18

Got advised on Worldbuilding’s Sandbox to post here, so here I am.

I don’t even know if the word “alien” applies here because to the eyes of the characters, those animals and plants won’t be alien at all.

I’m thinking about creating an unique flora/fauna for the world I designed, but can’t find a way to describe the plants/animals without being boring.

Think: a fantasy writer who uses Earth flora/fauna can just say “wolf” and every reader will know what he’s talking about. Maybe if there are fantastical creatures alongside common animals he can describe them, but them only, and it will not bore the reader.

Now, think about creating everything from scratch. The people of my world know what the animal I need to describe is. After all, the flying scaled green creature who produces a frightening and powerful screech is as common for them as a cow is for us. There is no way to describe it to the reader in the eyes of the character without sounding too expositional.

There are people who can shapeshift into animals in the story. Their entire society values, religion and symbology are deeply connected to animals. It’ll be quite a trick to explain that.

Some considerations:

  • I do not plan to go berserk. The fictional plants/animals will most likely follow the structure of Earth biology in the sense that they will be divided into trees, grasses, reptiles, mammals, etc.

  • I won’t write a biology book. Only the animals and plants important to the story will be described.

  • This is not a story of Earth humans interacting with an alien world. The story is set on the fictional world and narrated in the eyes of that world’s natives.

Movies and games have it way easier since they can simply show and not tell.

With all that in mind, how can I describe the plants and animals unique to the world I created without sounding forcibly expositional? Maybe this won’t work as a book after all?

  • 1
    Are you opposed to writing your biology book for YOUR reference? – corsiKa Feb 5 '17 at 4:24
  • @corsiKa no, I'll actually do this. – rschpdr Feb 6 '17 at 10:40
  • Just like God did it? – Volker Siegel Aug 24 '18 at 14:19
22

It's just scene-setting. Your main character gets up in the morning and goes out onto her balcony to enjoy the morning while her caffeine is brewing, and she contemplates all the plants in her garden. As her eyes linger over each, describe them briefly, maybe with little stories about why she likes it or when she planted it or how hard it is to cultivate it.

Then she goes to work, and her buddy tells her about the crazy thing his pet TKTK did, and in doing so describes it. ("So Rex got into the kibble, and his head is stuck in the bag. I pull it off and there's kibble all under his scales, and of course the purple kibble looks awful against the green, and then he screeches because the kids startled him and the window shattered!")

When a character shapeshifts, it's perfectly fair to use that as a moment to describe the new animal shape your character has.

Drop in the description when the item comes up, show us through the eyes of one of your characters, and don't overdo it.

  • 3
    Great answer. Show the parts that are important to the story. – raddevus Feb 3 '17 at 19:05
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    Good examples in this answer. Just give us the one or two descriptive details we need to know to keep the story going. I'll add that you should be careful not to spend too much time just looking at things. (For example, every plant in the garden.) So tell us green, scales, screech, and move on. If you put the story on pause readers like me will skip ahead. – Ken Mohnkern Feb 6 '17 at 18:18
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The sentence where you explain the following is your way into how it should be done:

The story is set on the fictional world and narrated in the eyes of that world’s natives.

Now, think about how people tell stories on Earth.

Suppose your friend is going to tell you about a car wreck he just saw right outside before coming into your house. One of the parts of the story is that the driver of one car flew through the windshield.

Now, might your friend tell the story and then say something like:

There was a terrible wreck. Your front lawn is a beautiful shade of green and I love the native lilies you have growing in the front flower bed. The stamens on those lilies are quite interesting. If you look closely you can see each fleck of pollen within the flower bloom. The driver of the Camry went straight through the windshield. She was a bloody mess. The red blood stood in stark contrast to your lovely front lawn. However, it almost matched those red lilies.

No.

Now, if you were writing a non-fiction story about flora and fauna, would you include the following:

I was staring at the beauty of the inner leaves of the lily blossom when a car smacked into a pole in front of our house. A woman flew through the windshield and landed in the flower bed. Her body smashed the flowers flat and I was quite annoyed. I pushed her body to the side and continued my examination of the lilies.

No.

The Point

Focus on the story you are telling.

If some alien in your story ends up crushing the leaves of an exotic plant to make a poison to kill another character, then show me the plant as the character gathers it and crushes the leaves. Otherwise, leave it out.

For it seems, that aliens tell the same stories we on Earth tell: ones that are relevant to the context. :)

When people drone on about things that are not in context, we call them bores.

  • The first example is authors speech and it perfectly dips the reader in the scene. hm, basically I'm saying yes yes yes for both examples :)) – MolbOrg Feb 5 '17 at 5:00
  • 1
    Great post, informative and funny to boot :) – Rapscallion Feb 7 '17 at 10:49
11

The Watson might help you in this case. It is a character archetype which allows the writer to describe things which otherwise would be obvious to the main characters.

For example, if you want to describe plants or animals which are unfamiliar to the reader but very familiar to the characters in the story, introduce a clueless character who isn't familiar with them, because of coming from another country with a different climate, or having grown up in a very protected environment. Think about a city kid going into the wilderness for the first time. Of course, this still doesn't allow you to get away with a biology book style description, but might lessen the oddness of it if done with moderation.

This is why many war movies have a clueless civilian, science fiction stories have a clueless non-scientist, expedition and survivor stories have a clueless beginner, they all provide an opportunity for the professionals of the setting to describe and explain things to the audience on a simpler level, something they would never do if they were only among themselves.

Basically, you might need an outsider, a naive newcomer. Not necessarily from another planet, it's enough to be from another environment, or with a lack of education about the things you want to describe.

  • 1
    Have you ever seen the tv show The West Wing? One character is named Donna (short for Donnatella). She is too often the person people explain stuff to so we, the viewers, understand what's going on. That technique has become a cliche called a "Tell a Donna." (My point? Use this technique carefully.) – Ken Mohnkern Feb 6 '17 at 18:22
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    @KenMohnkern : There are other situations where it works well. In Das Boot there is a photographer on board, and in Master and Commander there is the ship's surgeon who fill this role. If your outsider character has other roles besides being the target of exposition, then it can work. The problem is with characters who have this as their only (or most defining) trait. Another interesting example is Harry Potter, where the main character fulfills this role, especially in the beginning. Being grown up in the non-magical world, he can be introduced to magic together with the reader. – vsz Feb 7 '17 at 14:00
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I won't repeat my answer to this related question here, but instead briefly remind you that writing about an alien world is exactly like writing about the real world. You are stuck on the idea that your readers know nothing about this alien world that you made up, but that they are intimately familiar with this world we live in. But that is not true. Do you know how the school system in France works? Do you know what the current fashion in clothes, music, and food is in Turkmenistan? Do you understand the laws and political system in Burkina Faso? I could go on and on like this, but you get the idea: You can read a book written by an author from Chile or Finnland for a Chilean or Finnish audience and get it without knowing all the plants and animals that live there.

Because people are the same everywhere.

Now you are writing about aliens and you might want them to be different from humans, but for the story to have any relevance for your human readers at all, there must be some similarity, some kinship, something that the readers can relate to in the psychology of those aliens, and that will be the essential core of your story, the premise that drives the plot. Everything else is just there like spices to tickle your reader's mind. It is completely unimportant to your story whether that plant is blue or red, so you can

leave all that detail away.

Just tell your story as if your readers where from that alien culture and intimately familiar with it. If the story works for an alien reader, it will work just as well for us.

5

Everything is boring unless it has a function in the story. It it is irrelevant, it is boring. There is nothing you can do with language to make irrelevant stuff not be boring. Conversely, if something is relevant to the story, then it is interesting. Describing it beautifully may be icing on the cake, but it is its function in the story that makes it interesting.

Fantastical creatures and fantastical fauna need a story reason for being fantastical. Their fantasticality is irrelevant unless it plays a role in the story, and therefore boring.

So if your descriptions of your flora and fauna are boring it is not because you are describing them wrong. It is either because they are gratuitously fantastical in a way that is irrelevant to the story or because you are describing them at a time that they are not relevant to the story or in a way that does not make their relevance to the story clear. Connect them to the story and they will not be boring. (Unless the story is boring, of course, but that is another problem.)

Everything that Lauren says in her answer is perfectly valid, but only as long as these things are relevant to the story. What is the story reason that your character gets up and contemplates the strangeness of her garden? What it the story reason for the fantastical beast she transforms into?

If these things are connected to the story then the logic of the story will drive you to reveal them at the appropriate time. If they are not connected to the story than introducing them in the way Lauren suggests will be boring because they are irrelevant and irrelevant = boring.

3

I can get hung up on this myself and always have to remind myself that physical descriptions are not all that can be used to make the 'alien' more real. Plants and animals have social and cultural roles. Integrating these creatures and plants into the societies and cultures you create allows you to add depth without just listing adjectives or relying on comparisons to things that don't exist in your world. Nicknames also work nicely. They can denote characterisitcs without expressly laying them out. 'Nightstalkers' conjures up a certain feeling all on its own without any other descriptors. Gives you a nice platform to work from.

3

There is another option, and that is to go ahead and describe, describe, describe. A beautifully written natural history book or article is a pleasure to read. Here is some inspiration to help you prepare for this approach: the Best of Natural History podcasts, Saving Species and Would You Eat an Alien? from the BBC.

In other words, you need not necessarily hesitate to describe your alien world's natural history on an as needed basis, as the book unfolds.

The people of my world know what the animal I need to describe is.

Your narrator need not write to an imaginary audience of that world. You may imagine that your narrator is bicultural -- comfortable in that world, and comfortable enough in ours, to be able to discern for which plants, animals, concepts and customs will need a little help in following along.

  • 2
    I've upvoted your answer for going against the consensus. The existence of Worldbuilding Stack Exchange and the whole hobby of worldbuilding shows there is some interest in well-worked out factual descriptions of alien natural history without necessarily having even the pretence of a plot. But, speaking as a worldbuilding fan myself, I have to tell you that it is a pretty niche market. If simple description is what makes you happy, go for it, but don't expect big sales. – Lostinfrance Feb 6 '17 at 9:19
  • @Lostinfrance - I confess I haven't been a big science fiction and fantasy reader since my teens, and I'm sure a lot has happened since then. // To clarify my suggestion, I don't mean to say the book or story should only be description of the alien world's natural history. I mean that one need not necessarily hesitate to describe it as needed, as the book unfolds. I will edit my answer and try to be clearer. – aparente001 Feb 6 '17 at 14:31
1

Your flora/fauna should have a meaning for your story, and that is how you can introduce it. If this plant can save the hero from the poison he took, there is a good opportunity to describe the plant in detail, maybe as a monolog while the potion-brewer is brewing the potion. If that animal threatens the hero in the nightly forest, every feature of it could be important for survival, so you have a reason to describe it.

This will naturally lead to the flora and fauna to be introduced gently, piece by piece, which may or may not be what you want for the story, but one advantage is that it doesn't overwhelm the reader and prevents the "biology book" effect.

Two masters (IMHO) of this are J.R.R. Tolkien and Roger Zelazny. Both found ways to introduce their world (Middle Earth and Amber) gently and with context for every piece.

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