I’m anticipating a relatively short post (especially for me) this time around but that shouldn’t minimize the importance. And, of course, I have a terrible track record at doing “short”. Postscript: After the fact, I can see that I’ve maintained my track record…
Last time around, I started writing about Wonders and what was necessary to make them amazing, and while there was some of that involved in the article that resulted, I ended up spending most of my time talking about the need to have them at all, and most or what remained, discussing the qualities that they had to have just to qualify for the label, “Wonder of the known world.” That’s because a whole section of the last article got yanked out in the final hours; a section entitled “Describing Wonders”. I pulled it when I realized that the subject applied more broadly, to locations in general, and deserved to be in an article of its own.
Part of the advice that I’ve offered in several of the articles on locations for the blog carnival, and in my earlier article, The Poetry Of Place: Describing Locations & Scenes in RPGs, is to use as little description up front as you can get away with (to some extent, this article can be considered a sequel to that one). ‘Less is more’ so it’s important to make the most of a few well-chosen adjectives.
The problem is that often, and for wonders in particular, you need to create a vision of otherworldly grandeur and magnificence, or of vastness, or of any of half a dozen other qualities, most of which got prominently mentioned in the last article. You need to create a sense of wonder and awe, and that’s hard to do with only a few words.
Use as many words as you need…
Does that make Wonders an exception to that general principle? Not entirely. The goal is to describe what needs to be described, plus sufficient additional description as may be needed to enable the imagination to fill in the rest of the environment to a sufficient degree to provide context. A good general impression is better than a lengthy and ponderous detailed impression of the whole – too many details get in the way of seeing the overall picture. If you describe every rock, animal, and tree, your readers/audience literally won’t be able to “see the forest for the trees”.
This hardly offers a precision guideline. It would be great to be able to say “the necessary plus two items” or “the necessary plus up to three” or some variation, but the reality is not so convenient. One “how to write” guide that I remember reading years ago(though I don’t remember who wrote it) suggested “The central focus of narrative attention, plus one or two general environmental impressions, plus one or two specific impressions, at least one of which has to be dynamic in nature, plus one statement for anything that does not fit the general environment or that distinguishes it from a dozen others, plus one specific reinforcing impression for each aberrant impression.” That’s a lot of description, especially since the guide was unclear on whether it was counting sentences or paragraphs. Nevertheless, I’ve found that its not too far off the mark – counting paragraphs in a novelized setting and sentences in RPGs and short stories, and employing a heavy editorial pen.
So let’s break it down into individual elements, and be clear about what each one is:
1. The central focus of narrative attention:
In principle, this is good, but right away there’s a problem in terms of RPG usage: sometimes we don’t want it to be apparent what the “central focus of narrative attention” should be. Thankfully, this is not the case when we’re talking about a Wonder or Monument. Even natural wonders, like a waterfall of spectacular beauty, or that flows upward for some reason, or is liquid helium, or whatever, have a central focus – though sometimes you may have to think about it. If a bay is sufficiently magnificent, is it the water, or the beach, or the trees, or the rocky prominences, or some interplay between two or more of these, that is the central focus? Or perhaps it is some collective quality that they all possess, or an attribute of the location in general rather than anything specific within it? What is so spectacular that this is a “Natural Wonder Of The World”? It’s not enough for it to be a picture-postcard of beauty.
What makes an Elven Forest different from any other forest in the Game World? What’s the difference between a Dwarven Mine and anyone else’s?
2. One or two general environmental impressions:
A general description of the broader environment in succinct form to provide surroundings for the central focus of narrative attention, and to provide a framework for the more detailed impressions to come.
3. One or two specific impressions, at least one of which has to be dynamic in nature:
When you look at a location, even one containing a wonder, there will be the central focus of attention and a general impression of what’s around it, plus one or two details that leap out at you from that general impression.
“Dynamic” requires some further explanation. I’m not just talking about active vs passive language, I’m talking about including some activity that goes with the scene – birds singing or a monkey swinging through the trees or clouds drifting lazily overhead. Note that these are not specific enough – you should name the species of bird and the quality of the song, or the species and size of monkey, or the type of clouds and relative direction of drift. This requirement keeps the scene you are describing from being a still portrait and brings it to life in some way. If the quality to be emphasized is tranquility, or calmness, or stillness, or silence, or something along those lines, the “dynamic impression” might have to come from a character’s reaction/action – drawing breath, or panting from exertions, or whatever.
