Writing

Description Makeover: Creating Magical Atmosphere

Great description evokes the imagination and establishes the atmosphere you want for your story. However, it takes practice to figure out how to create a strong impression and make every word count. To help you look at your writing critically, I’ve reworked three excerpts of fantasy description. Let’s do a deep dive into the strengths and weaknesses of each excerpt and how they can make a stronger impression on readers.

Makeover 1: A Creepy Witch’s Office

While we love to tear apart popular stories at Mythcreants, many mistakes are more common in manuscripts than in published works. So for this makeover, we’re looking at a passage taken from a client’s work with permission. In it, the protagonist enters the office of a witch and finds creepy stuff in there.

We enter a room four times the size of the outer office. I press the back of my hand to my nose. The smell of formaldehyde is overwhelming. The walls are lined with metal shelves laden with glass canisters of all sizes. The largest are about three feet tall, the smallest are about six inches high. Some are empty, but most are filled with a turquoise liquid and unidentifiable black masses of different shapes and sizes. I swallow hard.

My client is doing several things well. First, the passage includes smell, so it’s not just visuals. The protagonist’s body language expresses a clear emotional response to the scene without telling us how she’s feeling. Last, the subject matter of strange things in canisters is a good choice for developing a creepy atmosphere.

Let’s look at the opportunities my rework addresses.

  • The description is using specific numbers. This is more difficult for readers to imagine than relative and subjective descriptors, and it often makes the tone of the narration feel overly technical.
  • Many of the sentences are using “is” or “are” as the main verb, in the format “the X is Y.” This makes the scene feel static and passive, and it’s not an efficient use of words. The paragraph would be more engaging if it packed more ideas in a smaller space.
  • Phrases like “different shapes and sizes” are too vague to give readers an intriguing image. Instead, it’s important to list specific and intriguing examples of some of these black masses. Other details, like the bottle shape, could also use more interesting variety.

Let’s step through what I did in my rework.

Using Smell for a First Impression

Before: We enter a room four times the size of the outer office. I press the back of my hand to my nose. The smell of formaldehyde is overwhelming.

After: As the door swings open, I press my hand to my nose, trying to block the wave of formaldehyde.

First, I changed the order of the description so the smell comes first and the overall size of the room comes second. Description should follow the viewpoint character’s experience, and if the smell is overwhelming, she’ll experience that before she gets a good look at the room. You might also notice that while I have the door swinging open, I don’t mention that the protagonist swings it open or that she enters. That’s implied in this passage; it doesn’t need to be stated.

Similarly, there’s no need to state that the smell is “overwhelming.” If it wasn’t, the protagonist wouldn’t be trying to block her nose. In my rework, the strength of the smell is emphasized further because it happens as soon as the door opens, and it comes in a “wave.” The tricky thing about describing smells is that they are named after physical things, so the narration has to communicate that they’re smells rather than whatever the smell is named after. Technically, someone could interpret this passage as liquid formaldehyde hitting the protagonist; however, previously stating she is pressing a hand to her nose strongly implies it’s a smell. Plus, a room literally filled with liquid formaldehyde is unlikely. However, if beta readers were confused by it, “wave” could be replaced by “gust.” Sometimes saying “smell” is necessary, but if you can communicate that through context or verb choice, that’s better.

Describing the Room Overall

Before: We enter a room four times the size of the outer office. […] The walls are lined with metal shelves laden with glass canisters of all sizes.

After: The room dwarfs the single desk at its center, and sagging shelves crowd every wall, glinting with glass canisters.

After the smell is covered, it’s time to clarify that it’s a big room. Saying something is four times bigger than another thing demands too much of readers. To imagine that, they would have to remember how big the previous thing was and then do visual math in their heads. But the gist of this sentence is that this room is unusually big for an office, so that’s what needs to be conveyed. I like to use verbs like “dwarf” and “loom” to compare two things in a scene because it conveys relative size and makes the thing that’s looming or dwarfing feel large. I added the word “single” before “desk” to emphasize that this is a space large enough for more than one desk.

