Write Better, Right Now: Descriptive Action

Descriptive Action

Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post helping writers understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level.

Write Better, Right Now’s topics for April:


If you read Write Better, Right Now #13, you know what descriptive writing is and how to use it in your stories. For the rest of the month, I want to dig deeper into different ways you can use descriptive writing. We’ve explored how to use it in your dialogue, world-building, and, now, actions. Using descriptive writing to show the characters’ movements through the story, setting, and the world, we’re giving our readers an added layer of description to cling to and experience the story.

“Brad took his trash to the garbage bins out back.”

The above line isn’t descriptive at all, especially not when it comes to the character’s actions or the story’s movement. It’s all tell when what we want is a blend of both showing and telling.

“Brad tossed his trash to the garbage bins out back.”

“Brad dropped his trash down the metal garbage chute that burped a hollow thank you.”

“Brad ran his trash to the garbage bins out back.”

Do you get what I’m doing here? I’m simply replacing the word ‘took’ and in some cases, adding more descriptions around the objects the character is interacting with. By doing that, I’m changing the prose from something simple to something a bit more engaging that shows the reader what is happening, how it is happening, and its effects on the world. Descriptive action has ripples you can use to show other aspects of your story’s world.


Example

The memories oozed like molasses from my hands. I pulled hard at the thick, leaking, cables; wiping the remnants on my trousers. Each day was spent cleaning and replacing old wires that covered the planet like a crust, with tentacles a planet’s diameter in length. The gruelling work built my muscles and calluses, right down to the hams of my hands.

Yelena Crane ‘In search of body’

Let’s get into it more below!


Techniques

Just as a quick refresher, when we talk about descriptive writing, it is a blend of showing and telling that conveys information to the reader about your story.

Descriptive writing: In the sun heat, Sally sits down, smearing grass all over her yellow jean overalls.

Not descriptive writing: Sally sits down.

Showing: In the sun heat, smearing grass

Telling: Sally sits down, yellow jean overalls

Descriptive writing for action is where writers can have a lot of fun with adverbs and adjectives. It’s also where they can get in a lot of trouble. Their prose can become convoluted and put distance between the action on the page and the reader. Using a blend of clear showing and telling will save you from falling into a hole of complicated descriptive actions.

Another aspect of descriptive action to keep in mind is that you don’t have to only use it with big action sequences like fights or chases. You should show your characters moving through the world as descriptively as possible, even if they are just going to answer the door. A lot of writers use descriptive writing on their actions to world build. They’ll make every place the characters move through be filled with proper nouns, descriptors, and placements so nothing is just a table or a chair. There is a fine line here between being descriptive and being dense, though.

Like with descriptive writing and dialogue, think about what else you can convey about the character, story, or world through how a character moves through the setting. Using descriptive writing for your action beats is a go-to technique for skilled writers because it cloaks all the exposition and world-building in a way that tricks the reader. Instead of painting a picture with words, you use your characters’ actions to showcase a whole world and history.


Exercise

Last week, I had you do line edits throughout a scene to bring out the world-building. One of the line edits focused in on describing the setting and area surrounding the character. So, this week, I want you to take that scene and write a new scene that’s one of your characters, preferably the perspective character, simply moving through and interacting with the setting the scene is in.

Pay attention to how they move, interact with, and see the objects in their world. Does your character saunter or are they limping due to a bad accident? Do they keep close to the shadows or are they making sure everyone knows they’re there?

While you’re writing this scene of character action, take a break every paragraph to go back over what you’ve written. Pinpoint weak verbs and areas where you can give more description to what is happening.


Write Better, Right Now’s topics from March:


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Please don’t forget to leave a comment and tell me your thoughts on using descriptive writing to describe action in your stories or your struggle areas with it in your writing! I’d also love to know how you made out with the exercise. Catch you next month for our Write Better, Right Now posts on using theme and thematic statements to heighten your stories.

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