Stuck on how to describe characters seeing something awe-inspiring

msstice

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It's a common science fiction scene, in fact a common scene in any literary work: My characters see something breathtaking: large, impossibly large and completely out of the ordinary. I've had moments like that in real life, and I've had moments like that in movies and video games. But I can't, for the life of me, depict this in writing. Now your diagnosis will be that I'm not a good writer, and your diagnosis be correct, but I would like to get there, despite what Stephen King thinks is possible*.

My intuition is that I should approach this as with any other aspect of writing: describe what's going on and let the reader infer the emotional state of the characters. But it all falls flat or trite. I don't think describing the size of the structure in kilometers really helps. Even more folksy things like how many football fields (or other familiar object) it takes up don't help.

I would appreciate examples (books, authors) of writing you all found great in terms of conveying massive scale (or a breathtaking sight) and the emotions it registers in characters minds so I could study up a bit.

Thanks!


*For those who must know, Stephen has a book on writing. In it he claims that bad writers can never become great ones. Now, I don't know about you, but that sounds like a challenge to me.
 
My intuition is that I should approach this as with any other aspect of writing: describe what's going on and let the reader infer the emotional state of the characters.
I think this is true.

As for examples, if you can find it, check Tolkien's description of Barad Dur as seen by Frodo in a vision at the very end of Fellowship of the Ring. From memory, Tolkien achieves his effect by the rhythm of his phrases as much as anything else. Rhetorical or poetic techniques can be useful in getting extra mileage out of ordinary words. I might come back tomorrow and examine that one more thoroughly.
 
Ursula LeGuin's Tombs of Atuan has some scenes like this; Tenar seeing the undertomb cavern lit for the first time; and then also when Tenar and Ged travel Tenar is impressed/intimidated by rather ordinary sights that are beyond her experience.
 
Here's a scene from Senlin Ascends. The main character has held a lifelong ambition to visit the Tower of Babel (a very very very tall tower). And after a lot of hard travelling he finally sees it...
——
A gap in the awnings above them exposed the sky, and there, like a pillar holding up the heavens, stood the Tower of Babel.

The face of the Tower was patched with white, gray, rust, tan, and black, betraying the many types of stone and brick used in its construction. The irregular coloration reminded Senlin of a calico cat. The Tower's silhouette was architecturally bland, evoking a dented and ribbed cannon barrel, but it was ornamented with grand friezes, each band taller than a house. A dense cloudbank obscured the Tower's pinnacle. The Everyman's Guide noted that the upper echelons were permanently befogged, though whether the ancient structure produced the clouds or attracted them remained a popular point of speculation. However it was, the peak was never visible from the ground.

The Everyman's description of the Tower of Babel hadn't really prepared Senlin for the enormity of the structure. It made the ziggurats of South Ur and the citadels of the Western Plains seem like models, the sort of thing children built out of sugar cubes. The Tower had taken a thousand years to erect. More, according to some historians. Overwhelmed with wonder and the intense teeming of the market, Senlin shivered.
——

Do you think this effectively conveys a sense of wonder?

Also @msstice I'm with you on that Stephen King quote. Not sure why he said that. But challenge accepted.
 
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This is how I tried it in Gathering:

Dalathos could only gape at the sight. He’d imagined Corianth to look like the town of Keiy, only a little bigger and busier. Keiy had defined what a city might look like to him—larger than the iron camps, or the market town of Tulst down the hill, with buildings of brick and stone instead of timber and wattle. This view made Keiy look like a sorry hamlet. Keiy also had its own keep. He’d looked in wonder at its walls and this had defined a castle to him. Yet this gatehouse could easily swallow it. Looking up, it was like seeing Keiy Castle for the first time, through a boy’s eyes.
 
I think it will in some respects depend on from whose perspective it is being seen. For example someone who lives in London today would see a skyscraper as nothing out of the ordinary, whilst someone from London in the 11th century would see it as something else entirely.

