I don’t care if you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, literary fiction or even just a personal essay about your family vacation to the Bahamas (you walking cliche, you!) There’s one thing that your writing absolutely must include- something immutable, immovable and totally subjective, or in other words, your characters’ perception of the environment around them. Contrary to popular belief, your readers- while intelligent- will not instantly fill in every conceivable gap in the mental scenery to ensure that your climactic mage-duel doesn’t take place floating in a void a million miles from everywhere. Of course, if that’s where your two mages are supposed to fight, great, mission accomplished- but if, as tends to be the case, you’d like them to actually fight in a recognizable place, you’ll need to include some sensory feedback.
As a prime example, when I walk downstairs into the basement of my house, I notice several things each time- first, the stairs are creaky and rough. If I glance down, I’ll see they have no finish whatsoever, and some of those splinters are giving my soles rather pointed looks. Next, there’s not nearly enough room on the stairs- I’m only a few inches taller than average, and I still have to hunch over a bit if I want to make it down without testing my forehead’s blunt-force resistance. An instant after, the smell seeps up to my nose- a dank, musty smell with a mix of sheet rock and decaying carcass odors. I like a good earthy smell, but I’m no vulture, so this scent always provokes a ‘huh, weird’ reaction from me.
I’m sure you’ve got the idea already. Normally, we don’t talk to other people about our senses (unless something smells so terrible that we’re not sure we’re smelling it properly), but your readers aren’t experiencing your written worlds in the same way you are as the writer. You probably have some sort of image in your head for what’s happening around your characters, but if you only describe what the characters are up to, that’s what your readers will get. Bringing in all the five senses makes a huge difference in your writing’s impact- don’t just mention how Master Donnel’s wards barely stopped his opponent’s latest blast, but mention the prickling in Donnel’s scalp, the heat in his fingertips, the smell of chargrilled grass and the shrieking of the squirrel who got caught in the crossfire.
The alternative is, of course, the title of this post, our vaunted ‘friend,’ the Greenscreen Effect. Your characters, even though you’ve put them in the world, don’t really interact with it during their fight. For all practical intents and purposes, they could be anywhere, and that’s not what you want. Donnel chooses to meet his old mentor in the little clearing near Gardner’s Glen because it’s significant somehow. Maybe it’s out of the way, maybe it’s where Donnel realized he had a talent for spell-slinging, maybe it’s where his former teacher betrayed their order for the first time. Regardless which of those it is, the spot means something, so you need to remind your readers every so often where this is happening. That’s not as arcane as it sounds; every dodged fireball is an opportunity to bring the clearing back in by fragging an oak, every lightning bolt is a chance to mention the weather, eg. “The bolt seared Donnel’s eyes, leaving a dark spot in his vision and dimming even the sun for a half second.”
Sight, sound, and their three sensory cohorts give you most of your writerly wallop under any circumstances, but you really need them for horror stories. Sight and sound are by far the biggest here, and remember that you’re writing through your characters, so it’s okay to cheat a bit. When you put young Beth Saunders in the old Grisheim mansion on a dare, be a little malicious with the whole thing, as if you actually are the ghost haunting the place. Turn some monsters into shadows, make some creaking floorboards purely the wind’s fault, or Beth’s own feet playing tricks on her. Draw on your own fears, too; remember the things that frighten you the most, and all the reasons why, and that gives you a veritable legion of personal demons to throw out on the page. If you tip your hand early on, showing the actual threat too soon, you lose at least half the scare factor of a good horror story- the build-up of tension and psychological trauma that humans hate/love the most. As for writing a story with no real threat at all, you’re not going to have much luck with that if you can’t convey the particular rattle of the old bedroom door Beth opens.
Of course, actually having to go through life suddenly stripped of all your senses would be pretty horrible, but that doesn’t mean you can just write that part instantly. You have to work for it, my friend- sweat and bleed a little, and marvel at how similar blood smells to a door handle. It’d be creepy if it weren’t just odd instead.