As we discussed in the previous article the details of a world can tell us a lot about it. This doesn’t mean we have to fill the novel with lots of detailed descriptions, this doesn’t mean we can’t as this is some writer’s style, but we can also use deft touches. A character straightening an ornament, showing respect to a religious symbol, or noticing an unusual detail for the place they are.
Spreading these details out can be helpful because too many details can be confusing or cause things to become lost. Readers can only process so much information at once, and this is particularly important if we have a detail we want them to note in particularly. For instance, if we’re using defamiliarisation we might want them to notice the details that make the world just a little bit different from our own: a clock that strikes thirteen, reflections that are out of sync with the owners, or the gravity isn’t quite as strong as it is in the real world. These are all important details we want to pop out to the reader and, perhaps, unsettle them. If a clock strikes thirteen we know something is going to happen, possibly something sinister. This tells us the world is different from ours, something is happening, and, based on how the character reacts, whether or not this is usual or unusual for this world. However the character reacts we know the rules of this world aren’t the same as our own, even if it appears the same at first glance, and we know anything could happen.
We can scatter these moments throughout the story and they don’t all need in-depth explanation. If a clock strikes thirteen and a character doesn’t react as if this is unusual then the reader can infer they’re either used to it or expected it. We don’t necessarily have to tell the reader which this is or why it’s happening straight away we can have events reveal it. Perhaps the clock strikes thirteen and they step into another world, or the clock strikes thirteen and they go to lunch because the world they live in has a twenty-six hour day.
On the other hand, we can also use details to make the world more familiar. Perhaps the character goes to the shop, packs up their shopping and when they pick up the bag it tears and all their shopping falls out. This detail might be massive to the plot, it could be a romance and they meet their future love when they help rescue the shopping, or it could be an inconsequential moment in day-to-day life.
There’s an argument that says we should only include things in a story that are important to it but details like dropping shopping, scratching phone screens, or kicking a stone on a gravel driveway can add layers to the world and make it more real. What we need to do is find a balance between giving enough of these details to conjure an image of the world and having so many we get distracted from the plot. There’s no fixed rules over this because it largely depends on style, some writers are more descriptive than others.