By Damien Walters Grintalis
Speculative fiction is a playground of possibility. Your story might be grounded in the reality of Earth or set on a distant planet, you might have clockwork animals and airships, wizards and magic, or perhaps there's a ghost beneath the floorboards. But no matter the scenario, readers want to believe in your world. It's up to you to paint a vivid picture.
Use wide strokes of your brush for the background and save the little details for the focal points. Add tiny hints for things you want to keep partially obscured, but still want the reader to note.
Engage the reader's senses. All of them. Wrap them in sights, sounds, tastes, scents, and tactile sensations. Let them feel the warmth of the sun on your characters' faces. Let them smell the smoke from a distant fire. But don't go overboard, either. If every fire smells like brimstone, don't choke the reader on the stench. If every drop of water tastes like honey and chocolate, don't give them a cavity. And if every house in your story is round with a thatch roof, you don't need to describe each and every one.
You can also use sensory information to paint the tone of the scene and the story itself. On the surface, there's nothing inherently wrong with stating "the door was tall and wide and painted the color of blood". But it's a rather flat description. It tells the reader that the door is red, sure, but what does it convey? Not much, in truth.
But if it's the only red door in a hallway lined with black doors? It says something is off kilter. Maybe there are strange sounds coming from behind the door. An invitation? A warning?
In a science fiction story, perhaps there's a smell of overheated electronics and a strange glow emerging from the gap beneath door. In fantasy, perhaps there's the sound of faerie wings fluttering or the kiss of heat from a dragon's exhalation. In horror, perhaps there's no light at all and the heavy thump of footsteps.
Find the balance between too much and not enough. You don't want to bury the story beneath an avalanche of description. Not everything needs to be spelled out. Conversely, there's nothing worse than reading a story that feels as if the characters are nowhere at all.
In the real world, our experiences are not limited to what we see. The same should hold true in fiction.
Damien Walters Grintalis lives in Maryland with her husband, two former shelter cats, and two rescued pit bulls. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Penumbra eMag, Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and others. Her debut novel, Ink, will be released in December 2012 by Samhain Horror.
Learn more about Damien Walters Grintalis on her blog and on Twitter.