There are several things that may draw a reader to a story: character quirks, the genre, maybe even a memorable scene. Imagery, sensory cues, emotional detail, and description help add details that enhance the scene and give life to the story. This is called descriptive writing, and is used to help the reader visualize what’s going on in a story. This article will provide an introduction to descriptive writing and ways it can be included in your Star Trek roleplaying experience.
An Example of Descriptive Writing
Instead of showing a bunch of examples of descriptive writing, let’s expand on a simple sentence:
Jess O’Lee walked into the science lab. “What’s going on here?” she asked.
The sentence is to the point, describing how someone entered a room and asked a question. But what prompted Jess to enter the science lab? What’s happening to make Jess ask what was going on? What is Jess’ reaction to whatever is happening in the lab? Let’s first add in a sentence to describe the imagery. More specifically, let’s describe what Jess sees upon entering the lab:
Jess O’Lee walked into the science lab. There was a thick, purple haze covering the floor, and several damaged consoles were sparking. “What’s going on here?” she asked.
In this modified example, the reader now understands why Jess asked for more information. Something clearly happened to the lab! A thick, purple smoke obscuring the floor gives a sense of caution, and the sparking consoles suggest that something didn’t go to plan. It’s likely that a science experiment went wrong, from the provided imagery, and there’s a sudden air of seriousness that may prompt further action. Now, let’s add a sensory cue and say that Jess was nearby and felt the ship tremor, prompting her to check out the lab:
The sudden tremor made Jess O’Lee stop in her tracks, looking back and forth down the corridor for the source. Spotting some wisps of purple smoke coming from a set of doors, she quickly approached, noticing it was the entry to one of the science labs. Pressing a button on the wall panel to open the door, she rushed inside. There was a thick, purple haze covering the floor, and several damaged consoles were sparking. “What’s going on here?” she asked.
Now the scene is set: something happened that sent a tremor through the ship, Jess approached the science lab to help and enters to see the aftermath of an explosion. There are several ways Jess can react to the sight, and this section will explore a couple different emotional details by changing the last sentence in the above example. The first one is a reaction of surprise; something has clearly happened, and Jess knows the science lab isn’t supposed to look like this! Here’s how Jess could be surprised by the sight:
Jess stood frozen in place, staring wide-eyed at the damage. “What’s going on here??”
There are two changes here. The first is that the spoken dialogue has an extra question mark to emphasize Jess’ surprise. The second change is that the descriptor of Jess moved in front of the dialogue. This is a personal preference, and it depends on the context in your story, but in this case, the words flow better than if the descriptor came after the dialogue, like so:
”What’s going on here??” Jess stood frozen in place, staring wide-eyed at the damage.
While the only difference is that the sentences are swapped, the second example feels a little blocky. Again, this is personal preference, and there are some cases where this style will work just fine. As a Star Trek roleplayer, you have the ability to play with different ways of describing scenes, so always go with what flows best to you as the writer. Another reaction to the scene could be anger. Perhaps Jess has had a long day and this was the last thing she needed on her plate. To reflect her anger, or even a level of annoyance, the example can become:
”What’s going on here?” Jess grumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose.
The simple action of pinching the bridge of the nose conveys annoyance. There is still some flexibility to interpret just how annoyed Jess is, but the reader knows that Jess isn’t happy about this revelation. You as a writer could expand on Jess’ reaction, perhaps by including her thought process:
”What’s going on here?” Jess grumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose as she silently counted down from ten.
If a person has to do a countdown to keep their cool, it’s a reasonable guess that they are incredibly unhappy with the situation. The level of emotion will of course vary (a Vulcan wouldn’t convey so much emotion, but there are subtle mannerisms that will convey the same thing), but the description of someone’s reaction doesn’t need to be paragraphs long to get the point across. Using the surprised response, let’s put it all together:
The sudden tremor made Jess O’Lee stop in her tracks, looking back and forth down the corridor for the source. Spotting some wisps of purple smoke coming from a set of doors, she quickly approached, noticing it was the entry to one of the science labs. Pressing a button on the wall panel to open the door, she rushed inside. There was a thick, purple haze covering the floor, and several damaged consoles were sparking. Jess stood frozen in place, staring wide-eyed at the damage. “What’s going on here??”
In the above example, there’s imagery (the sparking consoles, the thick smoke), sensory cues (a tremor, seeing smoke coming out of the lab), emotional detail (Jess is surprised at the sight), and enough description to really paint the picture in the reader’s mind of a science experiment gone wrong. It was also much more engaging than simply saying that Jess walked into the lab. This is how descriptive writing transforms a scene.
How to Use Descriptive Writing
Like with other aspects of writing, there is actually a time and place for descriptive writing. If every paragraph were written like the one above, it can… actually get boring to read. That probably seems counter-intuitive, since this entire article is intended to show how great descriptive writing is. There’s a trick to descriptive writing, however: the trick is knowing when to use it to create the most impact for the reader. So how do we include descriptive writing in our stories?
The primary application of descriptive writing is to set the scene. In Star Trek writing communities, there is usually a post that sets the stage for the mission the crew is about to embark on. Without it, what’s the catalyst for the mission? If an away team just beamed onto the surface of a planet, what does the planet look like? These details help immerse the reader into the story by allowing the reader to create their own mental picture. In Star Trek shows, one method of descriptive scene-setting is by making the camera slowly pan so the audience can take in the surroundings.
Descriptive writing can be used to show how someone responds to their environment. If your Star Trek character is transferring to a new ship, are they awestruck by the sight of an Elysium Class starship? Are they nervous about meeting new people, or is this the transfer they’ve been waiting for? When your Star Trek character meets another character, what impressions do your character have of the other one? If they are afraid of something, that fear can be elevated by describing how the character’s heart is racing, how they suddenly can’t breathe or their breath is fast, or how no matter how hard they try, they can’t will themselves to move. Describing how your character sees and responds to their environment helps the reader understand the character, and maybe even relate to them.
Ever notice how the Red Alert hue creates a tense atmosphere on the bridge in Star Trek shows? I don’t mean the inherent “warning: danger imminent” message a Red Alert conveys, I’m talking about how the lighting on the bridge changes, the ambient noise stops, everything stands still, and you find yourself waiting for something to happen. The atmosphere, the difference between a single lamp and a well lit room, or the difference between interrupting a tense conversation and a professional one, is a powerful tool for storytelling. Describing the atmosphere is arguably a critical component of Star Trek online writing, because we lack the visual cues that TV shows benefit from. Scenes don’t have to be described by the sensory cues alone; by describing the atmosphere, the “vibe” as the kids call it, you as a writer can say much more about the scene than by simply telling the reader. Show, not tell.
Finally, descriptive writing can be used to enhance dialogue. This is similar to how a character responds to the environment, but it is specific to when characters are having a conversation. As demonstrated with the example earlier in this article, the reader can learn so much more about your Star Trek character by how the dialogue is supported. This primarily takes the form of showing your character’s emotions, expressions, and reactions during a conversation. If a character is monologuing, does your character listen intently to the whole thing, or does their mind start to wander? If your character disapproves of something someone else said, how does that reflect in their expression, their body language? This helps the reader understand how your character behaves. There are some cases where standalone dialogue is just fine, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
If there is anything to take away from this article, it’s that descriptive writing can take many forms. Star Trek roleplaying really shines when descriptive details are included. Those details, as small as a character’s reaction to as large as the calming atmosphere of an alien forest, help the players immerse themselves into the game and provide readers with wonderful imagery.