Monday, January 23, 2012

Challenge: Describe Some Action!

Last year, I wrote a post on how to incorporate the senses in description. That goes a long way toward bringing your prose to life, but we can still do more to bring descriptions alive.

Most often, description sounds like a laundry list, especially with characters.
For example:
Jonah had startling green eyes, tousled chestnut hair, and wore a blue t-shirt with fitted, dark-washed jeans.

Eye color? Check. Hair color? Check. Clothing? Check. Yep, it’s a laundry list. I don’t know about you, but I find those to be pretty boring. Not just because it’s a laundry list, though. Mostly, they’re boring because it doesn’t show us the character.

When we first meet a person in real life, we usually get a sense of them, at least on a general level. Cocky, awkward, shy, easy-going, nervous, weird, dorky, confident, etc. This is what needs to be conveyed when we first meet a character in a story. The best way to do this is to use action.

For example:
Jonah strolled across the dance floor, easy and languid, his dark jeans stretching over corded muscles. His green eyes caught and held mine, and a slow smile stretched across his face. He leaned toward me, the heat from his breath on my neck and his tousled chestnut hair brushing my cheek.
“I think you need to dance with me,” he said.

In the first example, we don’t get any sense of who Jonah is. We only see what he looks like, and we don’t even really know if he’s that attractive. In the second example, we have a much better feel for what kind of person he is: confident, charismatic, and not afraid to go after what he wants. Granted, example 2 is a bit cliché, but you get the idea.

Think back to the last person you met. Write that scene and describe the person using action—show not only what the person looked like, but also how they came across. See if you can capture that person’s personality on the page.

Feel free to share your work here in the comments, or keep it to yourself. Your choice.


Kelly Hashway said...

Great post, Tabitha. I really don't like the detailed list of character traits, so I couldn't agree more.

Catherine Stine said...

Describing character through action is always preferable. Also, you can get in info and emotion through dialog tags that have action, rather than the typical he said, she said.

Tabitha said...

Kelly - thanks! I'm not a fan, either. It's way too flat. Mixing things up with action keeps it interesting. :)

Catherine - definitely!! I try to avoid the he-said-she-said unless it's absolutely necessary. Instead, I like to keep my characters moving. :)

Beverly Diehl said...

This is one of the fun things about being a writer, learning how to write more than laundry lists. (Although I'd certainly let that cutie wash my socks, in either description!)

Mirka Breen said...

Descriptions are tough for me, and are absent from my first draft. Maybe because I began with PBs, where description is superfluous. How to add descriptive passages that don’t slow the action has been a challenge. I know that it is the reverse for some.
Nice post about integration of the two.

Unknown said...

Especially romance novels (when I used to read them one per day), I always assume the eye candy on the cover is how my dreamy hero looks.

Seriously, there is no need for a description at all. I always assume the dreamy hunk looks just the way I want him to look. :)

Rena J. Traxel said...

Description is something I had to really work on. I saw a huge difference in my work when I moved away from "laundry list" descriptions.

Tabitha said...

Beverly - LOL! I'll send Jonah on over to your house then. :)

Mirka - that makes perfect sense. I don't have descriptions in my first drafts so much, either. For me, the first draft is about getting the big pieces down and then I go back through to flesh out the characters.

Diane - sounds like you've got a system that works for you. :)

Rena - it adds a whole new dimension to your work, doesn't it? I love it when I can get a full sense of a character as well as a vivid image of what s/he looks like. :)