Next it’s time to place the canisters in the room. To allow for more interesting word choices, I had the shelves take the action – crowding and glinting. Specifying that the shelves are metal doesn’t add much to the atmosphere, so I replaced it with “sagging.” This conveys age and could make readers vaguely worried that a shelf will break and shatter a bunch of creepy canisters. Together, these phrases provide the overall look of burdened, tightly packed shelves of glass containers.

Offering Enticing Specifics

Before: The largest are about three feet tall, the smallest are about six inches high. Some are empty, but most are filled with a turquoise liquid and unidentifiable black masses of different shapes and sizes. I swallow hard.

After: Pulsing lights drift inside a turquoise vial small enough to fit in my palm, while a spherical jar too big to lift stoppers some desiccated creature with curving talons. Several canisters hold a black mist that swirls whenever I take a step. I swallow hard.

With that overall look conveyed, it’s time for some specific examples of jars that evoke the imagination and set the tone. Because specifics have stronger power over the imagination, this is usually the most powerful part of descriptive passages. However, the goal of listing specifics is still to create an impression that represents the bigger picture. If you focus on one item too much, it will set a misleading expectation that the item has story importance rather than merely setting the atmosphere.

These specifics should also reflect the variety in the scene. For instance, I chose a canister that’s small and probably cylindrical, one that’s big and spherical, and several of unspecified size, which the reader will probably assume is middling. Notice that I am using tactile measurements in specifying size. This will give a stronger image than the number of feet or inches. Plus, imagining the protagonist touching these things should add to the creep factor.

You may also notice that two of my three specifics have movement. When you can, portraying parts of a scene as dynamic can really bring it to life. And, of course, I chose my details to be creepy: dark, magical, and mysterious.

Let’s see it all together.

As the door swings open, I press my hand to my nose, trying to block the wave of formaldehyde. The room dwarfs the single desk at its center, and sagging shelves crowd every wall, glinting with glass canisters. Pulsing lights drift inside a turquoise vial small enough to fit in my palm, while a spherical jar too big to lift stoppers some desiccated creature with curving talons. Several canisters hold a black mist that swirls whenever I take a step. I swallow hard.

Makeover 2: High Fantasy Elves

Next, I have a long sample from Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. In the passage, he introduces a group of three elf riders. It’s written in omniscient, and he’s clearly going for a Tolkienesque high fantasy feel. One of the riders, the woman, is a significant character. The two men described are redshirts: their only purpose in the scene is to die. Shortly after this, they are killed off before they have the chance to fight back. Let’s have a look.

Three white horses with riders cantered toward the ambush, their heads held high and proud, their coats rippling in the moonlight like liquid silver.

On the first horse was an elf with pointed ears and elegantly slanted eyebrows. His build was slim but strong, like a rapier. A powerful bow was slung on his back. A sword pressed against his side opposite a quiver of arrows fletched with swan feathers.

The last rider had the same fair face and angled features as the other. He carried a long spear in his right hand and a white dagger at his belt. A helm of extraordinary craftsmanship, wrought with amber and gold, rested on his head.

Between these two rode a raven-haired elven lady, who surveyed her surroundings with poise. Framed by long black locks, her deep eyes shone with a driving force. Her clothes were unadorned, yet her beauty was undiminished.

In contrast to our previous example, Paolini has lots of specifics. Some of the specifics are still too telling or vague, but some are evocative like the swan feathers on the arrows and the amber and gold on the helm. Plus, we have a couple appropriate similes: coats rippling like liquid silver and a warrior built slim and strong like a rapier.

However, this passage is sabotaged by several bad patterns.

  • The description shows no sense of priority. Paolini lists off all these details as though they are of equal importance, but some of them do nothing but set the mood or scene and others introduce an important character. Most humorously, it introduces horses with riders instead of riders with horses, suggesting the horses are most important.
  • Paolini has a lot of repetition that once again bloats the description and reduces its power. He describes each person as an elf separately in their own paragraph.
  • In describing individual people, Paolini has forgotten to describe the group as a whole. He summarizes what the horses look like together but keeps the elves entirely separate.
  • Overall, it’s too long. What this description covers isn’t remarkable enough or important enough to justify so many words.

