We have examined the role of both location and character description, discovering that the amount of description needed depends on the importance of the location or the character. We now turn our attention to action description. The best place to start, when discussing description of action, is to clarify exactly what is meant by “action”.
In the context of novel writing, action is anything that happens.
So, if your main character makes a cup of coffee, this is action and would need a description.
If your character is watching someone else making a cup of coffee, then this is action and also needs a description.
If your character is fighting off three ninjas, who are riding genetically mutated unicorns, then, yes, this is awesome, but it is also action.
From a technical viewpoint, there is no differentiation between the type or intensity of action. If it happens in the scene, then it needs a description.
Let’s start with a little word of warning. It is very easy to slip into TELL when action enters your story. TELL must always be avoided.
Perhaps this is the time for a little confession. When I wrote the examples for this book, I kept, unintentionally, slipping into TELL. I just couldn’t help it. However, with each rewrite, I weeded out the TELL and replaced it with SHOW. The moral of the story is that we all, accidentally, use TELL from time to time. It doesn’t make you a bad person, as long as you work hard to remove it with each edit.
Here’s an example from our mate John:
John made a cup of coffee and sat down to answer his emails.
This is TELLING. You are telling the reader what is happening, you are not showing via description.
Here’s the same section but as SHOWING:
John picked up the kettle and walked to the sink. He turned on the tap and allowed the water to fill the kettle. He returned to the work surface, plugged in the kettle and turned it on.
This is SHOWING. In this example of action, you are SHOWING the reader what is happening. The reader is part of the story, can see it unfold before his or her eyes, and, therefore, the reader remains an active part of the process.
You must constantly be on the lookout for TELLING. If the narrator is telling, then stop and use SHOWING.
Now … it pains me to say this, but there’s an exception to the rule. It is just that, an exception; it is not an excuse for you to consistently TELL.
It is OK (sometimes, occasionally) to use TELL. However, it must be done consciously and with forethought.
Here’s the problem…
If you are showing everything, each little action, then your book can rapidly become very boring. If taken to the extreme, the concept of SHOW says that you should describe every step, every breath, even every blink of an eye.
Of course, this is stupid.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
But it does present a problem.
How do you deal with the mundane stuff?
Do you really want to describe your character making a cup of tea? Probably not, … but go back and look at those two passages, the second (with SHOWING) is more enjoyable to read. You feel part of the process. Therefore, it becomes a balance. You want to SHOW as much as possible, but sometimes a simple “John made a cup of coffee” is the best option.
The key is that, when you do TELL, you should know you are doing it and, most important, WHY you are doing it.
You can get away with a bit of TELL if something happens in a scene that is:
- So mundane it verges on boring if described,
- So commonly understood that there is a shared understanding of the action.
If we go back to John and his caffeine habit:
John made a cup of coffee.
This statement fulfills the two above-noted criteria. It is both mundane and commonly understood. We all know what it means to make coffee, plus no one wants to read a description of someone making coffee.
OK, let’s look at this principle in action …
Say your story calls for two scenes. The first scene is in Location A, and the second in Location B. Your main character will be getting in his car at Location A and traveling to Location B.
This means you will need to write the first scene in Location A and the second in Location B.
If you are strictly applying the SHOW principle, then you are going to have to write a third scene. This is the “traveling scene” in which the character moves between locations. The problem is that this particular traveling scene is pointless, as it fails to move the plot forward or develop the characters and is, therefore, just a waste of the reader’s attention (and there’s NOTHING more valuable than the reader’s attention).
The answer to this problem is simpler than it may first seem.
Your reader is not stupid. The reader will understand that the character will travel from Location A to Location B. Therefore, you don’t need to SHOW this, and you can just let it happen off the page.
One of the great advantages of the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology is that the reader is firmly engaged in the world of the narrator. Since you have actively tied the reader to this world, the reader can accept that events occur away from the narrator.
This can be used to a greater or lesser extent.
At one extreme the reader will accept that, if a character leaves Location A and gets in their car, then the character will drive in that car to Location B. This is a mundane and commonly understood event, and, therefore, there’s no need to describe it to the reader.
To a greater extent, the reader is also able to understand that characters do things off the page. So if a character leaves one scene and then turns up a couple of scenes later with a broken arm, this is acceptable. You will probably need to explain the broken arm in dialogue, but you don’t need to describe it in the action.
The result is, to avoid writing a complex and pointless traveling scene, do the following:
“OK, I’m off,” John said, as he picked up his car keys.
“Where are you going?” Sally said, her voice drifting from the next room.
“To see Paul.”
“Right. See you later.”
John slowed the car as he pulled into Paul’s drive, the house ahead of him looming tall in the morning light.
The three-asterisk spacer (called a time break) indicates to the reader that time has passed and/or a change of location has occurred, and something has happened while not on the page (in this case John has driven his car). It also indicates that whatever happened was not important enough to be in the story.
To summarize, the rules for writing description are commonsense principles:
- Ensure that you SHOW description not TELL.
- Unless SHOWING is mundane and boring, then TELL. Remember, a little TELL goes a long way.