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I have a story in mind that I would like to put onto paper. However, this story takes place in a world vastly different to ours with complex wildlife. Think about the movie Avatar, something among those lines. The scenes I would like to get across to my readers are very visual.

Now when I think about the scenes in my head it paints a pretty clear picture, but I am having a hard time describing it in a way that readers get a similar picture. I feel as if I just need way too much words to give my readers a good idea of what the characters are seeing and if I would write the whole book this way it would take way too much pages. And if I would split it into more than one book I would still have the problem that the storytelling would feel slow as I take multiple pages just to describe the scene without anything happening yet.

For example, in one scene a human from our world wakes up in a jungle in this new world. The plants are different, the animals are different, the sun is different and even his movement is different since this jungle is kilometres high, with trees connecting to each other so movement is a mixture of walking and climbing and it involves a lot of altitude changing instead of just going a straight line. I feel like I would need to explain everything the man is seeing before I can even start on how he reacts to it and what happens next.

So how can I write about this alien avatar-like world in a way that sufficiently paints the scene but also does not eat through pages faster than a gambling addict eats through his bank account?

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    Hey it's like... It's like Avatar but purple. It's like a lawn that hasn't been cut for 80 thousand years. It's like sea-weed soup but taller. With flying scaly monkeys.
    – Boba Fit
    Commented Nov 24, 2022 at 15:27
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    Is it in any way relevant to story what every plant and animal looks like in detail? You can leave a lot of things to the readers imagination. If it doesn't matter to the story, then it doesn't matter if they're imagining animals differently from how you imagine them.
    – user54131
    Commented Nov 24, 2022 at 17:02
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    Consider a different medium? A graphic novel or a computer game.
    – Ivana
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 9:05
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    An important question is whether your characters know about this world or not. If they are strangers, recently arrived to the world, then they are on equal footing with the reader, so you can just tell the story from their point of view. If they know more about this world than the reader, then you can choose how much explaining you want to do. There are several science-fiction writers, like Philip K Dick, who are notorious for using neologisms without explaining them, relying on context for the reader to paint their own picture of an unknown world.
    – Stef
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 14:08
  • You did a fair job in a single paragraph. Commented Nov 27, 2022 at 14:22

6 Answers 6

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One approach many writers take is not to describe the scenery but rather the character's reaction to the scene. So he wakes up and everything is different. Focus on his thoughts, his emotions, his attempts to understand. He looks at something, you describe in detail, he looks at another thing, less detail, a third thing maybe it's enough to say "as unbelievable as the [first and second]". Then he takes a step and --whoa!-- what's going on here? Again the focus on his thoughts and reactions.

Then the other character wakes up and now they can have dialog. "Are you seeing this?" "I sure am. And look behind you, it's even weirder!" Are these two strangers? Is one the boss of the other? Are they in a relationship? Your narration and dialog can reveal all of this mixed in with the scenery, so the plot can move. They can set off in great confidence and within minutes start saying "oh wow, this is going to take a lot longer than I thought!" You don't have to explain every detail of why at first. As the characters come to understand the place they are, they can explain it to each other and thus reveal it to the reader. What's ok to eat, how to get from place to place, where it's safe to sleep.

Think of it visually as having a very tight frame, just the character's face, just the one flower the character is looking at, and for a long time not pulling back to reveal that the whole world is strange and new and hard to believe. Eventually move to a two-character shot and some of the background. After the two talk, you can go a little wider. By restricting the pace of that pullback, you'll have time for character and plot in between scenery descriptions.

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In the best SciFi stories I read over the years, the weird and wonderful extraterrestrial (or far-future terrestrial) environments where just that: an environment or backdrop for the actual plot. Very, very seldomly is there anything of huge importance there which needs its own paragraph, chapter or even longer story-line out of "self-interest"; it's all explained with some benefit for a larger story.

You could do much worse than to have your plot (involving characters, important objects, and their relationships and development over time) to be one of the plain old ancient greek patterns - just fast-forwarded into an interesting universe. You would mention and describe only these details that are really necessary.

