Fantasy Writing Course

Empower Your Words Today

Descriptions

Here is the trick.  Descriptions are necessary or how else would you picture a beautiful setting or what a particular character looks like or sounds like.  However, when there is too much description and not enough action a reader will quickly become bored.

We will now examine a few passages from popular fantasy novels and explore why they worked...

Passage 1 - What is a Hobbit

"They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than bearded dwarves.  Hobbits have no beards.  There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which allows them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.  They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly)..." 

Here I should point out that the reader is only half-way through the description of a hobbit.  How does JRR Tolkien get away with such a long description.  Well, the answer might lie in the previous paragraph where we learn:
"This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.  He may have lost the neighbour's respect, but he gained - well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
Did you notice the hook - the word adventure.  Also, if the hobbit had lost his neighbour's respect, it doesn't bother us the reader.  In fact, the reverse, it makes us want to learn more about this rebel.  We will read anything now - in order to get to the adventure part.

Passage 2 - The White Witch

"A great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen.  She was also covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long, straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head.  Her face was white - not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her red mouth.  It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern."

Edmund has just met the White Witch...  What is the significance of this?  More importantly, why do we (the reader) care?  Just a few pages before, we learn that the White Witch isn't a very nice person when Lucy talks to the faun:
'The White Witch? Who is she?'
'Why it is she that has Narnia under her thumb.  It's she that makes it always Winter.  Always Winter and never Christmas; think of that!
'How awful!' said Lucy.  'But what does she pay you for?'
'That's the worst of it,' said Mr Tumnus with a deep groan.  'I'm a kidnapper for her, that's what I am.'

Here is a lesson in revealing plot step-by-step.  Had Edmund met the White Witch in chapter 2 and before Lucy had learned about her from Mr Tumnus, we wouldn't have been so scared of her when she crosses Edmund's path.

Passage 3 - Miss Heliotrope

There is an incredible amount of description in the opening chapters of the Little White Horse.  How does the author get away with it?  She doesn't tell us that the heroine is going on an adventure, like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis do, no, she begins the story in the middle of an adventure.  Or at least an adventure for such a young orphan.  En route to the manor house of Moonacre in the village of Silverydew, we (the reader) will read anything, just so we know what happens in this magical-sounding destination.  Of course, it doesn't hurt that Elizabeth Goudge's descriptions are interesting and entertaining:
'Most people when confronted with Miss Heliotrope's nose and style of dress stopped there and could not get any further.  Miss Heliotrope's nose was hooked like an eagle's beak, and in colour was a deep unbecoming puce which aroused most people's instant suspicions...'

Again, why should we care?  Because the author has preceded the passage with: 'As in the case of Miss Heliotrope, the outer casket gave little indication of the gold within...'  We immediately want to know what is so special about Miss Heliotrope.

What do we learn from this?  Every description must have a meaning or a purpose for being in your story.  Don't just describe the flowers for the sake of it.  What is the atmosphere you are trying to convey with your words?  What is the mystery behind the detail?  What carrots are you dangling in front of your reader which they will do anything to explore?