Explaining cultural architecture and other specifics in Fantasy

by Aron

I have been writing a story set in a fantasy setting and much of the architecture these fictional races are using is based on real world architecture from around the world. My main issue is explaining the appearance of these different looks without using the name of the real world culture. If I tell you ancient chinese architecture you get a pretty clear image of something resembling what I want, but if I go on to use wikipedia's descriptions of the same thing, bilateral symmetry and articulation, perhaps not so much. I don't believe it will create as clear an image with readers. I know that, personally, I had no clue what articulation in architecture meant before I looked for it recently. What would you advise a fledgeling writer to do in this situation.

Sidenote:
Also please forgive any grammatical errors above I'm still deep in the process of improvement and far from any sort of finished products.

Comments for Explaining cultural architecture and other specifics in Fantasy

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Aug 07, 2018
Who's it for?
by: Audrey

My comment title is the main thought here. Who is this description for? I promise you that in the story I imagined in my head, the reader didn't need to know anything more than what I said.

Here is some of what the reader will fill in:
length of bridge
color of stone
any decorations along the edges
approximate age of bridge
how many people are on it
how many vessels are under it
any broken bits that might need fixing
how wide it is
the construction material in the roadway approaching the bridge
whether or not there is a toll booth
what languages any people on the bridge are speaking
any animals crossing the bridge
any trolls living under the bridge
any homeless people fighting for space under the bridge
any explosives that might be attached to the bridge
any utility wires that cross with the bridge
any covering over the bridge
what the footsteps on the bridge sound like
whether there are any vehicles on the bridge
whether the bridge is shaded or fully exposed


All of this comes from the writer's imagination. If any of it is vital, the writer needs to include it. If it's not vital, it's best to let it go.

I am often taken by surprise when I talk with readers whose inner picture does not line up with mine when we've read the same book. I have a strong picture of what the author intends. The other reader has something else in mind in many of the details. But we both enjoyed the story and are not confused about the story elements.

It's always good to know why you are including details. If there is no vital reason, they are best left out. I bet you could add all sorts of things to either of my imaginary bridges. But I promise you that nothing you add will alter the actual story in my head, only your picture of the bridge, and as a writer, I'm happy to leave you with your picture.

If you have a reason to tie your setting to an earthly setting, but all means refer to it. Otherwise, let the reader's imagination soar. Will your story suffer if the reader imagines something different from what you intend? If so, include what is needed to relieve the suffering. But don't inflict too much suffering (as in too many words to read).

One other way around this is to change your point of view. If you want the narrator to be breaking in from time to time, the narrator can tell the reader anything the narrator thinks is important. If you go that route, just be aware of the pros and cons of using such a narrator. An intrusive narrator becomes another character, and you will need to consider whether you want that.

Aug 07, 2018
Best of both?
by: Aron

Thank you very much for the response. I just wanted to help guide imagination in the right/intended path. If you imagine stone bridges looking plain everywhere it steals the magic from the world and the uniqueness from the constructs but I'll take the "less is more" advice in consideration going forward and find a solution that best solves both problems.

Would explaining it in depth once and from then on referring to it my its racial moniker a good solution?

Aug 07, 2018
Descriptions in fantasy writing
by: Audrey

Hello, Aron.

I'm sure you are not the first person with this conundrum.

One way around this is to use the Star Trek solution where the characters in the fantasy have access to historical facts from Earth (not to mention visuals).

I assume your situation is different in that your characters aren't fussed about their links to Earthling buildings.

So, don't go to Wikipedia, go to your own observation. How would you describe a pagoda? Choose two or three main factors, and mention only those. After all, no matter what you say, your readers are going to use their imaginations, and that's a good thing.

I am restricting you to two or three features because I think the main point of your story is not architecture. In writing, real estate is one way writers signal importance. The more space you give to something, the more important it is. So if you spend a paragraph describing a building, it had better feature as an important aspect of the story, not in your head, but in the head of your readers.

It's great, even important that you have a clear image of the setting, but you don't have to tell the reader every little detail, only those that will matter.

So, if I were to describe two bridges, I might do this:

He crossed the stone bridge that arched over the water, allowing passage of the taller boatmen who stood to pole their rafts along the lazy river.

Some sort of cables seemed to be supporting the bridge from towers above the bridge deck leaving the waterway below a clear passage for even large ships.

I had two distinct bridges in mind when I wrote each of those. I could have gone into much more detail, but in each case, I gave only the information that matters to what I imagine my story is. And if the type of bridge didn't matter at all, I'd just say, "He crossed the bridge wondering where the river started and ended." That's because nobody needs to know what the bridge looks like. I know, but I don't count in this case.

I hope this helps.

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