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I love the TV mini-series Frank Herbert’s Dune, and recently got to watch its bittersweet yet still enjoyable sequel, Children of Dune. However, when I read the book version of Dune, I found it to be (pardon the pun) rather dry. The world-building, the politics, the futuristic science of it… all of that was solid and interesting. But I found that, as a story, it fell flat. I didn’t really care much about the characters while reading the book, but the mini-series brought them to life.
As writers, we are always told to “show, not tell,” but there’s almost too much showing going on in Dune that clogs the book with description. And Dune isn’t the only one; plenty of other old-school speculative fiction works have this problem. That made me ask: why? Why do so many early science fiction and fantasy stories go heavy on description and world-building, but light on character development?
This is only a personal theory, but I think it may be because early science fiction and fantasy writers were trying to lay the ground work and describe things that had never been seen before. They have to establish what their world looks like and how it operates in order for it to make sense, which leaves less space for characters. Today, if you say “orc” or “Arrakis” or “Star Destroyer,” most people will have an idea about what those things look like. There’s no need to go into great detail describing interstellar travel or how a stillsuit works because it’s already been established in our minds by years of cultural absorption through novels, comics, and film. We have hundreds of examples of spaceships, aliens, and fantastical landscapes to mentally choose from. It’s a kind of short hand that only requires writers to choose a few choice descriptions rather than verbally building every little detail from the ground up.
The framework is already in place, but that doesn’t mean that we writers should be lazy about our descriptions. We must be vigilant and make sure our creations are original or put a new twist on an old theme rather than merely recycling. We must reshape, embellish, and tweak to make it our own. The next time you find yourself getting a little bored with the heavy descriptions of science or magic in a novel, check the publication date. The descriptions you are so casually dismissing may have been the first of their kind.