating that image. But when the setting or certain details are not so important it’s perfectly okay to allow your readers to provide the imagery themselves. They’ll do the heavy lifting, so to speak, and still believe you to be a descriptive, evocative writer.
Such is the beauty of writing. Communicating with another mind across time and space is hardly a precise art, but it can certainly be rewarding. The more you practice the better you’ll be able to guide your readers willingly into other worlds where they will enjoy spending time. It will feel like home to them, partly because they provided it themselves.