What works especially well for me as a reader is when the parts of the backdrop which are every-day, bog standard elements to the characters, are also only just mentioned in passing (if at all), and when only those features that are special to the characters are exposed in more detail. And then not only as plain descriptive, but really being explored through the actions, speech and maybe thoughts of your protagonist(s).

One particularly well-fitting scheme is the good old "road-movie"; i.e., your protagonist would simply do a long travel from A to B for whatever reason, overcome practical obstacles, marvel at the sights, learn new things, maybe change a bit due to what they experience, and so on and forth.

If you want inspiration, then I'd highly suggest writers like Neal Asher (especially his "Spatterjay" series), Peter F. Hamilton (the older "Night's Dawn Trilogy"), and especially the book "Hyperion" (Dan Simmons) amongst others. They, in my experience and opinion, ride the line between explaining their fictional universes and the actual plot just right to stay on the better side of becoming over-done.

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    Funnily enough, the Night's Dawn Trilogy is exactly what I thought of while reading the question. This story is split over several worlds (and artificial environments) each of which has unique flora and fauna, at least some of which has significant impact on the plot. The descriptions are spot on, IMO - they don't every stray into too much detail but tell you what you need to know and then move on with the plot. And visual detail is rarely actually necessary, so I may not know exactly what a Mayope tree looks like, but I understand why it's important, and have a good enough idea to guess.
    – occipita
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 23:11
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The other answers have made the assumption that your story is about the plot, which you have hinted at by saying that you feel the storytelling would be slow if you focused on the scenery. For the sake of completeness, I will mention a different approach.

Consider the environment to be a character in its own right. Give it a history and a narrative arc. When you visually describe things, don't merely dump facts on the reader, give emotion and motivation.

Nature documentaries might be a good source of inspiration for this writing style.

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One of my favorite parts of any Harry Potter is how Rowling describes environments for the first time. She tends to go into details about some things that were seen at a glance, but will only focus description on the things that are immediately important. Her lists are quick but contain lots of items with brief descriptions, using ending on an item that is the most memorable (It has an odd behavior or is attention grabbing but not important) once the room is filled with "stuff" the focus will then turn to the item that is important... But Rowling being known for hiding important elements with reveals. One of the most important items in the series was listed in one of these quick lists.

Fill your world with stuff for flavor, but be quick. Only focus on the immediately important stuff when you need too and at enough length to ensure that your readers understand what's is being described.

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Rudyard Kipling had a similar problem when writing stories about life in India for a reading public who had never left Britain. He used a technique which his since been called "progressive disclosure". (The same term is now used by software designers, to make it easy(ish) to understand how to use a complex application.)

Kipling would focus on a particular event and include an unusual word or two that did not disturb the flow of the story. Later, once the reader was aware of the existence of these new ideas, he would add details to them, little by little, until the concept was solid enough in the reader's mind to play a key role.

But you have an advantage. Kipling's goal was to make his readers understand a real (but exotic) concept. You are inventing a world, and though it feels important to you that you readers imagine exactly what you imagine, that is never going to happen. The power of a story is that every reader brings their own experience to it. You will write one story, but every reader will read a different one. So you can take advantage of this, and write with a light touch - the literary equivalent of negative space so that each reader can read themselves deeper into the story.

Scott McCloud describes this perfectly (for a visual medium) in Understanding Comics: Abstraction... Self-recognition Demonstration
(source: miraheze.org)

And... a useful side-effect of revealing things gradually is that it builds suspense. "What's a bronteroc?" (Keep watching to find out.)

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  • Alternatively, take a look at Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" trilogy (free registration required to archive.org). Peake almost smothers you in the details of an unfamiliar world, in such rich and beautiful language, with a slowly smouldering plot, so that the plot and the descriptions fuse. It takes a long time for things to happen, because things have always been this way. Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 7:04
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If you want to learn how to make the settings to be a matter of import and contribute to the story, I think it’s best that you read and analyze J.R.R Tolkien’s craft——especially in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit, the latter of which does an exemplary job by essentially bringing the reader to the world which Tolkien has constructed. I’d suggest paying special attention to how he combines characters and settings, and while be does have many drawings, you can imagine the world he describes almost entirely through his use of visual, tactile, and auditory imagery.

After all, his writing isn’t the birth of fantasy as a genre for no reason.

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