A to Z 2017: Description, Anyone?

My A-Z Blogging theme is to cover 26 touch-me-not categories of fiction writing. These are frequently the trouble spots which can be useful components of the story if handled properly, but when rushed through, can cause all kinds of trouble. While the genre is fantasy, the tips can apply to anything, from romance to literary fiction.


D: Description, Anyone?

As much as Mordekai wanted to go home, eventually, he couldn’t help wondering what it’d be like if he’d discovered a one-way portal to the past. But if that’s the case, I won’t get very much time to really explore. Monique will kill me, he thought with a grin as he tried the door at the top of the stairs.

With a moan and a squeal, it swung towards him, revealing a long, dim corridor beyond. A series of narrow windows looked out on the courtyard, but he wouldn’t have been able to fish Monique up to him, even if he’d had rope. I could get her hand in, maybe her arm, but…these were made to shoot out. Nothing more. He turned away towards the doorway at the far end when suddenly there was a tiny gleam buzzing around him.

He backed up and swatted towards it, but it floated about, zipping up and down and hovering just out of range. His helmet made it harder to see, so he took it off and held it between him and the creature as a makeshift shield of sorts.

Then, with a frown, he realized it was a glowing bumblebee. Interesting. Maybe it’s…an extinct version? Or it adapted to its location, like some of the deep sea creatures? He was about to move carefully past the creature when it moved into his pathway, and he could’ve almost sworn it frowned. “What are you, the defender of the castle? I’m just looking around. I won’t hurt a thing.”

This seemed to moderately reassure the oversized firefly, for it began to lead the way instead of preventing his forward progress. When they reached the end, it slipped through a grate in the door and kept flying. I guess we go in here, Mordekai thought as he pulled the handle. Once again, the door responded, this time without a sound.

Beyond was a bedroom. The narrow windows flanked a tapestry, letting in the dying rays of the sun and permitting a glow to cross the room and alight on the sleeping form of a young maiden. Her red-blonde hair was spread out against a pillow, and there was no dust on her or the furs that covered her, yet she looked like she’d been there awhile. But it doesn’t mean anything. She could be just…well, not feeling well. The castle was cold, and there was no fireplace in the room. Just him, the woman, and the bumblebee.

At that moment, the latter decided to attack. It flew at him until its wings brushed against Mordekai’s lips, then dashed away to land on the young woman’s face. He lifted his hand to his mouth, sure he’d been stung, but he seemed fine. No inflammation. Just the weird sensation of having been kissed by a bug. But that’s crazy. It wasn’t a kiss. And… He turned toward the young woman with a frown. She was about his age, probably. And she was certainly in the right position to be dubbed “Sleeping Beauty.” But there’s no way this is a fairy tale. No reason to believe in magic spells here anymore than at home. 

Once a story indicates that the setting has changed, one of the most natural things to do next is to write some description. Lot of details to tell readers what things look like, how they work, and what the characters are seeing.

Now, I could’ve gone overboard and noted the exact dimensions of the tapestry–what color threads, what sort of image, and whether it was a woven or embroidered banner. I could’ve also gone into greater detail on the bed, the young woman’s clothes, the size of the room, the shape, the height of the ceiling, etc., etc. But if you include too many details, the reader is likely to feel enough is enough and be ready for the plot to move on. And unless you have a narrator who would go into all those details, it doesn’t feel natural to include them.

Description exists for two main reasons:

  • To provide the reader with a backdrop for the action.
  • To give the characters yet another thing to react to.

Most of us, when entering a room, do not notice everything about it. We don’t itemize the decorations on the fireplace mantle and note the color of the rug under the coffee table. We light on a few main elements–windows, large pieces of furniture, unusual objects–and then go from there to do what we came to do (find a place to sit, perhaps) or focus on the people in the room.

Similarly, in third person close narration, we should see the room as the character sees it…not the exact collection of furniture and interior design, but the way the character feels about it: welcomed, uneasy, out of place, cold, uncertain, embarrassed, overwhelmed. Once the description completes its two objectives, it really doesn’t need to keep going. It’s usually time for dialogue or action to take center stage.

Until the next letter,



Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Photo courtesy of gratisography

5 thoughts on “A to Z 2017: Description, Anyone?

  1. I know many people who, when ask what they think about description, they immediately say they don’t liek them, they only slow down the story.
    I wonder whether these people only read bad descriptions, or if they don’t really understand how a story works.
    For me, description aren’t really meant to describe, they are meant to create a space wher ethe character lives and interacts. It should always be relevant to the character.

    Great posts as always 🙂

    The Old Shelter – 1940s Film Noir

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember learning about Chekov’s gun. My interpretation: If you mention/describe it, be prepared to use it.
    Great theme. As a writer, I’ll be back to catch up and learn more. Gotta love the AtoZchallenge. Thanks for popping by.


    1. Definitely! Even the description of the setting can be of use, whether it’s to present a mood or to give the character natural elements to struggle against (rain, wind, or just sunshine when they don’t feel that happy).

      So happy to have met you through the A to Z challenge!


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