4. A statement each for anything that does not fit the general environment or that distinguishes it:
The writer’s guide used the example of a WWII aircraft that had been reclaimed by the jungle. RPG locations can be a bit more exotic in nature, but the principle holds. Note that this requirement may already have been met if the “central focus of the narrative” is the only thing that doesn’t belong. It should really say “anything else that does not fit”, but that presupposes that the central focus doesn’t fit and would have become confusing.
If you’ve described a jungle, now is the time to mention that the plants are all red, or crystalline, or made of metal. If there are two moons in the sky, now’s the time to mention that, as well. If the lake holds the reflection of mountains that aren’t actually there on the horizon, take this moment to describe them.
5. One specific reinforcing impression for each aberrant impression:
For each element that doesn’t fit the general environmental picture that you offered in (3) and that isn’t the central focus of the narrative – in other words, for each descriptive ingredient you mention in (4) – you need to add one more item of the same type as (3). Otherwise the weight of the unusual will overwhelm the general impression that you are trying to convey – unless, of course, that is the goal. And again, at least half of these should be dynamic in some way.
In what order?
This is a very good question. Should the central focus be the last thing that you describe? Or after the general impression? Or before it? How about those unusual elements from (4), where should they be placed?
There are two competing principles. The most obvious should go first because it is the most obvious; the most obvious should go last so that it doesn’t distract the reader/audience from the rest of the description.
The same logic – both ways – can be applied to the unusual elements.
And finally, there are two more principles, which can also be in opposition: if something is expected or anticipated, it should be early, to satisfy that expectation; and juxtaposition can be used for contrast and emphasis.
With so many ‘rules of thumb’ at loggerheads, the best solution is to throw the rulebook away.
I write using a word processor. So I can put each of the five sections of narrative on separate lines/paragraphs (even if they will eventually form one block of text) and then easily select, drag, and drop to try out different ways of ‘streaming’ the description. I’ve also found that doing so right after you’ve written them can be either the best time or the worst time to do so: the best time, because the impression that you have in your mind’s eye is at its most vivid at that point, the worst time because your players/readers won’t have the benefit of that vivid mental impression beforehand; your objective is to create it in the mind of someone who doesn’t already have it.
Copy-and-Paste comes to the rescue. I make three copies: one I leave unmodified, so that I can scrap my work and start over, one I modify right away, and the third I modify without having re-read the first two after doing something else for at least an hour, and preferably first thing the next morning. I can then compare the results of the newly-arranged second attempt with the first, and decide which is better – and if either are satisfactory.
That doesn’t mean that I get rid of the two that don’t measure up, not quite yet – I select them and change their color to Aqua or Grey or Silver or Yellow – some color that the eye will tend to skip over – and wait at least 48 hours and preferably 5 or 6 days before making my choice final. More than once I’ve found that what seemed clear the next day is as transparent as mud when I come on it completely fresh.
…but go light on the adjectives
Four or more descriptive passages? Each with one or two adjectives? No, no, no. That’s far too many.
In fact, the approach described above generally produces far more descriptive narrative than is needed. This is often a good thing if you then employ a little self-discipline and edit ruthlessly.
A writer (I forget who), discussing his editorial philosophy, said in one of his books, “If in doubt, cut it out. I have yet to encounter any book which could not be improved by the disciplined use of this technique.” Personally, I think that is going a little overboard and risks tossing junior out with his bathwater.
When I edit, I ask myself “What is this sentence/phrase/word contributing to the whole? Can it be removed without harming the whole? Is it redundant, tautological? Can I take whatever value was in this sentence/phrase/word and incorporate it into another so that I no longer need it? Can I make the description, or the situation clearer? Can I make the characters more expressive of their personality? Can I give them more personality?” (It’s probably worth mentioning that I perform next-to-no editing of my articles for Campaign Mastery beyond ensuring that the layout is correct, or they would take twice as long to write.)
