Writing Physical Action

Writing physical action in stories—how do we do this? When you’re writing, you write multiple kinds of sentences—narrative, dialogue, description (when it comes to the setting and the environment), but also physical action. How much of this action should you include? When and how often should you include it? Why should you even include it?

Let’s address the ‘why’ first. Our characters are physical beings—they may not be human, and sometimes they may be supernatural, but they still possess the ability to move and interact with their environment and others around them. This interaction then moves the story onward, but it also reveals something about each character. Their mere action can add immediate depth to their personality.

When should this action be insert into a story? Well, my question to you would be: when does the character move? I’m not saying you need to record every little physical movement they make, but there are subtle ones which speak volumes of an individual in any situation. For instance, let’s say you have a character who reluctantly committed a crime, and the police as questioning him—not quite realizing he is the criminal—and they ask a specific question that makes him uncomfortable, so he reaching up and rubs the back of his neck as he shrugs and offers an answer. That mere movement says tells us he’s uncomfortable—that there’s something more beneath the surface. Any eagle-eyed detective would zero in on this and try to slowly corner the man into revealing what makes him so uneasy. Further body language such as nostrils flaring and eyes narrowing indicate to anger while increased blinking hints at something they’re trying to keep hidden. Shifting eyes are uneasiness with the situation while sudden stillness in their bodies and eyes deliberately locking with the detectives and calmly answering each question could be an indication of lying. All of these little physical actions build character. You need to determine who your character is and what he’s feeling at that moment. Is he frightened? Angry? Upset? Nonchalant? All of these will have different body language, and when you use these actions in a scene, the reader will pick up on it, probably not completely understand the exact meaning behind the movement, but they know something is up and can come to conclusions.

So, one good place to put these small physical movements is during a conversation. As an experiment, remove the dialogue tag (said, answered, asked, replied, etc) and insert body language because dialogue tags are redundant as I explained in a previous posts (here and here), but the body language captures the personality of the character, and this is vital for a story.

Now just how much of these physical movements should you include? As much as is important to the story. There is a delicate balance—much like any description in a story. I can’t tell you exactly how much or how little to use because you will have to determine that for yourself. There is no magic formula. However, a few things to keep in mind when trying to determine what physical movements you should include:

  1. the main character: their personality, their mood in that moment of the story, their connection to others in the current scene, and anything they may not want revealed.
  2. the other characters in the scene and their connection to one another
  3. the environment (physical setting)
  4. the atmosphere (mood of the setting/characters)

If you think too hard about this, it will seem daunting. Rather, try to imagine it like a scene in a movie. You can visualize it clearly in your head. Everyone moves at all times even if it’s simply narrowing eyes or taking a deep breath or clenching the jaw. Does this mean you should show every movement of all the characters? No. The ‘camera’ (the character through whom we’re viewing the scene) doesn’t focus on all the characters at once. Whomever we’re looking at is whose body language and physical action you should be concerned with. Now, say you’re focusing on one character but there’s another character behind the one you’re focusing on, so you can see both, but you’re not really focusing on the second character. However, that character in the background could wave his arms or silently start mocking behind the back of the first character. This would draw your attention, and you can show it, but it’s up to you whether or not you let the first character become aware of what’s happening behind his back. If you don’t let him know, that’s all right. It’s just a funny instance that reveals to your reader what that other character really thinks of that first character.

Basic things to think of when trying to determine what physical action to use:

  1. Does it reveal something about the character’s personality? (do they experience a flash of anger when they should be unaffected?)
  2. Do the actions arrange the characters in the room in a manner important for the following actions and scenes? (a character may enter a room and begin a conversation with the other character in the room but walk around to the window to look out. Several things could happen. a) the character at the window could be shot by a sniper, b) someone comes dashing into the room announcing there’s an emergency, so both character race out of the room, but the one furtherest from the door is a little further behind. An ambush could befall them, but because that one character a further behind than expected, he might be able to turn the situation on its head…or maybe he’s the one behind the ambush).
  3. Do the actions add and show necessary tension? (two characters agree to meet for a talk, but they don’t trust each other. They enter the room but then walk around each other—orbiting one another. Sometimes this may be obvious, but other times it may be more subtle as in one character going to the bookshelf in the middle of the conversation and pretend to skim over the book titles while engaging in conversation. The other character goes to the bar on the other side of the room and pours himself a drink. The character at the bookshelf then goes to the window, so the character at the bar moves toward the door.)
  4. Does the action add to the flow of the story or slow it down? (adding every single TINY detail will bog down the story whereas adding only the details important to show what the character is feeling in that moment leading up to the next big action pushing it forward.)