I really like this description by Douglas Adams of the Vogon ships so massive that human minds struggle to comprehend:

The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds raced to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.
 
Thank you for posting a sample! This helps. The passage was a mixed bag for me, but I can tell what worked and what didn't

——
A gap in the awnings above them exposed the sky, and there, like a pillar holding up the heavens, stood the Tower of Babel.
This is a bit obvious and is hyperbole, but kinda works

The face of the Tower was patched with white, gray, rust, tan, and black, betraying the many types of stone and brick used in its construction.
Neutral
The irregular coloration reminded Senlin of a calico cat.
This goes into comedy

The Tower's silhouette was architecturally bland, evoking a dented and ribbed cannon barrel, but it was ornamented with grand friezes, each band taller than a house.
This gives some idea of size, but the rest is a bit distracting

A dense cloudbank obscured the Tower's pinnacle.
Nice
The Everyman's Guide noted that the upper echelons were permanently befogged, though whether the ancient structure produced the clouds or attracted them remained a popular point of speculation. However it was, the peak was never visible from the ground.
This takes away a bit. I believe because there's so much thinking and remembering. I wonder if it will be more punchy if I write it with very short, simple thoughts, with not to much thinking and remembering.

The Everyman's description of the Tower of Babel hadn't really prepared Senlin for the enormity of the structure. It made the ziggurats of South Ur and the citadels of the Western Plains seem like models, the sort of thing children built out of sugar cubes.
Same here - too much thinking?

The Tower had taken a thousand years to erect.
Nice
More, according to some historians. Overwhelmed with wonder and the intense teeming of the market, Senlin shivered.
——
I don't know if the last bit works for me. I think it is correct to put some note of the character's response, but shivered is a very obvious one and may not be the best. I can't tell what would be better though.

Do you think this effectively conveys a sense of wonder?
Yes, partly, but there is too much detail for my taste here.

So one lesson for me is to keep it short and direct

But having this example helps, thank you!
 
The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds raced to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.
It is comedy of course, but reminds me that analogy is good. Thank you.
 
But having this example helps, thank you!
You're welcome. And I agree that the passage wasn't that great. It seems a little unfocused at points.
So one lesson for me is to keep it short and direct
There is a benfit, I think, in being long winded, in that it gives the sense of the character really basking in the object's presence. Which is what we would do when beholding something of such immensity/wonder for the first time. (I'm sure there's a way to do it better than this author did it though.)
 
from One Hundred Years of Solitude

Chapter starts with

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

and ends with

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”
Jose Arcadio Buendia, without understanding, stretched out his hand toward the cake, but the giant moved it away. “Five reales more to touch it,” he said. Jose Arcadio Buendia paid them and put his hand on the ice and held it there for several minutes as his heart filled with fear and jubilation at the contact with mystery. Without knowing what to say, he paid ten reales more so that his sons could have that prodigious experience. Little Jose Arcadio refused to touch it. Aureliano, on the other hand, took a step forward and put his hand on it, withdrawing it immediately. “It’s boiling,” he exclaimed, startled. But his father paid no attention to him. Intoxicated by the evidence of the miracle, he forgot at that moment about the frustration of his delirious undertakings and Melquiades’ body, abandoned to the appetite of the squids. He paid another five reales and with his hand on the cake, as if giving testimony on the holy scriptures, he exclaimed:
“This is the great invention of our time.
 
As for examples, if you can find it, check Tolkien's description of Barad Dur as seen by Frodo in a vision at the very end of Fellowship of the Ring. From memory, Tolkien achieves his effect by the rhythm of his phrases as much as anything else. Rhetorical or poetic techniques can be useful in getting extra mileage out of ordinary words. I might come back tomorrow and examine that one more thoroughly.