While not all of that is relevant to descriptions of locations and Wonders, there’s enough validity that it is worth employing. And remember that there may be a Personality involved: either the personality of the builder/designer or the personality of, or that is attributed to, the subject.
Back to the subject at hand:
And speaking of subjects, let’s get back to ours. The guideline discussed above tosses “the central focus of narrative attention” aside with scant consideration, focusing more on everything else, and simply saying (in effect) ‘describe the Wonder’. Well, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, and this article is supposed to have the objective of showing you how – this dismissive approach just won’t cut it.
One Adjective to rule them all
When I want to describe a Wonder, I try to find one single adjective that most colorfully encapsulates the philosophy or quality that I want the Wonder to express. When I want to describe a more general scene, I try to find one single adjective that most encapsulates the general impression that I want the scene to have. When I want to describe a character, I try to find one single adjective that sums up the first impression that I want the character to express.
I call this the Ruling Adjective because it sums up the impression that I want the subject of the description to convey. I then build the rest of the description around that adjective. Let’s consider the process in greater detail:
Choosing the Ruling adjective
The first word that you think of is probably not the right one, but is usually related to the right one. The thesaurus is your friend; I look up that first word and make a list of related entries in the thesaurus, then look up each in turn until I find the one that contains the most nuance and implication for the subject of the description.
Although it’s called “the Ruling adjective”, I’ve been known to cheat. A noun may be the perfect metaphor or analogy for the adjective I want, which sometimes doesn’t actually exist.
Reject the self-evident
When I say “the first word”, I should qualify that: I mean the first word that is not self-evident. If the wonder is a very high waterfall, “high” or “tall” may be the first things that come to mind, but these are going to be obvious from the physical description. The “first word” expresses something more. It might be about the sound, or the way the water moves, or the light, or the color, or the smell, or some other quality of the waterfall. “Spire” or “Needle” or “Rainbow” or “Roaring” or “Stench” or “Emerald” or “Swirling” or “Cascading” or even “Misty”, all come to mind for describing different waterfalls – and those are just the terrestrial versions of the geologic phenomenon.
It Starts With A Name
The sense of awe and grandeur that we want to generate when people hear or read the description of the Wonder we are creating has to start somewhere, and the all-important first impression usually comes from the name. Nail that, and you’re half-way home; get it pedestrian, or worse, and you face an uphill battle.
So, what can you do to get the name right?
Names are important. That’s’ why I wrote a whole series on the subject a while back. Part Five of that series (A Good Name Is Hard To Find) was entitled “Grokking The Message: Naming Places & Campaigns”, and the first part of that article might be useful – but naming Monuments and Wonders (other than natural ones) didn’t get mentioned. So in part, this article can be considered an extension of that series.
Nor is that the only past article to which I should refer readers at this point. In The poetry of meaning: 16 words to synopsize a national identity, I used translations of 16 key words to get inside the collective heads of a culture, building layers of meaning and depth onto simple foundations. The national identity of the naming culture is definitely useful in determining the name of a Wonder, so this article is also of definite – if indirect – relevance to the subject.
Neither of these actually answers the question of how you derive the perfect name for your Wonder, though they both address factors to keep in mind while working on the name.
The Standard Formats
There are two standard formats that are generally used for the name of Wonders:
- The [General] of [Specific]
- The [Specific] [General]
I realize these aren’t very clear, so let’s throw up an example of each:
- The [Colossus] of [Rhodes]
- The [Reichsbacht] [Falls]
The first is usually applied to Non-natural Wonders, while the second is applied to some Natural Wonders and to locations which are not always considered wonders.
Incorporating The Wonder
These traditional forms buy into the popular culture mystique of ‘Wonders Of The Known World’ by association of form within the name, but they don’t do a lot to convey the sense of awe and mystery and majesty (and whatever) that is our end-goal. Part of the problem is that the “Specific” part of the name is either a geographic reference – a place name, more to the point – or sometimes the name of the designer or builders, and none of that really fires up the imagination.
Using the same form, however, we can conjure up names for wonders that are far less prosaic while still harkening back to the source forms. Off the top of my head, try these two:
- The Veil of Symphony
- The Impulsive Jungle
I have no idea what these wonders are – but the names alone are enough to fire the imagination, to start suggesting possibilities of what they might be.
