Things Being What They Are

Today a question came up on rec.arts.int-fiction about writing descriptions of objects. I realized I had some slightly more than half-baked ideas about this. Here’s how I look at it, in a nutshell:

1) Visualize the object clearly. Notice the color and texture. What is it made of?

2) When possible, combine two or more senses. If the player is holding the object, mention the texture or weight in the description. (This can be overdone. Strive for variety.)

3) Think about the object’s history. Who owns it? Is it new or old? If old, is it well-kept or ill-used? Is it expensive, or cheap?

4) What’s unusual or striking about it? (In my opinion, there is never a good reason to write a description that reads “It’s an ordinary couch.” This type of thing is rather common in under-written games. It shows the author’s lack of care or lack of imagination.)

5) If the PC has a definite character, consider including a bit of attitude in certain of the descriptions. Not all of them, certainly … but if the PC is a hard-boiled detective, we would expect him to have a complex attitude about his revolver, or about his bottle of whiskey.

6) However: Attitude is not a substitute for physical description! The old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” applies well to descriptions of objects. A “description” that tells us only what the PC thinks or feels about an object is not helpful at all. Writers sometimes do this sort of thing, I’m sure, to avoid mentioning the parts of things or adding adjectives, because implementing parts and adjectives is extra work. So — how many corners do you want to cut?

William Carlos Williams said (of his poetry), “No ideas but in things.” I feel this is a useful principle to apply to IF. Most of what the player will encounter will be things, so the story’s depth or texture will depend to a considerable extent on the descriptions.

Prior to the descriptions, of course, is the question of what things will be included in the model world. Williams was talking about that too.

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