Of course there are many other things to keep in mind when writing this, but I can’t think of everything. However, throughout all this, one important fact to remember: this take practice to master. Don’t think about it too much. Don’t over-worry about it. Be aware of it and try to apply what I’ve said. The more you do it, the easier it’ll become for you, so be patient and don’t stress out. You will do well.

Set the Scene Without Slowing the Story

I was going to move on to another topic this week, but I touched upon something in last week’s post, and I think it’s important to focus on it briefly. Last week we discussed mainly narrative description and use of body language and whether those two slow down a story, but there is another kind of description. This is the description which sets the scene or introduces a character. I’m not going to go into introduction of a character because I’ve already posted about that, which you can find here: Character Introduction.

I’ve also already discussed description in great detail in previous blog posts. You can find them in the following:

Painting Pictures With Words

Movement in Description 

However, in this post I want to focus on the question, “Does scene-setting description slow down the story?” It has the potential to do this especially if it isn’t done right or if the placement of the description is wrong. Otherwise, it adds to the story rather than taking from it. There are some things to keep in mind as you’re coming to a scene where you need to set the setting.

You don’t need to show EVERY detail of the room—only the important details. Does it matter if the walls are red, blue, or beige? If it’s not fundamentally vital to the scene or the story, then no. However, DO add little details that show more of the character, but do so in a passing way. Let’s say you have a very sentimental character that’s gone missing, and a detective steps into her room to find out more about her. It could go something like this:

Nodding to the weepy-eyed mother, Detective Blackwell stepped into the victim’s room. His gaze immediately went to all the school achievements hanging on the far wall—Best Student of the Year, Most Likely To Succeed, her high school and university graduation diplomas, and certifications in yoga, tai chi, and karate.

This Elise girl was one smart and resourceful person, and this only added more to the mystery of her disappearance, but Blackwell glanced to the other side of her room. Hanging on the wall above her desk, he noted pictures of Elise with friends while some of the pictures were of a German Shepherd.

That’s Elise’s dog Legend. He disappeared over a year ago. It was really heartbreaking for Elise,” her mother informed Blackwell when he stared at one picture of the dog and girl for too long.

And so the scene can continue. Are her walls pink? Does it really matter? Does she have teddy bears from her childhood on her bed? I don’t care. What I wanted to show was that she was accomplished but also knew how to take care of herself while at the same time she liked to have her accomplishments on display in the privacy of her room.

Now, if you’re trying to introduce a much larger scene such sa a city, a kingdom, or a world, you will need to employ other elements to show the scene without slowing it down. The key to this is, the means by which you describe the setting should be in motion. This will give the illusion of movement rather than static description. One way you can do this is by using things that move easily and without too much hinderance such as light, shadows, water, or animals. A very good example of this is actually the bird in the Assassin’s Creed trailers. They always introduce the setting by means of a hawk or an eagle or some other kind of bird. This is awesome because the flight of the bird allows you to get an overview of the situation below. Check out the first minute or so of this trailer to see what I mean:

Can you use people instead of animals to show the description? Yes, but when you’re just trying to introduce the setting in which the story takes place, I suggest not naming the character immediately because who the character is at this point isn’t important. What is important is what they see and how they interact with their environment. At the end of it, then yes, introduce the character. Again, Assassin’s Creed Unity has a good visual example of this:

Now, seeing it done in film is one thing, but translating that into writing is tricky. How do you do it? Set your mind to it, imagine the scene unfold in your mind, and just do it. Now, I will warn you, it can be a bit tedious and overbearing because you can get lost in all the beautiful description and the story won’t start until Page 20, and you don’t want that. Always know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and stay focused. Try to keep it short—no more than a few paragraphs, and don’t get distracted with unnecessary detail. Here’s an example inspired a bit from the Assassin’s Creed trailer:

The hawk flew over the wide-spread plains, over the dirt road which snaked through the fields toward the city. People traveled the road at this noon hour, running for the city with guns, knives, and pitchforks in hand. They ran with an angry shout and pure determination, but the hawk flew on.