In other words, the same principles that apply to creating good names for magic items also apply to creating good names for Wonders! This also offers the potential for other name forms, but they will all contain the same two components – a [general] element and a [specific] element.
Of course, this is the 20th-century (and 21st) human approach; your society might employ different naming conventions. However, this can create an additional burden for the GM to overcome, since it gives up the cache of your player’s existing awareness of Wonders. So have a VERY good reason for employing that different naming convention, or play to your contemporary audience of players/readers.
Having broken the search for an effective name into two smaller components, let’s look briefly at each, and then wrap up this part of the discussion with a guiding principle.
The [General] Element
This can be prosaic – “Jungle” in the second example above – but if you can find an alternative noun that is descriptive, so much the better – “Veil” in the first example, because it gives you an extra descriptive element for the price of one.
The [Specific] Element
This is the element of the name that pins this particular Wonder down, as opposed to any other locations that might fit the [General] label. As such, it frequently carries the heavier burden, having to create the gosh-wow (or at least, lay the foundations for it) as well as being descriptive. As a rule of thumb, I will spend three times as much time and effort on the specific element as I will on the General Element, minimum.
Don’t forget that rendering the name you come up with into another language can add tons of flavor. “The Hall Of Shadows” is already a pretty good name, but here it is in a dozen other languages, courtesy of Google Translate:
- An Halla Na Scáthanna
- Aula Umbrae
- Hall nan nan lonbraj
- Hallen av skuggor
- Itzalak Aretoan
- La sala de las sombras
- Le hall d’ombres
- Mae’r neuadd o gysgodion
- Sál stín
- Sala cieni
- Salurinn á skugganum
- Zule nas
A Tip for using Google Translate:
Avoid unusual capitalizing. When I started the above list, I had entered “The Hall Of Shadows” and quite often the software failed to translate it at all. More than half the above list was only accessible once I had changed my entry to “The hall of shadows”.
Another Tip for using Google Translate:
Quite often, copying text from a website produces strange formatting. I keep an empty notepad (plain text) document on my desktop; I copy and paste any website text into it to strip away any formatting, then copy and paste that into my actual working document, where – being bereft of formatting – it will adopt whatever formatting (font etc) is already established. For a long time, I thought that I had to save it first, but have discovered that step to be unnecessary.
Imply the Ruling Adjective In The Name
This is tricky to do but can pay big dividends if you can manage it. Sometimes a variation on the General element will do the trick, at other times you have to add this to the requirements for the Specific element.
Cheating with a non-human language: The last resort
A whole section of my article appears to have vanished without a trace. I’ve done my best to recreate it at the VERY last minute, but if I’ve missed anything…
If worst comes to worst, and there is no word in the english language that contains everything you need it to, you can always create a word in a non-human language and use that in the title. When you do this, the sound of the word you create should be reflective of the Ruling Adjective; you can put everything else in the translated meaning.
The Construction Of A Description
So, we have a suitably inspirational name for our Wonder, and we have the surroundings covered – now it’s time to get on with the task of describing the elephant in the room.
As usual, firm rules and techniques are hard to come by. Some descriptions work best starting with the physical shape, others are more effective starting with a dominant feature, while still others are most successful focusing initially on some general impression. A fourth option is to start with a reaction induced by the totality, or some expression of the dominant quality that the Wonder is to represent.
My approach is reminiscent of that employed in generating the description of the environment, spelt out earlier in this article. Put all the sentences together on separate lines, shuffle the order for clarity, tone, and atmosphere, review – and, if necessary, rinse and repeat. Then edit heavily.
Beyond this, there are some specific guidelines that I can offer that usually serve me in good stead.
Reject synonyms of the ruling adjective
Because the Ruling Adjective is intended to cover the totality, it (and variations) will frequently make an appearance when describing individual elements of the Wonder. This is an extended tautology by association, and you are better off culling all or almost all of these adjectives. Once they are removed – something I achieve by changing font colors again – I will restore one, and only one, somewhere near the start of the description.
