Creating a 'Second Nature'


Sometimes, writers assume that the reader understands their fictional world completely. The writer has “lived” in that world for so long, its sights, sounds, smells and tastes, its “feel” and style, become, literally, a “second nature”. The concept of a Second Nature can help you to overcome this potential barrier: introduce your reader to your world in the same way that you would introduce someone to another planet, even if your fictional world is quite ordinary or “realistic”. Tolkien described this Second Nature as “sub-creation” and wrote about how sub-creation particularly applies to fantasy worlds, but the notion is equally applicable to any kind of created universe, fantastic or realistic. Describe more than what you or your characters can “see” —cover the whole range of senses as often and ingeniously as you can. Here’s the underlying principle:

Your readers must ideally be able to see your universe, taste its flavours, smell the odours, hear the sounds and feel the textures.

Without these wide-ranging descriptions, your readers cannot become involved enough in your work to gain maximum enjoyment from it.

Imagine To Kill a Mockingbird without the sense of the heat or dustiness of the American Deep South; any Dickens novel without the wet, grimy London backdrop; Tess of the D’Urbervilles without the smells and sounds of the Wessex countryside. This example from that novel shows how Hardy uses a number of senses to bring things to life —these have been highlighted in square brackets:


The dull sky [sight] soon began to tell its meaning by sending down herald-drops of rain [touch], and the stagnant air [smell] of the day changed into a fitful breeze which played about their faces [touch]. The quick-silvery glaze on the rivers and pools [sight] vanished; from broad mirrors of light they changed to lustreless sheets of lead [sight], with a surface like a rasp [a metaphor bringing in a hint of touch]. But that spectacle did not affect her preoccupation. Her countenance, a natural carnation slightly embrowned by the season [sight], had deepened its tinge [sight] with the beating of the rain-drops [touch]; and her hair, which the pressure of the cows' flanks [touch] had, as usual, caused to tumble down from its fastenings and stray beyond the curtain of her calico bonnet, was made clammy [touch] by the moisture till it hardly was better than seaweed [sight and touch].


There’s more to this, but for now be assured that there are more senses than one or two at work when we read and readers prefer them all utilised to some degree.