If I asked you to think of a richly detailed fantasy world, you’d have plenty to choose from. Earthsea, Middle Earth and Westeros might spring to mind, or many, many others. These have levels of detail that make many readers feel like they could actually go there. It therefore makes sense that as a writer, you want your own creations to feel just as fleshed out. So you come up with an array of characters and locations, and then sit down to write. But how much of what you’ve come up with should you show your readers?
To help you answer that, I’m going to give you two scenes to read. Both are early drafts, and are 250 words long. The first is about a prince on a quest to avenge his family and save his kingdom. The second is about a man who lives with his brother and is doing the ironing. Which sounds more interesting? Read on, and then decide which would be more likely to make you keep going.
The Scarred Throne
Allren knew it was hopeless, but he had to try. He was terrified, and had been since all of the murders. He was heir to the Scarred Throne of Felkro, or at least he was now. Assassins from the Enthralled Kingdoms had killed his sister, Leanna. She had been prepared to lead from an early age, while he had lived a life of ease, hating responsibility. Now that had all changed. His parents were dead too. Murdered just like his sister. He hadn’t seen it happen, but he knew it was true. He wondered why he’d chosen to go on that hunting expedition. Perhaps he could have done something and saved them all.
More likely he’d be dead along with them though.
Now, he was all that was left of the Tuldorian royal line. If he died, the slave masters would win. Felkro would become enthralled like Handor, Brekshun and Glornia. Allren couldn’t let that happen. He took one last look at the distant walls of the palace, his home for the past seventeen years, and slipped away.
The slave masters would pay. He swore it on the Rock of Victory. The boulder was said to be blessed by Barna and Cle, the gods worshipped since the founding of the kingdom, seven hundred years ago. The Scarred Throne sat on top of the relic. Soon, Allren would too. He would raise a great army, and then he would return. He would save his people.
And he would avenge his family.
The ironing board opened with a screech, and Ben slapped his crumpled shirt down. The buttons caught the red light from outside; small glimmers flecked the walls like drops of blood. He hummed tunelessly to dull the shouts from the basement. The constant thud, thud, thud of fist against locked door was just background noise now.
A jet of steam hissed from the iron, turning crimson. He attacked the stubborn creases, gradually made the garment right. Acceptable. Everything will be smoothed out. The pounding stopped, replaced by the rattling of the doorknob behind him. His brother’s muffled voice came through the thick wood.
‘Ben, please, just talk to me.’
‘Not now. I have to get ready.’ The floor suddenly trembled. Ben steadied himself and the board, and kept working.
‘Please, it’s almost loose.’
He set the iron down, willed his forehead not to furrow. Make yourself flat. Even it all out. His slow footsteps echoed in the almost-bare room.
‘Brother,’ he murmured, crouching by the keyhole, ‘I have to get ready.’
‘Just let me out and we can talk. Please, let’s talk. Okay?’
He patted the door and stood. ‘It is all going to be okay.’ Another rumble rocked the room, bringing a shower of plaster from the ceiling. The red light pulsed now, steady, reassuring. Ben smiled and brushed the debris from his shoulders.
‘It’s not going to hurt us,’ he called, returning to his ironing. ‘I’m going to smooth everything out, and then it’s going to be okay.’
How much do you remember from the first example? I can just about name Allren, the protagonist, but that’s about it. Multiple kingdoms were mentioned, none of which I can remember. Most of them aren’t ever mentioned again either. (This is doubly true because I wrote both examples specifically for this post, but let’s keep pretending they come from complete drafts.) The entire scene fills the reader in about the world, and forgets to get going with what’s actually happening.
On the other hand, the second example gives us very little. Ben is the only named character. He has a brother who he’s trapped in a basement, and he’s obsessed with smoothness. Why? Also, what’s the red light outside? What’s almost loose? Why’s he so calm when his brother is terrified? We have no idea. However, if the scene’s done its job, we want to find out. That’s what keeps people reading.
All of the points in the second example need answering. However, they don’t need answering immediately. The scene could have explained what the thing that’s almost loose is going to look like. However, having it burst through the wall in a future scene would probably be more effective. Filling your reader in through what’s happening to your characters often has more impact than making them sit down for a history lesson.
What are your thoughts on the examples? Did the second one hold your interest more, or did you actually prefer the first? Get in touch and let me know!