The length of description is partly a matter of taste, but, personally, I rarely find a situation in which I think more than one paragraph is justified. Some readers may enjoy the story more if the description is longer than that, but a significant number will probably enjoy it less. As long as your description is effective, it’s unlikely you’ll need more than one paragraph at a time. Accordingly, I’ve limited my rework to that length.

Let’s have a look.

Placing the Riders in the Scene

Before: Three white horses with riders cantered toward the ambush, their heads held high and proud, their coats rippling in the moonlight like liquid silver.

After: Three elves rode toward the ambush on steeds of rippling silver.

To start it off, I decided to just say they’re elves. Readers will know what elves look like, so describing the pointy ears and angular features would be uninteresting. And since this is in the middle of an action scene, the fast pace doesn’t leave time to get poetic about what elves look like in this setting. Naturally, I’ve also specified “elves rode on steeds” instead of saying “steeds carried riders” or something like that.

Describing the Redshirts

Before: On the first horse was an elf with pointed ears and elegantly slanted eyebrows. His build was slim but strong, like a rapier. A powerful bow was slung on his back. A sword pressed against his side opposite a quiver of arrows fletched with swan feathers.

The last rider had the same fair face and angled features as the other. He carried a long spear in his right hand and a white dagger at his belt. A helm of extraordinary craftsmanship, wrought with amber and gold, rested on his head.

After: Moonlight reflected off the plate armor on the first and last riders, revealing engravings of gold and amber. The figure between them rode without the swan-fletched arrows or polished spears of her fellows…

Next, I condensed down the most evocative parts of Paolini’s description to describe the horses and the two men. I gave the men the same features, because individual characteristics will make no difference when they both get shot down without ado and because this won’t make the reader work to sort the two out. It’s possible that one man has the swan-fletched arrows and the other has the polished spear or that they both have both, but, again, it doesn’t matter. I can leave the reader to imagine it whichever way, and nothing in the story will contradict how they see it.

As for what details made the cut, I kept the gold, amber, and swan fletching, but I ditched “a powerful bow.” To understand why that isn’t evocative, ask yourself: What does a powerful bow look like? You might have an answer, but you probably had to think about it, and that means readers will draw a blank. In contrast, think: What does a swan feather look like? Obviously a big white feather.

Notice that instead of putting “the rider wore plate armor wrought in gold and amber” I wrote that “moonlight reflected off the plate armor, revealing engravings of gold and amber.” Again, this is to use interesting verbs and give the description that active touch I mentioned in the previous section.

Placing Emphasis on an Important Character

Before: Between these two rode a raven-haired elven lady, who surveyed her surroundings with poise. Framed by long black locks, her deep eyes shone with a driving force. Her clothes were unadorned, yet her beauty was undiminished.

After: The figure between them rode without the swan-fletched arrows or polished spears of her fellows, and she wore only plain-spun wool. Yet she outshone them, for her raven locks framed a porcelain face with wellspring eyes, through which the lore of fallen cities and hidden glens gazed out upon the world.

After brief descriptions of the men to give an overall picture, it’s time to introduce an important character. Paolini stated that the lady’s beauty was undiminished by her unadorned clothes, and demonstrating how beauty and wisdom shine through plain outer garb is very Tolkienesque. So, I decided the narrator should emphasize this with a more direct comparison between the lady and her companions.

Saying the lady’s clothes are “unadorned” only describes what they aren’t, not what they are. So I’ve made her clothes plain-spun wool. I kept the “raven” locks and the framing around her face, and then to communicate that she’s beautiful without saying it (What does “beautiful” look like?), I added a porcelain face. The downside of the word “porcelain” is that it suggests not just smooth and perfect but also pale. In this case, I’m pretty sure the character is meant to be pale, but in other cases I might avoid it.

Last, I put in some imagery, or evocative telling. This is something that Tolkien uses on occasion to make things feel magical. The trick is to choose the right places for it and not to go overboard. If you do too much, it can end up sounding melodramatic. In this case, Paolini was already going on about how the lady’s eyes are deep and shining with a driving force. That conveys symbolism more than it shows what her eyes actually look like, so it makes sense to ditch any notion of physically describing her eyes in exchange for more creative license.

However, this type of description should still reflect something true about the character, and I don’t know her that well. Since she’s a Tolkien elf, I just went with the idea that she knows lots of ancient and mystical secrets.

