18 Action

We have examined the role of location and character description, discovering that the amount of description needed depends on the importance of the location or character. We now turn our attention to action. 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 is 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. ALWAYS.

Perhaps, this is 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 morale of the story is that we all, accidently, 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. Now using adverbs, they do make you a bad person.
Here’s an example from our mate John…

John made a cup of coffee and sat down to answer his emails.

This is TELL. You are telling the reader what is happening. You are not showing them via description.

Here’s the same section but as SHOW…

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 SHOW. In this example of action, you are SHOWING the reader what is happening. They are part of the story; they can see it unfold before their eyes and, therefore, they remain an active part of the process. You must constantly be on the look out for TELL. If the narrator is telling, then stop and SHOW.

Exception to the rule

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 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 is does present a problem.

How do you deal with the boring and 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 the SHOW) 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 know you are doing it, and most importantly, WHY you are doing it.
If something happens in a scene, that is:

  • So mundane that is verging on boring if described,
  • So commonly understood that there is a shared understanding of the action, then you can get away with a bit of TELL.

If we go back to John and his caffeine habit:

John made a cup of coffee.

This statement fulfills both of the criteria. It is both mundane and commonly understood. We all know what it means to ‘make coffee’, plus no one in their right mind 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 in Location A and travelling to Location B.

This means you will need to write the first scene in Location A and the second in location B. Now, if you are strictly applying the SHOW principle, then you are going to have to write a third scene. This is the “travelling scene” in which the character moves between locations. The problem is that this “travelling scene” is pointless. 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 that the reader’s attention).

The answer to this problem is simpler than it may first seem. Your reader is not stupid. They will understand that the character will travel from Location A to Location B. Therefore, you don’t need to SHOW them, and you can just let it happen off 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 them to this world they are able to accept events occur away from the narrator.

This can be used to a greater or lesser extent.

At one extreme they will accept that if a character leaves Location A and gets in their car, then they 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, they are also able to understand that characters ‘do things’ off 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 the dialogue, but you don’t need to describe it in the action.

The result is that the way to avoid writing a complex and pointless ‘travel scene’ is to 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 spacer (***) indicates to the reader that time has passed and something has happened whilst they were not reading (in this case John has driven his car). It also indicates that whatever ‘happened’ was not important enough to be in the story.



To summarized, the rules for writing description are pretty common sense:

  • Ensure that you SHOW description not TELL.
  • Unless it is mundane and boring, then a little TELL goes a long way.

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