Our brains are a LOT more interested in filtering out unimportant input than on focusing our attention.
We work this way because the amount of data in the actual sensory world is incomprehensibly vast — even the 360 degrees around you right this second — and processing all of that data from all 5 senses (not to mention the internal dialog often triggered by such processing) would be utterly overwhelming.
And so, before we’ve even noticed a thing consciously, our brains have already singled it out as being potentially important and directed our attention at it, filtering out 99% of the rest of the world.
Use All Five Senses, Luke
It’s common for writers to think they must paint a detailed multi-sensory portrait of every room, every location, and every character they introduce. This mimics (mimesis) the ontology of the actual sensory world, as the reasoning goes, and our English teachers always said “use all five senses.” We wouldn’t want to disappoint Ms Engle.
But Ms Engle wasn’t teaching us how to write literature. Her job was just to make sure we were capable of expressing ourselves on paper, and the exercises she gave us were designed by a means testing committee in some industrial-scale educational corporation. It’s true that the practice of over-description is just like the actual sensory world — in which the entire blooming cacophony of existence is firehosed into all your headholes at once — but who the hell wants that?
No, On Second Thought, Please Don’t
In a work of fiction, the author (through the narrator or POV character) needs to play both roles — the perceiving and the filtering — because there’s no way the reader could be expected to make that judgment themself. Sure, there are exceptions (murder mysteries come to mind), but in most genres, unless you’re James Joyce, your readers don’t really want the entire blooming cacophony of existence. You must act as both the Perceiver AND the Filterer. Moreover, you must do this for both the POV character AND the reader simultaneously. That’s because, in some strange and magical way, your words exist in the gap between the voice and the head: your voice, their head.
What’s important is to notice what’s important.
This is perhaps most easily done in limited third person, because you just have to pay attention to the things your character would. In other stances, you’ll need to take a more deliberate hand in “painting” what you feel the reader needs to know, in order to elicit the experience or mood you’re conveying.
Sorry, Ms Engle, but you know it’s true.
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Afterword: That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Edit
One final note: Overwriting may be fine, if that’s just the way you do first drafts. If you have a tendency toward over-description, you can always come back later and do a kind of “perspective edit,” or hire a professional editor to help you rein it all in. Yes, I am probably available.
Today my Playtester patrons are getting version 3.0 of UnNatural – bringing the rules up to CORE 3.0. It’s based on that TV show I’m often talking about. The one with the two brothers? I’m sure you know it. Now you can play it! https://patreon.com/posts/71475614
I’ve been focused on art and design for the new and upcoming books, that’s a given. The new cover for Liquid Hitler (above) was created by MidJourney, the notoriously controversial AI art-thing. But the older books will also be available for retail sellers through Ingram. Forex: Who could forget the AMAZING cover for Fragments 1 by Jessica Dueck of StarsColdNight:
UbiquiCity book 1 (2nd pressing) sees only a few minor fixes on the inside (and now sports a more “modern” page layout), but outside, the colors and names pop a bit more, and the blurb has been punched up. I think a core aspect of my book cover design strategy is making you look closer.
All of which brings us to a bit of Book Cover Design Philosophy, and it’s slightly different depending on your market/medium:
FOR PHYSICAL BOOKS — The title is to make you look at the front. The front is to make you look at the back. The back asks a question & implies that the answer is inside.
FOR ONLINE BOOKS — The thumbnail is to make you click, The blurb asks the question, makes you peek, and reviews get final veto.
Did you write a scene where your Main Character looks in a mirror and notices details of their own appearance, so you could describe them?
The biggest reason that mirror scene is so clearly evidence of a beginning writer is because over-description is also a sign of a beginning writer, and the mirror scene is just an excuse to do it.
It’s quite common for us to be taught in school that we should “use all five senses” and “describe things in detail.” Unfortunately, the teachers that tell us these things aren’t trying to make us better writers; their job is just to make sure we know the grammatical rules and don’t shirk from expressing ourselves on paper. What they taught us is not literary; it’s merely academically correct.
Meet a new person. Talk to them for a minute or two. Now walk away or close your eyes. Ask yourself: How many details do I remember? Better still: How many of them are actually useful in understanding who this person is?
Certain details — like a look, a tone, a uniform, cleanliness/slovenliness, a pleasant or disgusting odor, wearing a power tie, expensive shoes on a poor character, a tattoo with symbolic meaning, words like “prissy” or “statuesque” or “disheveled” etc etc etc — these are actually important, because they suggest lots of information about this character. But most visual details are not important, and a TYPE DESCRIPTION (even something as simple as “he was a surly cop with arms as thick as your head”) are actually much more evocative.
Readers have their own imaginations, and visual details are usually more effective when used as associative triggers, rather than simply a list of empirical facts.
Things like hair color, eye color, color or brand names of clothing, pattern of fabric… this stuff is almost never important, and it simply produces cognitive overhead the reader must process without reward.
Mechanically — how to play it — finished and in active playtesting.
Pedagogically — how to run it — still designing an optimal approach.
This is because CORE is built to facilitate a specific type of play: one I can’t assume your group is experienced with. Narrativism in general can be a tough pill for some people to swallow, and CORE presents a deliberately “hybrid” system that might – at first glance – be easily mistaken for a “Trad” game. But the Narrativism shows itself quickly, and the GM must have confidence in their ability to run in a loose and collaborative style. This may or may not be something you can just “teach” someone; but like any soft science, you can approach it a well-structured way, in order to provide the student with the right learning tools — in the right order — to understand the subject to the depth of which they’re capable. In other words, this is about pedagogy.
It’s pretty rare for a game design to bother teaching how to GM the experience pedagogically. It’s even more rare for a game to describe the designer’s intended experience of play phenomenologically. The assumption seems to be “an RPG is an RPG” and “you bring your own style to the table.”
While it’s true that all games are subject to playstyle, some games actually aim for an experience that’s qualitatively different than the things we usually think of when we think about RPG play (especially “trad” play).
The designers of such games must put in additional work to describe what it is about this game that makes the experience different, or requires a specific approach, rather than simply dumping some mechanics in front of you and letting you figure it out.
This can be hard to do, given the “omniscient” perspective of the designer.