What’s in a Room?

Tagged: In Twilight, we heard about the eighty-seven shades of Edward’s eyes, but almost none of the answers when Edward was asking Bella about herself, describing the wrong thing, New Moon, Boxers thrown over his stereo? I want to know about the girly posters!

Reasoning with Vampires makes a good point: rooms are very personal and are a great way to display a character’s personality. When I looked through my book, I found I did it quite a bit (even though I feel like description is not my strong suit and almost everything in the book is dialogue-driven). Here are some  of my examples:

Isaac’s house:

Isaac had, for the most part, been fairly tidy, but here and there something was out of place: a magazine casually tossed on the sofa; a post-it note stuck to his computer monitor; a sock half-hidden under a chair. It looked as though he had just left—as if he was coming back.

[Kalyn’s mother goes into Isaac’s bedroom] She sat down on the unmade bed and looked around. It had been a long time since she had been in it. Isaac had painted it a different color and changed the carpet sometime in the past twenty-five years, but other than that, it looked pretty much the same—down to the clothes hamper, which looked as if it had just belched a few stray pieces of clothing onto the floor.

Anselm’s garage:

Anselm went through the kitchen and stepped down into the garage. Kalyn followed him, looking around. His car was parked outside and the garage door was open—sunlight and a soft breeze coming in. Tools and garden equipment were arranged neatly on pegboards, shelves, and racks along the walls. It looked like an advertisement for some sort of home organization system. And the garage itself was so clean, it looked as though it had never been used. There wasn’t so much as a greasy spot on the concrete floor where he normally parked his car.

“Why were you worried about me getting dirty?” she asked. “I’ve been in restaurants that weren’t this clean.”

Anselm laughed. “I haven’t started [working] yet.”

“I thought Mike was kidding about the color-coded socks,” she said, as she looked over Anselm’s workbench. There was a plastic cabinet on it which had many small drawers, each neatly labeled with its contents. There was an entire row of screws—ascending in size from left to right—then nails, bolts, and nuts similarly arranged.

A guest bedroom in Marie’s house:

Kalyn took the room on the front of the house. It had a large window that went all the way to the floor. It was open and the cool night air felt wonderful. The large, four-poster cherry bed was made up with a quilt which was predominately pink and white, and the pillows were white and trimmed in eyelet lace. There was no closet in the room, but there was a large cherry wardrobe which matched the bed, and a small dressing table with a marble top. The walls were papered in pink and white stripes, with pinstripes of gold.

The bedroom of Kalyn’s best friend, Megan:

Megan’s bedroom door was standing open. She was lying on her stomach on the bed, piles of books and papers scattered in front of her.

“Hey Kalyn,” Megan said, looking up. “I thought I heard you come in.”

Kalyn sat down in Megan’s desk chair and put her backpack on the floor. Megan’s desk was piled high with so many clothes and papers and odds and ends, it was no wonder she was working on the bed; it was the clearest horizontal space in the room.

“I don’t know how you do your homework with your room in a mess like this,” Kalyn said, surveying the clothes and shoes in the floor.

Master Joshua’s living room:

Kalyn followed the woman—she assumed she was Joshua’s secretary—through a hallway and into a corner living room with large windows overlooking the city. The furniture was modern and white—as was the carpet, curtains, and walls. Paintings, sculpture, and bits and pieces of colorful art stood in stark contrast to the white. It looked more like an art gallery than a living room.

And his office:

Kalyn followed him—and Anselm and Micah followed her—into a small office off the living room. It was clearly meant for Joshua’s private use; there was only one straight-backed chair sitting beside the desk. Unlike the living room, it was painted a deep red color, which made it seem cozy and private.

So here’s a writing exercise for everyone: describe your protagonist’s bedroom. If you’ve already done it, do it for a different character. If you have a villain, describe his personal space. Or do it for a secondary character. You don’t have to put it into your final story, but it will help you know your character better, and it will show.

6 comments on “What’s in a Room?

  1. Oh, now isn’t that a challenge! I don’t want to know what my dirtbag protagonist’s bedroom looks like, or what trash he reads, or how often he bathes. He disgusts me! But it’s a great challenge, and I’ll do it for the book I’m working on. I’ve already written his parts, so I’ll see if the exercise brings about any changes in how I’ve already written him. … By the way, very nice descriptive writing on your part.

    • Did you want to correct me there, Keri? It was pretty late when I was responding, and I was thinking of the antagonist. 🙂 Otherwise, I just called Susan a dirtbag. 🙂 But I still think I’ll do it for the villain.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      I am now addicted to How Clean is Your House? (partly just because I love to watch the British ladies; reminds me of all the time I spent in the British Isles). Watch a few episodes and you’ll be able to describe that antagonist’s house to a T!