Coming to the mighty gates of the fortress, the bird glided over the wall and over the fighting thereon. Man strove with man on the walls, at the gates, and in the streets. Shouts and gun powder filled the air,

The hawk swept down into a corridor between two buildings. Below, peasants armed with farming tools charged straight for the organized line of royal guards. The guards stood their ground with their guns aimed at the approaching mob.

Then they fired.

The hawk swooped up, away from the gunshots, away from the fighting and bloodshed. It soared up the lofty clock tower then perched itself on the outstretched arm of a hooded man who observed the fighting below but turned his eyes to the pouch attached to the hawk’s leg. Opening the pouch, he removed a rolled up piece of paper. As he turned his back on the fighting to read the message in his room behind the face of the clock, he lowered the bird onto its perch and gave it some leftover raw flesh to eat.

As you can see, using this method is a way to inform the reader of a few things:

  1. It’s set in more medieval time but with gunpowder
  2. There is unrest in the country
  3. Somebody is watching and has outside communication

So, is this the way you should always do intros to every location in your story? No. Variety is always best for your story. Switch it up, or it will become predictable, and people will skip over the paragraphs. This is merely one way to show without slowing the story, and it’s a good little trick to have up your sleeve. It takes practice to master though—as do all things in life.

If you think your description is slowing down your story, it probably is, but you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions. At that point in the story, is it okay to slow down the pace? Or does it disrupt the story? Do you, as the author, naturally skip over those descriptions? If you skip them, it’s likely your readers will too.

Writing description is tricky, but it’s a skill worth mastering. Once you discover how you write description, that is something you will never lose.

Description Slows Down the Story…or Does It?

The common argument is, “Dialogue is quick while description can slow down a story.” Is this true in regards to description? Yes and no. It depends on the type of description. If the description is body language, this can actually give the story a good, steady pace without interrupting the flow. If the description is narrative, there is potential of slowing the story. Let’s break each of these down, but keep in mind that at this time we are not discussing description that sets the scene or describes a character.

Body language is important to add immediate depth to a character, but some writers hesitate employing it. Yes, too much body language has the ability to slow down a scene, but if you use the proper expressions, it can actually add to the action. Take a look at the following examples:

Dialogue tag without body language:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason asked.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William said. “Of course I’m sure. Now this way!”

Dialogue tag with body language:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason asked as they ran through the darkened corridors.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William said glaring at his friend. “Of course I’m sure. Now this way!”

Body language without dialogue tags:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason darted a quick look over his shoulder once more time as he raced through the darkened corridors with William.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William glared at him but then jutted his chin ahead as he kept running. “Of course I’m sure.” He took a sharp right and gestured for Jason to follow. “Now this way!”

Now, all three of these methods are valid ways to write. The first one is the bare minimum. You see what’s said and who’s saying it, but that’s it. It’s pretty fast-paced. The second one has a bit more. You also see what’s said, who said it, and a bit of what they’re doing. In the third one, you see what’s said, and you know who said it based on whose body language is attached to the dialogue. In addition, you get more action because there’s more shown between “Of course I’m sure,” and “Now this way.” Yes, there’s more to read, but did it slow down the action or add to the scene?

You see, the way body language can slow the pace is if you try to show every tiny expression of a character and draw out emotion. For instance, the sentence with Jason could have read like this:

“Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason panted as he darted a quick look over his shoulder while he ran with William. His lungs hurt from running, but his heart pounded in his ears telling not to stop, not to give up. He had to keep going even though he had no idea where William was leading him. Did William really know where they were going? Or was he leading him into a trap? Jason shook his head as these doubts came to mind. William was his friend. He wouldn’t betray him like that.

All right, all that description slowed down the pace. Why? Imagine it unfold like a movie, and these two guys are running down the hall full of fright, and then Jason looks over his shoulder. Suddenly everything is in super-slow motion as all these thoughts and doubts creep into his mind. That’s how it feels to me because in my mind I know in this situation it won’t take William that long to reply to Jason. This happens because narrative description was added to the scene. This is when the character’s thoughts are shown to the reader, and this has the potential to slow down the scene because it takes time to process thoughts.

Should the writing in that paragraph I showed above be avoided? No, not always. It entirely depends on the moment in the story. If it’s a slower scene with a lot of time to contemplate without concern of conversation, then have the character get lost in thought by using narrative description. However, if a character does in the middle of a conversation, the reader may forget what was said before all the thoughts bombarded them, so when the conversation continues, the reader have to backtrack again to refresh their memory. Something like this:

So how do you know Silas?” Chandler raised his brows as he lowered himself into the seat across from Demetrius.

The mention of his old friend caused Demetrius to frown a little. Their history was a long one. Both of them had been orphans and ended up in the same foster family home with several other children. Lots of the children enjoyed teasing and taunting Silas because he wasn’t a big kid but rather scrawny. One day Demetrius made it his personal mission to be Silas’ body guard. The two became fast friends and remained friends even after both of them were adopted into separate families. They ended up going to the same college, but their interests were vastly different. Demetrius enjoyed sports and girls while Silas thrived on intellectual talk and politics.

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change. “I grew up with him.” Demetrius nodded to Chandler.

Now, I don’t know about you, but reading all that description of his past friendship with Silas, I get lost in the past and memories that I forget there was a conversation occurring at this point in the story or what was said to prompt this flashback from Demetrius. I have to pause for half a second to remember the question before moving on. Sometimes I can’t remember, so I have to go back a few paragraphs to find the last piece of dialogue then skip all the description and tie it in with the response to see the flow of the conversation.

Is there a better way to do this? There are two ways you could smooth out the transition. First, you can have the first character yank the second character out of his thoughts and repeat the question. It would look something like this:

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change.

Demetrius?” Chandler snapped his fingers in front of Demetrius’ face, jerking him out of his thoughts. Seeing he had his attention once more, Chandler frowned. “I ask you how you knew Silas, and you go all zoned-out. You all right, man?”

Yeah.” Demetrius nodded. “I’m fine. Sorry, was thinking.”

So how do you know Silas?”

Demetrius shrugged as he reached for his beer. “I grew up with him.”

It’s okay to have your characters get lost in thought and brought back abruptly. That’s realistic and makes them more human, but be careful how often you use this method. It can get tiresome after a few times.

However, another way could be having the character recall the question at the end and then answer it:

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change.

But why was he thinking about Silas now? Demetrius furrowed his brows then looked up at Chandler and recalled how Chandler had asked him how he knew Silas. Nodding, Demetrius reached for his beer on the table. “I grew up with him.”

The key to remember with any description is: Is the placement logical in the sense of timing? Then you need to make sure the transition is smooth. If you, the author, need a reminder as to where the conversation or scene was going before the description detour, your readers might need a similar reminder, and you’d want to weave one in without being too obvious.

So yes, narrative description can slow down a scene, but you can use this to your advantage. At the same time body language can add to the action, but too much body language that includes every little micro-expression might slow down the story. It’s a fine balance and something to keep in the forefront of your mind as you write. However, don’t obsess over it. Trust the story and your own writing ability. Remember, you can always go back and revise.

Elements of Poetry

Go ahead—groan. As soon as I say the word ‘poetry’, almost everyone closes up because they’re thinking of the common,

Roses are red

Violets are blue

Sugar is sweet

And so are you!”

And that is not what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is rhyme and rhythm—subtlety done. Putting poetic skills into play with poise. For some people, this comes naturally. For others, it will take practice.

Poetry offers a very important and ancient element to writing. In the days of old when stories were told orally, poetry was the most common form because it was easier to remember, and who doesn’t like a good story?

When you’re sitting around a camp fire at night and someone is telling a story, would you rather listen to a monotone story of how a group of people once went into these woods only to disappear, or would you rather hear the rise and fall of the voice, the suspenseful pauses, the use of the environment (such as throwing a firecracker into the fire the moment a gunshot goes off in the story), and the speed, then slowness of the voice? Which would you prefer to hear? Which one would you remember for the rest of your life?

Poetry is the only key to ancient storytelling that translates into modern day writing. Sure it gets complicated—look at Shakespeare if you want a reminder, but it doesn’t have to be. The primary use of poetics in prose is to paint a picture.

Here is something I had written, but we’re going to dissect it, so you can identify the poetic elements:

Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around, then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

Knowing the wolves were of no threat to him, he tugged the edges of his hood closer to his face and hugged his cloak around him as he ducked his head and pressed on through the skin-biting wind, step by step through the snow, ice, and rock. Even in these night hours, he knew this path well―having worn it well during the years of his childhood. If he lifted his head, he knew he would see the impressive sight of Nirrorm’s castle jutting out of the mountain at the end of the valley―its sharp towers a contrast in the night and an imposing, frightening sight to the unfamiliar, but he kept walking―one step at a time.

At last he came to the castle walls, and the honorable watchmen saw him before he saw them. “Halt! Who goes there?”

He stood at the foot of the wall staring at the structured stone. His journey had drained him, and he did not wish to speak above a whisper, for he had little strength. He knew he could conjure a magical orb that would answer the watchmen’s question, but he was familiar with the laws of Nirrorm.

Magic was forbidden here.

Sighing, he lifted his chin and looked up, up, up to the top of the wall where the watchman leaned over to see him―and aim their arrows at him. As if that would harm him. A small smirk touched the corner of his pale lips, but he swallowed and forced his voice to be heard. “I am Prince Lorrek of Cuskelom, and I seek sanctuary.”

All right, so on the surface it looks like a normal intro to a story, but let me take it apart for you, so you can see the elements of poetry at work here. Let’s draw out the sounds of just the first paragraph:

‘A’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘A_E’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face

‘AIN’: he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

‘D’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

EE’: he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

‘H’: A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face…

‘IGHT’: wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘K’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape…

‘L’: A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘O’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘R’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain…

‘S’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf‘s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘T’ & ‘TH’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

This is the poetic element in its basic form. We use alliteration to make the first letters of the words to rhyme such as the ‘T’ and ‘TH’ here: ‘he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain’. Rhyming occurs at the end of the word such as ‘ bright night‘. Assonance also comes into play, and this makes the middle of the words to rhyme, as it did here: ‘…the full moon’s pale face.’

The use of sounds via letters is important, but the use of sounds via repetition is also a tool.

At last he came to the castle walls, and the honorable watchmen saw him before he saw them. “Halt! Who goes there?”

Now, I could have said “the honorable watchmen noticed him before he saw them” or the other way around, and my editors and proofreaders would recommend I change it, but it just sounds right. For an example of one that doesn’t sound right, here:

Even in these night hours, he knew this path well―having worn it well during the years of his childhood.

The use of ‘well’ doesn’t flow easily, and it doesn’t sound right to my ears. I would probably rephrase one or the other so I don’t repeat that word. It can work the way it is, but I don’t like the sound of it.

Here’s another example of the use of repetition to stress a point:

Sighing, he lifted his chin and looked up, up, up to the top of the wall where the watchman leaned over to see him―and aim their arrows at him.

Sure, he lifted his chin, so we automatically know he’s looking up, but I wanted to stress just how close to the wall he was and how high the wall was, so I repeated the word three times. Very rarely do I use a word more than three times when doing this, but it’s not unheard of.

Using repetition creates a sound—a rhythm. Another example of repetition this way is with the use of the word ‘and’. In the text above I don’t have an example, but it’s something like this:

He went up the stairs and down the hall and through the chambers and into the last place her saw her—the hanging gardens.

The use of ‘and’ here is deliberate. It sets a rhythm, stresses a point, and draws out the systematic way he searched for her.

Repeating little words to form a rhythm or set a pace to a story is often frowned upon by editors. In their mind you’re supposed to use the word once in a sentence/paragraph because it’s more professional that way—more proper. However, if you deliberately used those words, don’t back down just because someone disagrees with you. Show them why you did what you did. This is why it is very important to know why you must choose every word that you write with care.

So check your own style. Does it use any elements of poetry that I’ve explained? Does it use sound as I demonstrated? Sure, it might not be your style, but it’s worth experimenting with. Applying these tools properly takes practice. That is why it is important to read and write poetry even though you may never publish it or allow anyone to read it. Study the sounds, observe the structure, and it will slip into your writing, adding an extra depth to your words, sharpening those images, and strengthening those sentences.

Notice What You Notice

In my previous post, we discussed the introduction of a character and how to describe them without the writing becoming boring. Now, we can come across the same problem when it comes to describing setting and a scene. I’ve discussed some of this in earlier posts, which I will link at the bottom of this one, but I wanted to touch upon another aspect and basically give you homework (which you don’t have to actually share unless you want to).

I mentioned the term ‘deductive writing’. What is that? Let’s bring Sherlock Holmes back into this. He uses deductive reasoning to come to his conclusions and solve the mysteries. Now, how do we apply this to writing?

Sherlock Holmes is very observant. That is what makes him good at what he does. Not every character will be as observant as he. If your MC is a boy-crazy girl who has only spent all her free time on the internet or watching chick flicks, she’s not going to be observant. In other words, you can’t rely on her to show the reader the setting of a scene when she walks into the room. Her eyes won’t notice the color of the walls, how many doors or windows there are, or all the food and drinks, or how everything is carefully decorated in this impressive mansion. No, her eyes will scan the people—quickly overlooking anyone who is plain, maybe noting her rivals, but absolutely pinpointing all the hot guys in the room. She’ll then get sucked into conversations, and the rest of the scene unfolds.

However, if your character has any training an Martial Arts, they will have a completely different approach the same situation. These characters are more reliable when you want to show a scene through their eyes. Now, you can have a character who has never taken any form of Martial Arts but is still observant by nature, and this character is also reliable when setting a scene, but it is only because of that character’s personality that makes him or her reliable like that.

So what am I talking about, and how does it apply to writing? Here’s the exercise I want you to do, and I’m going to show you how it’s done.

Notice how you enter a room or unfamiliar setting and the first things you look for when entering the room–

Because I am prone to terrible headaches, as I approach an unfamiliar room, my senses are already spread out looking for four things: loud noise, flashing or dizzying lights, crowded environment, and potent smell. Any one of these can trigger a headache, and I avoid such places to the best of my ability. If it cannot be avoided, I at least limit my time there to the bare minimum.

When I step into the room, due to my training in martial arts, I note every exit, windows, stairways, and balconies and whatever might be blocking me from them. Yes, I’m not necessarily counting them but making a mental note as to where they are in case they’re needed. Also, if I can’t see down the corridor at the end of the room, I make a mental projection of what might be down there in case it is important to know. I then begin to assess the crowd for any threats or unusual behavior as well as their dress—whether it be practical or not in any given circumstance.

Being a writer, I automatically read people’s faces and body language determining their possible thoughts, feelings, and motives.

As naturally introvert, I scan all the faces for someone familiar and feel the greatest relief when I recognize someone.

All this takes a few seconds while I pass through the room. Can I recount all this information to you in that moment? Unlikely. I note it immediately, but it takes time to process in my mind. It is merely instinct.

If the room has any of the elements for a headache—especially noise or crazy lights—I forgo most of my usual assessments simply because I can’t see doors or windows in the flashing lights. Instead, if I am there to meet someone, I will zero in on that person and prompt them to go outside, so we can have a conversation without shouting. Otherwise, if I’m alone—well, I’d never go to such a environment on my own, so I would just leave.

This is an example of how to measure your own assessment of a new location. Once you know how you take in new surroundings, it’s easier to introduce a new setting for your characters.

The same tactic can be applied to when you meet someone new. What is the first thing you notice about them? Is it their appearance? Their face? Eye color? Clothes? Posture? My sister has a superb memory of people. When I ask her what someone looked like, she’ll say, “He’s a bit taller than I am, has brown hair, blue eyes, square jaw, lean.” She usually links their appearance to an actor. But personally, when I look at someone, I see none of that. Instead, I notice how they carry themselves, how they present themselves. I might note their hair color and height and if they’re lean or muscular, but other than that when I meet someone, I make note of their personality and who they are rather than simply how they’d like the world to see them. Once you understand how you handle introductions with real life people, you can apply this idea to your writing.

Of course, your characters are not you, and they will notice things you probably wouldn’t notice, but it’s your job to make sure they notice what they would see such as Marcus, the ex-Marine, taking note of the guards at the ballroom; Patrick, the hacker, noticing all the technology; and Olivia, the thief, identifying the valuable pieces throughout the room.

So, how do you enter a room? And when you meet someone, what do you first notice about them?

Now, step back, communicate with your characters, and figure out what they notice when they walk into a room or when they meet someone. And they won’t notice everything, and that’s okay. Not one person can notice everything (unless you have a superhero character), but that is why we have multiple characters, and we can get a bigger picture of the scene—if necessary—through the eyes of other characters.

As promised, here are the links to the previous posts I posted discussing scene setting and description:

Paint Pictures With Words

Movement With Description

Shifting Points of View (POV)

If you want to include in the comments a brief description of what you notice when you first walk into a room or when meeting someone for the first time, feel free to do so. It would be great to read!

Describing Your Characters upon Introduction

In a sense, there is a ‘camera’ in your story which sets the pace of how the scene unfolds. Description immediately slows down the pace, and too much description makes it almost slow motion. It’s not important to record every detail in order for the readers to get a clear image of the character in their head. Let them imagine whom they will—just as long as the character’s personality doesn’t change. The personality is what shines through and what should remain consistent regardless of how others imagine their appearance.

Once I let someone read a chapter of a story of mine, and she gave me this feedback:

Character development – I very much enjoyed how you are developing your characters. Nothing annoys me more when a writer says here is my character, this is what they look like, this is their temperament within the first couple of paragraphs without giving their character a chance to develop and grow. I dislike this “in your face” approach and prefer to learn about the character as the book develops, so I like your approach to your characters.

Then she sent me a sample of her story. What amazed me was how this writer was acutely aware of terrible introductions of characters yet could not write without falling into the same problem. After exchanging a few emails, I came to learn that she knew she had been writing the kind of writing she didn’t like to read, but she didn’t know what else to do. So I gave her some advice.

The characters’ looks are not important. It is their personality and behavior that are fundamental to the story. Once I wrote an entire book, and I imagined the actors who would play the characters if it became a movie. However, I didn’t try to describe the actors’ looks. I just went along with the story, developing the character as I went. The most remarkable feedback I got from a reader was, “Have you ever watched the TV series Merlin? Your character reminds me of Morgana.” I had to laugh because that was exactly whom I imagined when I wrote that character though there were some differences.

The problem is that the brain is much quicker than the eye, but when reading our eyes must first read the words in order for our brains to comprehend them. If the pace has slowed down, then our brain doesn’t see the story unfold as quickly. The only way to prevent this is to use motion description, which I’ve already discussed in a previous post, here: Movement in Description. 

This is an example of what dragged-out description feels like to a reader. Once I was in the kitchen baking when my mom came in and started reading to me a section out of a Sherlock Holmes story. In it, Sherlock and Watson walk down a corridor at a brisk pace, and suddenly they turn a corner, and someone is standing in the middle of the hall waiting for them. The whole story stops to describe the character entirely! To me, I imagined it as a movie. They’re walking down a hallway at a swift pace, turn the corner, and then S-L-O-W motion as they take in the sight of this new character from head to toe. It was like a L’Oreal commercial where the women have their hair flying in the wind in slow motion…except, this new character was a guy—a tough, hardened man. As you can imagine, because the pace slowed down to take the time to describe him, my mental image of him was completely ruined. I had to laugh because I couldn’t get the Sherlock Holmes L’Oreal commercial I envisioned out of my head. This is one example of how films and television have influenced our imagination.

There are a lot of Sherlock films and TV shows, and we know Sherlock doesn’t take THAT much time to observe a character. He’s very quick about it. Just as Sherlock used deductive reasoning, we must use deductive writing in our stories when introducing characters and setting. Always keep the story moving.

“So if we’re not supposed to give a described snapshot of our character upon introduction, what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to show our characters?” Imagine your character and the first thing you’d notice about them in person. Is this character tall? Perhaps he has striking eye color  you’ve never seen before. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with the character’s look, but rather the aura he presents is regal and noble or flamboyant and careless. Whichever way he is will be evident in the way he carries himself, and this has a lot to do with body language and can be shown over a course of time instead of a pause in the story to describe the character. Here are examples of both styles of writing:

Example 1: Standing at 6’2, Skelton wore a black trench coat, black clothes, and black boots. His hair was a shocking blonde, and his eyes were stunning blue while he smiled with mischief. High cheek bones, sharp nose, and square jaw made him all the more striking to look at, but there was something fun and roguish about him.

Example 2: Skelton flung the doors open and smirked when everyone flinched at the sound of the door slamming against the wall, but he sauntered in with confidence. “Well, well, well! Looks like you’re having a party! And no one thought to invite me?” He pressed a hand to his chest as he pursed his lips into a pout then clicked his tongue and wagged his head–dropping his hand and the pout as he smirked again. “Not to worry! I’ll just make myself at home!” Marching around the length of the table, he came to the head of it and plopped himself down in the chair then kicked his boots up onto the table as he leaned back in the chair and intertwined his hands over his chest. “So, peoples, where are we? What’s on the agenda?” Everyone glared at him.

In one version, we are merely told what he looks like and hinted at how he behaves. In the second version, we don’t need to be told anything. We get his personality right away. Yes, we don’t know the color of his hair or his eye color or the exact shape of his face, but is more important? Always keep in mind what is most important to your story.

“Are there ever any exceptions?” Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. It merely takes an exceptionally good writer to know when and how and why exactly to break the rules.

The Adverse Adverb

An adverb modifies the verb. It is a word that describes how or when something was done–most commonly recognized with the ending ‘ly’ but not always. 

Growing up, I heard the saying, “Don’t use adverbs,” so I avoided them as best I could. It wasn’t until I listened to Stephen King’s audiobook ‘On Writing’ that I finally understood.

Adverbs exist for a purpose. So far, in the two paragraphs above, I’ve used three adverbs—‘commonly’, ‘always’, and ‘finally’. You might ask since this post is about avoiding adverbs, why am I using them? To prove a point. That point is the proper place of adverbs such as conversational blog posts or casual essays. Such easygoing writing styles are informative and bring the reader in by sounding like a friend.

Adverbs have an important role in communication. What I propose today is the role of adverbs in short stories and novels—works of fiction. This is where the rule “Don’t use adverbs” comes into play. The most typical use of adverbs is tied with dialogue. For instance:

You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix said angrily.

Now, I’ve already mentioned the use of ‘said’, but where does that leave the adverb ‘angrily’? After all, it tells us how he spoke. It tells us how he spoke—doesn’t show.

What does it show us about his character? All right, he’s angry, but that doesn’t narrow down anything since everyone gets angry. He could be a hot-headed drunk whose wife just confronted him about his drinking:

You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix threw his bottle across the room and ignored when it shattered against the wall.

Or he could be a determined detective in the interrogation room as a difficult suspect twists the truth to probe at the detective’s dark past.

You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix narrowed his eyes on the suspect in the center of the room, but he forced himself not to uncross his arms and strangle the man.

Anger is an emotion. Everyone responds to emotions differently. Showing the body language of the character through that emotion solidifies that character in the reader’s mind.

Another common use of adverbs is to describe an action such as: He tiptoed quietly into the room. ‘Tiptoed quietly’ is redundant, so the adverb ‘quietly’ is unnecessary. Have you ever tried to tiptoe loudly?

Is there ever a right time to use adverbs?” Of course. There are always exceptions to the rules, but it depends on the context. Just as it is with ‘telling’, you must know which adverbs you are using and why. If you can’t justify it, and if you can easily take it out and the sentence still gets your message across, then the adverb is unnecessary. However, if it is very important to show how a character did something because it intensifies the scene in simple ways, then leave it. Consider this:

Felix hesitated in the doorway of the hospital room then slowly stepped inside the dark room.

In that sentence, I could have taken out ‘slowly’, and the sentence would read fine. However, leaving it in, places an emphasis on the action and hints at his great reluctance to enter the room because he feels responsible for the patient getting harmed in the first place. When an adverb is the only word that can get the message across clearly and simply, then use it.