From the passage you suggested
Darkness lay there under the sun. Fire glowed amid the smoke. Mount Doom was burning, and a great reek rising. Then at last his gaze was held: wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant, he saw it: Barad-dur, Fortress of Sauron. All hope left him.
Short sentences, some alliteration, and plain description, and then a long sentence, but still direct and short phrases. Yes, this is good to emulate. Nice.
 
Short sentences, some alliteration, and plain description, and then a long sentence, but still direct and short phrases
Note especially the use of "rule of three" (mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant). I think it's important for this passage that this is used, but only once. There's another possibility by adding a third "upon" (say "level upon level, wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement", for example), but having both would be too much.
 
A couple of things you might. consider. First, different readers will react differently. You can't predict, except to know some will react the way you hope and some won't. All you can do at that level is craft the sentences.

The second is related. Try forgetting about the reader. Concentrate on the reactions of your characters, because that you can control.

This doesn't mean you have to have much dialog. Just consider POV, background, etc. And let that inform the description.

Last, while you do get only one shot at the awe inspiring description, you can foreshadow. Think, for example, how often Minas Tirith gets referenced before the actual first glimpse.
 
This is a really interesting question. The temptation is to express semi-religious feelings of awe through the characters witnessing this thing. Sometimes a more pedestrian response provides a useful contrast to the colourful description.
A good example of that in drama is Wallace from the Wallace & Gromit animations. Astounding events seen through the prism of his terraced-house nerdy existence where nothing seems particularly surprising and the only person he really talks to is his dog.

So, you could have "Far out, man" or "Stone the crows!" or "Would you look at that!" or "That would be a right bugger to park."
 
I feel it is one of the great challenges facing a writer, to imagine a large emotional response and try to recreate that feeling in a reader. Unfortunately, I find that this rarely happens and the reader's response, though often in the direction the writer hoped for, is more muted.

The two aspects of an awe inspiring scene are: a scene that is at least intellectually interesting to the reader and a description of the PoV's reaction to the scene. A character's reaction alone will not resonate with a reader. A scene that is unusual and pleasant will spark the reader's imagination and a character's emotional response can then build upon that. Start with describing an epic visual and overlay emotional response on top of it. It may never truly generate awe in the reader, but it can be pleasantly memorable.
 
from One Hundred Years of Solitude

Chapter starts with

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

and ends with

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”
Jose Arcadio Buendia, without understanding, stretched out his hand toward the cake, but the giant moved it away. “Five reales more to touch it,” he said. Jose Arcadio Buendia paid them and put his hand on the ice and held it there for several minutes as his heart filled with fear and jubilation at the contact with mystery. Without knowing what to say, he paid ten reales more so that his sons could have that prodigious experience. Little Jose Arcadio refused to touch it. Aureliano, on the other hand, took a step forward and put his hand on it, withdrawing it immediately. “It’s boiling,” he exclaimed, startled. But his father paid no attention to him. Intoxicated by the evidence of the miracle, he forgot at that moment about the frustration of his delirious undertakings and Melquiades’ body, abandoned to the appetite of the squids. He paid another five reales and with his hand on the cake, as if giving testimony on the holy scriptures, he exclaimed:
“This is the great invention of our time.

This is a good example of the character's reaction differing from our reaction. In this case it's important to show how the character feels because that is the point.
 
A character's reaction alone will not resonate with a reader.
Yes, it's a good point that the reader needs to be brought to the point that they are willing or wanting to be impressed. So to be truly effective (as some have said above) whatever is being described has to be built up somehow in advance of the passage. The description of Barad Dur I quoted above wouldn't have been anywhere near as effective if seen in chapter 1, before the power and terror of Sauron had been established.

Another example that came to me (but I don't have the book) is a description in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, in which the constructions made by the Blight (a rogue viral hive-mind thing) are first seen. As far as I can remember, the language is nothing special, certainly not in Tolkien's league, but because we've become so convinced about the power of the Blight, we're predisposed to be impressed.
 
I went about 30% through A Fire Upon the Deep. I should go back to it.
 

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