  2. Wallace says:

    Actually, I’m a very visual person, and when I write I picture the whole scene in my head, quite often down to the finest details. I usually don’t write the descriptions of the rooms in the stories, tho, unless it has some pertinence to the story. As an example, if the contents of the room have some significance, such as it’s being searched for something, I’ll add a description, at least of the major items. Other times I might add a brief description of the room if I want to use it to set the mood. Most of the time I just say they were in a room or on a street or some such. I then mostly leave the details to the imagination of the reader.

    There may be some use in describing a room or street or other setting in some detail, but most of the time I find it just slows down the flow. If a character is just going to walk into a room then leave with another character never to return, then any description is just a waste of time and smooth flow.

    As an example, two variations, the first with description and the second without:

    John came into the room looking for Mat. The room was large, set about with several overstuffed leather sofas and high backed chairs. Beside most of the chairs were coffee tables, piled high with discarded books and newspapers. Along the dark wood paneled walls were large portraits of former club members. From the style of clothes in the portraits, the membership easily stretched back centuries in time. Under the portraits were large side tables set with decanters of wine and port.

    Occasionally a member of the club would raise his hand and beckon and one of the servers, standing quietly by the wall, would come and bend over the chair and put his ear near the members mouth. After a few seconds, the server would go to one of the tables and bring back a fresh newspaper or a cigar box and lighter or a glass of freshly poured port. Most of the members sat quietly by themselves, half hidden in the recesses of the leather covered wingback chairs. A few members, the more sociable of the group, sat together on the sofas, quietly discussing long forgotten campaigns or expeditions. Their quiet reminiscences broken only occasionally by low laughter and heartfelt sighs for their long dead companions.

    The room was lit only by two chandeliers hanging on iron chains suspended from the ceiling. The candles had long since been replaced by gas jets that burned far brighter than the candles they replaced, but even their bright light scarcely penetrated the expanse of the room or the cloud of smoke that hung above it, constantly being renewed by tendrils of tobacco smoke emanating from the cigars and pipes of the members.

    As John looked about, one of the servants detached himself from the wall and approached. With only the slightest of bows he inquired, “May I help you, sir?”

    “I’m looking for Mat, Mat Brown.”

    “Very good sir. Please follow me.”

    The servant turned and, with the familiarity of someone long accustomed to his surroundings, made his way through the maze of chairs, sofas, and tables to the far corner of the room. He came to a halt next to a wingback chair half turned to face the wall and bent down to speak softly to the inhabitant. “Mr. Brown, there is a gentleman here to see you.”

    “Thank you, Clarence.” Came a voice from inside the shadow covered chair. Clarence then straighten up and effortless walked away. Mat leaned forward and turned to face John. “Ah, old boy,” he said, “glad to see you made it. Are you ready to go?”

    “Yes.” John replied, “Though I feel bad about taking you out of your sanctum.” The sound of John’s voice, obviously too loud for the normal denizens of the club, drew disapproving looks from the nearer members.

    “No problem, I was just waiting on you.”

    Mat then rose from his chair and the two of them quickly and quietly made their way out of the club sitting room.

    The second without description:

    John came into the room looking for Mat. He spotted him lounging in his favorite chair across the room. John raised his hand and gave a brief wave that they were ready to go. Mat nodded his head in reply and left the chair, waked across the room, and they left together.

    Both versions do exactly the same thing, John gets Mat and they leave. The first version is rich in description and atmosphere while the second just gets the job done. If the style or setting of the club had some significant importance to the story, maybe the first example would be used, but if it’s a one time visit just to pick up a friend and they never come back, then I’d go with the latter version. It keeps the story flowing and doesn’t burden down the plot with unnecessary details.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      I like the first part much better (might make it a bit shorter, but not much). But I agree that if neither the club NOR Mat is important to the story, then it doesn’t need to be in there. But if Mat’s an important/fairly major secondary character, then the club tells me a lot about his character. It implies that he’s from a high social class and/or old money. He probably has a certain amount of refinement about him. He also has all sorts of contacts (a good thing if it’s a mystery or thriller story).

      The other thing a description can do is slow down the action. There are times you don’t want to do that, but there are times when you. I have a description of one character’s house in my book not because the house or the character are terribly important, but because the character doing the looking around is taking one last look before dying. It slows the story down so that the tension can build.

      • Wallace says:

        Nice idea about slowing down the action, I hadn’t thought of that. Of course, being a guy, I never like to slow down the action, but I do like a slow build up of tension. Something you don’t see much of anymore, too many people raised on TV and video games where they think everything should hurry on at a frenetic pace till it all gets resolved in 60 minutes on TV or till the new level is achieved.

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