If I do retain an additional variation, I try to place that piece of the description last, so that I am bookending the description with this dominant theme.
You can either describe a detail or use an adjective to refer to that detail – not both
If we’re talking about a Statue with unusual eyes, you can either describe those eyes, or you can attribute the effect of the eyes on the totality to the statue as an adjective. Doing both is another redundancy, and can lead to confusion on the part of the reader/player.
As an alternative, describe a sub-feature of the detail instead of describing the entire detail. This focuses the attention on salient points without wasting a lot of verbiage on the detail containing the sub-element. Instead of the eyes of the statue, mention the irises.
If a building, describe the windows or the glass, or use an adjective to discuss the effect that they have – not both – and so on.
Employ adjectives from other domains of language
A trick which I have mentioned before is to employ an “adjective” from some other aspect of the language. Take an adjective that would normally be used to describe a character’s personality and apply it to the structure, for example. Take a verb that would normally be applied to a person’s actions or reactions and use it (suitably modified if necessary) to describe the relationship between the Wonder and the environment.
I’ve discussed this principle before, so I won’t go into further details here.
Build around the adjectives
Sentences are normally built around the noun. Adjectives and adverbs are used to nuance, classify, quantify, emphasize, and elaborate on some aspect of the noun. This is fine for a literal description, but not so great when atmosphere is the target. Try building your sentences around the adverbs and adjectives, instead, applying them to less-common or global attributes of the wonder or its environment.
Build qualifying double adjectives then remove the primary adjective
This is a favorite trick for condensing a description, and one that I rarely see mentioned anywhere. Actually, amend that to “never”. I’m sure someone has observed this principle before, but if they have, they aren’t talking about it anywhere that I have found.
Take the phrase “a cloudy sky”. What sort of clouds? Here’s a grab-bag of possible second adjectives, each of which have been used to qualify the adjective “cloudy”:
- A Leaden, Cloudy Sky
- A Brooding Cloudy Sky
- A Fiery, Cloudy Sky
- An Icy, Cloudy Sky
- A Windswept Cloudy Sky
- A Broken, Cloudy Sky
- A Tempestuously Cloudy Sky
Now remove the primary adjective “Cloudy” and see what happens:
- A Leaden Sky
- A Brooding Sky
- A Fiery Sky
- An Icy Sky
- A Windswept Sky
- A Broken Sky
- A Tempestuous Sky
The missing adjective’s presence is still implied but the unique secondary characteristic is strengthened in intensity. One adjective is doing the work of two. And, by eliminating one of them, you can now add a tertiary adjective if one seems necessary.
This doesn’t always work, but most of the time it will sharpen your language very effectively, especially if used sparingly.
Don’t rely on software like Word to find and fix these things for you. I use word for spellchecking these articles, and it had absolutely no problem with the long-form versions of the examples above.
Replace adjectives and nouns with a more expressive noun
This advice comes from Rachel Shirley and her web page entitled How to use Adjectives in Novels. She offers three examples in the section “Effective Use Of Adjectives”:
- A large stone is more succinctly described as a boulder.
- Steady rain could be described as drizzle.
- A thick book could be reworded as a tome.
(If you go browsing on her site, note that each article is in two-column format).
Another page that’s worth a look, while you’re at it, is How the Right Adjective Can Breathe Life into Your Writing, by Nanci Panuccio.
Don’t be afraid to think big. Worry about questions of why and how later.
Just as it’s hard to infuse the mundane and trivial with a sense of wonder, it’s hard to keep the sense of wonder out of really big, creative, ideas. Be expansive.
One final reference
Creating a “Wonder of the world” is not all that difficult; you just need to get creative and find some inspiration. Describing one is not all that difficult either.
Doing it well is a whole different kettle of fish.
No campaign or literary world is complete without wonders and iconic locations. But these are neither wonderful nor iconic if poorly described. Your goal has to be to engage the imaginations of the readers/players with your words, and then sketch in just enough of the scenery that they get a sense of “being there” – additional details can always follow later.
Examples. You want some examples, right? Well, I’m working on some – I’m not sure if they will be ready Thursday or if they’ll have to wait until next Monday, but there are examples on the way. Just thought you’ld like to know.