Lesson #89: Describing Action

In Lesson #88, Darcie discussed description. She asked a very important question: what is the ROLE of your description? Description – like most tools in the belt of a creative writer – is meant to be used intentionally. Describing abstract places, people, events, and items is booooooooring. And in today’s day and age, it’s extraordinarily important to keep you readers engaged. How? Make the description important! Give all – you heard me, ALL – description a purpose.

Let’s use action as an example.

Consider the following example:

  • Horatio wanted a cookie. He wanted it badly. He wanted it right now. As the curtains softly swayed in the corner of the room, Horatio paced back and forth across his bedroom. How to get a cookie… how to get a cookie… his steps made the floor creak, though he hardly noticed it.

Okay. So what’s wrong with this? Can you pinpoint some things?

Here’s my list:

  • First, we are TOLD that Horatio wants a cookie (not SHOWN. Making his tummy rumble, his tastebuds flare with longing for the silky and crumbly goodness of the chocolate + cookie mixture would be soooo much better).
  • Second, the information is redundant. “Horatio wanted a cookie. He wanted it badly. He wanted it right now.” While sometimes repetitive parallel structure can be effective, this example isn’t doing anything for furthering the story or the information. We could easily condense it to one strong sentence.
  • Third, why do we need to know the “curtains” are swaying? It plays no role in the paragraph or story. Now, if Horatio thinks that Mother is spying on him from behind the curtains, then the description has a… what? You got it! PURPOSE.
  • Also, why do we need to know that his steps made the floor creak? If he’s afraid Mother will hear him – perhaps he’s supposed to be asleep in bed – then, once again, our description has PURPOSE.
  • Finally, the last sentence is no bueno. Can you tell me WHY? Well, according to the rules of Deep POV: readers should not be given information that doesn’t come straight from the characters head. So, “though he hardly noticed it…” us just plain ol’ crappy writing. This is author intrusion – it’s the author saying “well, here’s some detail” and then pointing out that the character doesn’t notice, thus pulling us out of the characters head AND making us wonder: whyyyyyyy is that important? This is a common mistake that many (MANY) writers make unintentionally. In these cases, consider rephrasing. In this example, we could rephrase the sentence to something like: “His next step made the floor creak. Had it been creaking before? Oh no. What if Mother had heard?”

When it all boils down to it, this paragraph is boring, ineffective, and has terrible description. One major thing that is missing from this paragraph: ACTION!

Now, at this point, it is important to note a few things about action:

First, and most importantly: action is not always car chases, police arrests, and terrorist attacks. Did you catch that? Action isn’t always “action-packed.” Action can be found in a character breaking a leg, losing a friend, or spilling coffee and needing to use the restroom to clean herself off (where a serial killer awaits? Or where her boyfriend who has been dead for five years appears? Or even just receiving a text message that will change her life – thus making her think of the restroom differently from then on). Action can be simply described as: something important which happens in the story to make the plot and/or character progress.

Why did I put “important?” I’m sure many of us have read stories in which many things “happen,” yet nothing seems to “happen.” Look at four year old child’s story telling. Children can be incredibly creative, but they also (most of the time) don’t understand what intriguing action is. Their stories go something like: Sally went to the park with her doll. She and her doll loved the park. Her doll, named Susan, loved the swings especially. One day, Susan fell off of the swing. The swing hit her in the head when she fell. Susan started crying. Sally tried to get Susan to stop crying, but she couldn’t… etc. Though lots “happens”, not much… well, not much happens.

Here is a fun and important tidbit: action can play numerous roles within a story. However, all action is important. It moves the plot forward (as in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo steps up and says “I will take the Ring to Mordor”). It teaches readers about characters, events, and or places (as in The Chronicles of Narnia when the snow begins to thaw, letting all of the creatures know that the White Witch is weakening). It can even play “small” significant roles, such as building suspense (as in the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Sign of the Four,” in which Dr. Watson and Mary open the treasure chest to find… nothing).

So. In this lesson we are looking at how to describe action.

What do we know about action? We know that 1) action is important in the story and 2) action plays many different roles.

What have we seen thus far? We’ve seen how iIt is important to recognize what works and doesn’t work – in all types of scenes: internal thought, emotion, action, etc.

So, now that we know what NOT to do, let’s take a look at Kayla’s Fantabulous List of What To Do To Describe Action:

  1. Make sure every paragraph, every sentence, every phrase, and every word are moving your story forward. If it’s beautiful but unimportant, eliminate it. If it’s funny but unimportant, eliminate it. If it’s heart wrenching but unimportant, eliminate it. (Suggestion: cut and past those sections into a new document. You never know when they might come in handy for a different story! But right now, you are writing to tell THIS story. Everything needs to be attached to THIS story. Everything needs to be important to THIS story).
  2. In your mind, weigh how suspenseful this action sequence is. Don’t over-dramatize it; don’t undermine it.
  3. Stick to Deep POV! If your character doesn’t know the details yet, neither can your reader. A story is like an onion that your reader gets to peel back one layer at a time, along with the narrator. If your character doesn’t suspect that Tom is a serial killer, don’t give your readers any opportunity to suspect Tom either.
  4. Stick to the essentials. Always remember: less is more. While someone like The Vision, Jason Bourne, or Sherlock Holmes would notice “every” little detail, you need to make sure your character is being true to him/herself. Stick to the character and don’t make every character a “super” being. Would Lucy Pevensie actually notice the bread crumb in Mr. Tumnus’s beard? Would first-year, eleven-year-old Harry Potter actually see Professor Snape’s out-of-character behavior? Would Jim Kirk know how to fly the Millennium Falcon?

What can you do to strengthen, tighten, and/or revamp your descriptions of action?

Let us know in the comments!

With pen to paper,

Kayla Woodhouse

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *