Famous fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth is unquestionably one of the most fully imagined worlds in all of literature, and we use it here as a fantasy world in order to highlight a principle, even though the same idea applies to 'realistic' fiction too.
History, languages, inhabitants -Tolkien thoroughly imagined it all. Vast in scope but intricate in detail, it took him most of his life to ‘flesh out’ what began as a linguistic study. Internationally, a huge number of readers have enjoyed Tolkien's stories, and for many the heart of their enjoyment is a love of the world of Middle-earth itself.
But what makes Middle-earth so effective? In his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tolkien claims that no story can be successful without maintaining ‘the inner consistency of reality.’
The author ‘makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. ... The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.’
He goes on to admit that ‘It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material.’ Countless revisions found in the History of Middle-earth books his son Christopher compiled after his father’s death reveal that the process of creating this ‘inner consistency’ was far from complete -as Christopher says in the Foreword to The Silmarillion, its content ‘was far indeed from being a fixed text, and did not remain unchanged even in certain fundamental ideas concerning the nature of the world it portrays.’ So even some basic philosophical ideas had not yet been fully worked out by the author, though the average reader can only sense a totally convincing ‘sub-creation’ as Tolkien called it.
Middle-earth, then, exists only as an evolving creation that changed continuously throughout Tolkien’s life. What is it that helps to give us the feeling that Middle-earth really has ‘the inner consistency of reality’ even though it was in such flux in its author's own mind?
It’s true that Tolkien's own methods of developing his stories largely involved ‘discovering’ new details of his world while exploring logical consequences of existing events or other details. This gives the whole book the feel of something which hasn’t just been made up in the author’s mind, and is in fact probably the main difference between Tolkien’s work and the more usual fantasy on the shelves of high street bookshops. But that’s not all there is to it.
If you turn to Tolkien's actual writings, just take a look at how much he varies the channels through which we receive our sensory perceptions about Middle earth. This includes more than just the traditional five senses, and can be expanded to include things like the sense of something’s size or how we are directionally oriented as readers.
As an example, here’s the bit in The Lord of the Rings where the travellers arrive in the land of Lorien -the different senses called upon have been highlighted in brackets:
They came at last to a white bridge [colour], and crossing found the great gates of the city: they faced south-west [orientation], set between the ends of the encircling wall that here overlapped, and they were tall and strong [size], and hung with many lamps [sight]. Haldir knocked and spoke [sound], and the gates opened soundlessly [sound]; but of guards Frodo could see no sign [sight]. The travellers passed within, and the gates shut behind them. They were in a deep lane between the ends of the wall [orientation], and passing quickly through it they entered the City of the Trees. No folk could they see [sight], nor hear any feet upon the paths [sound]; but there were many voices, about them, and in the air above [sound]. Far away up on the hill they could hear the sound of singing [sound] falling from on high like soft rain upon leaves [a simile that blends sound with a tactile image]. They went along many paths and climbed many stairs, until they came to the high places [orientation] and saw before them amid a wide lawn a fountain shimmering [sight].
It’s a passage chosen at random, but shows an interplay of different senses. Making sure that the reader has access to your world through all the available sense channels is a tip from the most successful authors of all time; it enables the reader to grasp more than just the visual surface of things, but encourages him or her to approach more closely and to finally enter into a relationship with the world you’re creating.
This same principle is true not only for fantastic or surreal tales but for so-called realistic fiction and even modern ironic masterpieces. Find a passage from a book you’ve recently read and see if you can trace the author’s use of the senses in this way.
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