Three elves rode toward the ambush on steeds of rippling silver. Moonlight reflected off the plate armor on the first and last riders, revealing engravings of gold and amber. The figure between them rode without the swan-fletched arrows or polished spears of her fellows, and she wore only plain-spun wool. Yet she outshone them, for her raven locks framed a porcelain face with wellspring eyes, through which the lore of fallen cities and hidden glens gazed out upon the world.

Makeover 3: A Heavenly Landscape

Last, let’s look at a passage from a short story by yours truly, written many years ago. The story features a mysterious blue cloud layer that blankets the sky in the area, which I called Saharessan, for some reason. There’s one building – a tower – that goes high enough to get above Saharessan. The viewpoint character and their companions are looking out from that tower. Baby Chris is trying really hard to evoke wonder: magic and mystery with a positive connotation rather than a threatening one.

Above them the sky was wondrously clear, an empty black with the most brilliant stars they had ever seen.  Below was a swirling landscape of glowing blue, so graceful as it constantly flowed to form new terrain.  Saharessan looked soft, but somehow solid.  On it were dancers, figures of glowing white with features somewhat indistinct, but still undeniably beautiful.  They danced in pairs, or triplets, or sometimes alone.  As they danced they flowed like the mist below them, slow and graceful.  They all radiated feelings of peaceful joy and contentment.

Baby Chris got some things right. For one, the description is covering subject matter that could be reasonably described as wondrous. Evoking wonder while describing yet another shiny sword or something like that would be harder. The scene also has lots of movement to bring it to life, and there’s both an overall feel and some specifics, though the specifics are pretty weak.

However, the description needs improvement in several areas.

  • Foremost, it’s using too much telling. Sorry, Baby Chris, but you can’t evoke wonder just by calling something “wondrous.” Some of this telling is simply repeating what’s also being shown, while some of it isn’t.
  • The word choice in this passage isn’t great. Several words are used redundantly, and most of the rest are unremarkable. Like the previous passages, “to be” verbs are often used instead of more powerful ones.
  • The specific examples of different dance groups don’t have anything more interesting than the group size.
  • Since the characters are indoors taking a look outside, using only visuals is a big lost opportunity here. There could be wind, temperature changes, scent, humidity changes, or sounds coming from this strange cloud layer and its denizens. However, because I stuck to the content of the original as much as I could when doing my rework, I didn’t add that. If I did, I would probably include some kind of heavenly singing.
  • Also, Baby Chris used two spaces after a period instead of one. For shame!*

Let’s look at my rework.

Establishing the Starry Sky

Before: Above them the sky was wondrously clear, an empty black with the most brilliant stars they had ever seen. 

After: Above, a fathomless black sky twinkled with the brilliance of countless stars.

I started with the same above and below framing, as it introduces the overall picture nicely. I cut “clear,” because the sky has to be clear to be filled with stars. I’ve switched out “empty” for the more evocative “fathomless.” I considered whether it was necessary to say a sky full of stars is “black,” but in the story this is just after sunset, so otherwise the reader might assume it looks like twilight.

The word “twinkle” is commonly paired with stars. In some cases that could sound clichéd, but in this case that’s the connotation I wanted. Saying a black sky “twinkled” makes it fairly obvious that what’s twinkling is actually the stars in the sky. Then “the most brilliant stars they had ever seen” doesn’t give the reader a picture beyond “brilliant stars.” So, I replaced that with “the brilliance of countless stars” to emphasize it in a more evocative way.

Establishing the Clouds

Before: Below was a swirling landscape of glowing blue, so graceful as it constantly flowed to form new terrain.  Saharessan looked soft, but somehow solid. 

After: Below, a glowing landscape of blue cotton gradually flowed and churned, forming new hills and valleys.

The cloud layer is supposed to be moving very slowly. Given that, it’s better to introduce it as a static image and then elaborate that it’s moving. So, I rearranged the order to specify the look and texture first and then the movement after. I used “cotton” to evoke a sense of softness. Since they’re clouds, the reader will already think of them as soft, but that provides an image other than “cloud.” As for the solidness mentioned, referring to the clouds as a landscape shows that quite well without telling it. Then I replaced “terrain” with hills and valleys, which are more specific and therefore easier to imagine.

