Writing contemporary is often assumed to be the easiest form of world building because it is all based around the contemporary real world and everyone knows about that, right? Except the contemporary real world is different depending on where in the world you are, your background, and a variety of other factors. This doesn’t mean that contemporary is much more difficult to world build then people might assume it means there’s a high risk of failing to describe things due to assuming people know what they are. There’s also the high risk of ‘one of those’ descriptions.
The problem with ‘one of those’ descriptions is that it works on the assumption that the reader knows what you’re talking about and has the same image in their head. It might seem like a small thing but it’s a moment where the reader can be knocked from the story by thinking ‘actually, I don’t know’. While it’s not bad writing, it can work if that is a character’s voice or if they’re speaking to someone, it missing opportunities for description and also risks confusing the reader.
You might also think when I say a reader might think ‘actually, I don’t know’ I’m making a joke but this can be literal. Putting the weight of description on the reader assumes that the thing you’re describing appears in the reader’s culture and they know. We could make an argument, for instance, that the world is saturated with Hollywood movies depicting the culture of the United States, so doesn’t everyone know about that? No, they don’t. I once saw a movie where someone was eating a Twinkie and it wasn’t named as such, had I then seen a description in a book that assumed I knew what a Twinkie was I would’ve had no idea what they were talking about. It’s a small detail but if a detail is worth describing in a book, is it not worth describing clearly?
This doesn’t mean we have to describe everything as if the reader knows nothing. Somethings can be gained through context, for instance, I might not have known what a Twinkie actually was but from the context of a character eating it I could guess it’s a food and depending on the situation I could guess it was a snack. I don’t need to know exactly what this thing is but the context has told me it’s a snack.
Nor do would a reader need an in-depth description of something like a chair but if we’re considering describing it along the lines of ‘it was one of the coffee shop chairs you just sink into’ then we might need a little editing. The problem comes from ‘it was one of those coffee shop chairs’ here we’re assuming that everyone’s idea of a coffee shop chair is the same, it defines the ‘coffee shop chair’ as separate from ‘a chair’. Except, there are many different kinds of chairs in coffee shops, and there are also many different kinds of chairs in general. Rather than assume everyone has the same experience of coffee shop chairs why not say ‘it was a comfortable chair you could sink into’ or ‘they sank into the chair’. The implies they’re looking at the chair and thinking about sitting in it and the second describes through showing them sitting on the chair and sinking into it.
We could continue to argue that perhaps not all readers have sunk into chairs, but here we’re describing the chair as the character experiences it rather than calling on the reader to imagine it based on an experience they haven’t had. It’s easier to follow the character’s experience of the world that it than to call upon the reader to fill in the description for us which might pull them out of the story.
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