Seeing the Forest For the Trees

I was writing a scene in the new volume of Atlantis: TVC, and everything was going great–until I had to describe the Reidell Forest. This is not an inconsequential forest; it takes up a third of the eastern half of the continent, and a decent portion of volume two takes place there. My fingers came to a screeching halt, and I consulted the giant thirty-eight page behemoth that is my reference file for this series.

I had jotted down what kind of climate Atlantis has, along with some details about the flora and fauna that could be found there that were common to other parts of the world, but yet I was still at a loss to describe what specific kind of trees were in that particular forest. All I knew was that they should be evergreen, and I didn’t want to make up an indigenous species because it felt disingenuous.*
An hour later, I had scoured my options and decided on two kinds of trees that met all my criteria; they fit the climate, they were evergreen, and they were tall enough to be as impressive as I wanted them to be.

Was this important? Did people need to know about the trees so much that I devoted an hour of my time to it? Was I not seeing the forest for the trees?

I don’t know. I’ll never know.

I do know that I don’t regret doing it. I’ve learned over the years that I enjoy reading stories where the world is built slowly through tiny snippets of almost dismissible dialogue, and small, careful details like what types of trees grew in the forest. Since I enjoy writing the way I read, knowing the type of trees was important to me both as an author and a reader.

One of the big movements in writing right now is to trim. When in doubt, cut it out. Adjectives are bad; pare everything down to its bare minimum components.

I blame Twitter

I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy writing like that, or reading writing like that. Fans of it claim it is the superior way to write, as it leaves everything up to the imagination of the reader. On a forum I frequent, I often see aspiring and established authors saying that they don’t give much detail on their character’s appearances or the settings of their world due to this reasoning. The number one thing cited in support of this is a variant of, “The reader is just going to imagine them how they want to anyway.” They compete with one another, vying to be the most vague, thinking that it is something to aspire to because it is the popular thing to do.**

To me, that’s like cooking a piece of chicken, adding no seasoning, then telling the person eating that you didn’t season it so that they could pretend that it tasted like whatever they wanted.

Yes, meat is good by itself; it does have a specific flavor all its own. But when you add seasonings, they are supposed to enhance the flavor, not mask it. This is the balance that needs to be struck between Tolkien’s pages of waxing poetic about the forests of Middle Earth, and modern authors simply stating, “They went into the forest.”

The latter certainly tells us only the essential information–it’s that thing with trees and stuff. We can reasonably assume it’s not the ocean, or a meadow. We’re set; let’s go!

Probably filled with magical wish granting fairies!

But, what kind of forest is it? Is it a dark, silent forest, nestled in the foothills of some misty mountain region? Is it a bright forest on the edge of a meadow, filled with chirping birds and awash with rays of sunlight streaming in through the branches? These are definitely two different kinds of forests. What happens if the reader imagines the second forest, but then is yanked out of immersion when the current character is attacked by vampires? [Vampires are still popular, right? If not they can be attacked by evil dictators–I hear those are all the rage these days.]

You are slain by King Tyrant of Dystopiaworld

People read stories to be immersed in the world, to be invested in the characters and their tale. I feel that bare prose is detrimental to this process because it makes the reader pause as their subconscious constructs its own descriptions from scratch, which slows everything down. If an author expands–even a little–and uses the right words, it will tap into previously constructed concepts and evoke not only a stronger mental image, but will do it more efficiently. This allows readers to retain their immersion, and thus interest in your story; and who doesn’t want people interested in their stories?

I understand that readers [and authors] have different tastes, and that writers hoping to strike it big will follow popular trends. That’s true of any era; today’s horrible books are tomorrow’s classics. [I can say this with certainty because I know history repeats itself.] But when aspiring authors are steered towards writing one particular way, to the exclusion–and even detriment–of all others, it really irks me.

It’s like not seeing the trees for the forest, and that’s just weird.


* I swear I didn’t do that on purpose, but now that it’s done, I like it, so I left it. [Even though it could be confusing when read.]

** I can’t stop doing this…

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