Adding in the Dancers

Before: On it were dancers, figures of glowing white with features somewhat indistinct, but still undeniably beautiful. […] As they danced they flowed like the mist below them, slow and graceful.

After: Shining over the shifting terrain, radiant figures danced, soft and slow as the mist below them.

Next, it’s time to introduce the dancers. The description that they’re “glowing white with features somewhat indistinct” is cluttered and doesn’t evoke wonder. Instead, I opted to emphasize how bright they are without specifying they’re white. I suspect most readers will imagine them as white by default, but if not, it won’t do any harm. Calling them both “shining” and “radiant” might be a little redundant, but “shining over the shifting terrain” emphasizes how bright they are, while “radiant” clarifies that the figures themselves are glowing.

Similarly, instead of specifying they’re indistinct, saying only that they’re radiant dancing figures leaves them feeling indistinct. I also specified they’re “soft” to increase the impression that they don’t have fingers and toes. I kept the comparison between them and the mist – that’s good.

Highlighting Specific Dancers

Before: They danced in pairs, or triplets, or sometimes alone.  […]  They all radiated feelings of peaceful joy and contentment.

After: On a plateau, a dancer led another in an unfolding spin, while down in a far crevice, five dancers touched palms in a circle that opened like a flower. At the crest of a moving peak, a dancer leapt into the air and released a swirl of lights that floated down to brighten all they touched.

Next, it’s time for some description of specific dancers. Baby Chris mentioned the dancers were in different groupings, and she said they radiated peace, joy, and contentment. That last is just telling; nothing that’s described conveys joy. While it could work to replace that with some evocative telling, like I did for the Paolini rework, what’s literally happening here is pretty wild, so it hardly needs it. Instead, I’ve fed two birds with one hand by describing specific dance moves that have more feeling to them. I decided to focus on making the lone dancer feel joyous, because I don’t want the readers to think of loneliness. That would go against joy and contentment.

Let’s look at the new description together.

Above, a fathomless black sky twinkled with the brilliance of countless stars. Below, a glowing landscape of blue cotton gradually flowed and churned, forming new hills and valleys. Shining over the shifting terrain, radiant figures danced, soft and slow as the mist below them. On a plateau, a dancer led another in an unfolding spin, while down in a far crevice, five dancers touched palms in a circle that opened like a flower. At the crest of a moving peak, a dancer leapt into the air and released a swirl of lights that floated down to brighten all they touched.


I haven’t mentioned another mistake that is common in manuscripts: practically no description. If you go through your work and you can’t find at least a couple sentences of description anywhere to make over, you probably don’t have enough. Find a moment when your protagonist enters a new and interesting place, and then set your scene.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    That’s a particularly cracking article.

  2. Jeppsson

    Thanks! I’m saving this link, gonna use it again and again.

  3. Circe

    How old were you when you wrote that paragraph, Chris?

  4. Charlotte

    Hey Chris, just FYI your initial example paragraph for the third case doesn’t include the “They danced in pairs … joy and contentment” part, so it’s confusing when you refer to it below.

    Love the article; this is really useful!

    • Chris Winkle

      Oops! I blame the kitten that was walking across my keyboard as I was writing this. Thanks for letting me know, the missing lines have been added.

      • AK

        No — don’t blame it! The little fluffball probably just wanted to be published

  5. Juan

    Oooooh… Baby Chris’s own piece of work *-* It’s like seeing a unicorn

  6. Danita Rambo

    This was excellent. Exactly the reason this site is so great and useful.

  7. Bellis

    Cool, this is super useful! I know that longwindedness is one of my main problems, so I’m learning how to say more with fewer words.

    Oh and another reason against measurements (besides being boring and hard to picture) : Not all readers will be used to inches and feet etc. You probably don’t want them to stop reading while they try to convert things into centimeters in their head only to give up on that and get a headache trying to imagine how big or small some glasses on a shelf were. (This is the bane of my existence.)

    Plus with distances, say how long it would take to travel, or how big or small something that far off looks etc. “The lone tree grew so far from the city walls that it looked like a toothpick” is better than “there was a tree two kilometres away.”

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