Tag Archives: story action

Lose the Laundry

No, I’m not talking about your dirty clothes. Today’s post is about a necessary writing responsibility called description.

Do I hear groans? Quick! How many of you skip descriptive passages when you’re reading fiction? It can become boring pretty fast sometimes, and it’s slow. It puts the story on pause while the writer evokes some lovely–or clunky–imagery.

So if it has all these things going against it, why am I even bothering to bring it up? Why not ditch description altogether? Didn’t Elmore Leonard advise fiction writers never to include the things that readers skip?

He did.

However, we shouldn’t ditch description completely. Why? Because our stories need it. Description helps orient readers to our story world, particularly when your setting is purely imaginary. After all, remember that your fans have never been to the planet Faraway unless you describe it to them.

Secondly, description shows readers what our characters look like, especially in their introductions when they’re making that all-important first impression. Without description, I might read maybe half of a novel, all the while imagining–for whatever reason–that my viewpoint is stocky and red-haired, then suddenly discover that this individual is tall, willowy, and blonde. It’s like walking down a staircase and missing a step. Even if you catch your balance and avoid falling, you’ve taken quite a jolt.

And, finally, description helps evoke emotions or physical sensations through what our point-of-view character experiences. After all, if your protagonist has just proposed to the girl of his dreams and she turns him down, he needs to feel the emotions of disappointment, embarrassment, humiliation, shock, anger, and disbelief. Maybe we toss in resentment and stir up a bit of jealousy toward the guy she’s choosing instead. Or, if your point-of-view person is coshed with a blackjack at the end of Chapter Four and comes to at the beginning of Chapter Five to find herself trussed with rope and her face smushed into the gritty texture of old carpet that smells like dog urine and mold, then you have to share those descriptive details with readers or how will they know she’s shivery and nauseous from the throbbing pain in her skull and needs to keep her eyes shut against the dizzying spin of the room around her.

Hmm. So despite its bad rep, description is necessary. Does that mean Mr. Leonard is wrong? Not at all! It means we have to make description fun, fast, and lively enough that readers don’t want to skip it. Or, like tricking a toddler into opening his mouth so we can spoon in green peas, we have to slip description past readers before they realize what’s happening.

It’s helpful to remember that there are two major types of description:  laundry list and  dominant impression.

Let’s get the laundry out of the way, shall we? Early in my career, an editor criticized my manuscript for featuring too many laundry lists. I had no idea what she was talking about and kept piling on more and more details in my descriptive passages, which was the wrong thing to do and exactly what this editor did not want. Somehow, I finally revised that project to her satisfaction or exhaustion–not sure which–and publication deadline was met.

For clarity, let’s define laundry-list description as old-school enumeration of endless details about a setting or a character. Often such description begins with one side of a room and systematically moves the reader’s eye around as it catalogues the colors, furnishings, and architectural features. Or it might start with a character’s glossy black hair pinned high atop her head with only one long curl allowed to rest on her sloping shoulder, then moving down to address the widow’s peak of her hairline, her wide-spaced cerulean eyes with thick curling lashes, her pertly perfect nose with three adorable freckles scattered across its curvature, the rosy fullness of her lips, and the dimple in her chin. Fiction of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century often features such passages. Because every detail is lavishly attended to with equal emphasis, description tends to be long. More information means more word count. Longer imagery grows slower and slower and s-l-o-w-e-r until it becomes … ZZZZzzzz.

The other type of description is dominant impression, which focuses on a single image you want to get across to readers. What is the most important or notable aspect of the treasure cave that you need to convey?

Well obviously it’s the treasure.

All other information can wait. If that cave holds fabulous riches, then go bold with it in a couple of sentences and make sure you emphasize specific, well-chosen details. Consider ropes of immense pearls, rubies and emeralds winking in the torchlight, heavy Spanish doubloons heaped on the floor. However, don’t catalogue every jewel or count the bolts of shimmering silk cloth. Instead, what is it about a heap of treasure that would stand out to you first and foremost? The glitter-fire within the jewels? The gleam of the coins? If you want this trove to dazzle, then focus on how it shines and sparkles in the flickering torchlight. It’s the dazzle that’s the dominant impression, not each item.

Of course, if the treasure your hero expected to find is not in the cave and instead he encounters a pile of human skeletons in rotted clothing with baleful red rat eyes gleaming from among the bones, then you’ll want to focus on whatever your overwhelming disappointment leads you to notice. Maybe it’s the stench–dank and putrid–like standing in a mass grave. Hit with one vivid metaphor–ideally less of a cliche than my examples–and keep the action moving.

Every few pages, if needed, you can insert a descriptive phrase to supplement the dank dismal atmosphere or the empty gloom within the cave or the glum resignation on the sidekick’s face or the sharp twinge in the protagonist’s stomach as his ulcer perforates from the stress of failure and sends him to his knees in agony.

By pausing only briefly for a swift, vivid impression for setting establishment or character introductions and by mixing descriptive words into the story action, you’ll be able to lose the boring pile of laundry and keep your story exciting, plausible, and vivid.


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Setting & Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in generic Metropolis, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. I’m not saying you can’t set a scene in a dark alley. Of course you can! Darkness adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. Alleys are splendid places for all sorts of nefarious activities or danger and therefore useful to fiction writers.

So don’t think I’m taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for the purposes of this example, I want you to reason through your impulse to use a gloomy, narrow location.

Why is this alley dark? Is it just because alleys are always dark and spooky? Or is it because Vinny the Villain is laying a trap and has shot out all the mercury vapor lights on the backs of the buildings?

Oh, a trap. Hmmm, then Vinny is luring someone there. Cool, but why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist? Does Vinny intend to ambush Henry Hero? Or perhaps Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation? Are henchmen and minions scattered around to put all the odds in Vinny’s favor? Will Vinny be helped or hindered by the darkness? Will the confrontation go as planned? What if it doesn’t?

Such questions are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way and help you shape plot while you visualize what sort of confrontations your characters will have with each other.

Now, let’s look at some additional questions:

Why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Are you thinking, who cares which one it is? Ah, ah, rebellious one! It matters.

Perhaps this alley is close to the location where a key player intends to be. Or perhaps this alley has a dead end, and Henry Hero can be trapped into a shootout. Or perhaps this alley cuts through a congested area and provides a shortcut.

If Vinny is indeed planning an ambush, then a shortcut isn’t useful or needed. But if instead Vinny is planning a shakedown and needs a fast escape route, then maybe this alley is the best for his purposes.

Remember that plotting is always about making choices and weighing options that are in line with each other. Plotting is not really about plunking your characters into a generic location and leaving the subsequent confrontations to haphazard chance.

And now, I have yet more questions:

What else is going on in the alley, or–more specifically–what features does it have? Time to decide whether the alley is located in Metropolis or Smalltown. Some alleys are unpaved, muddy, full of potholes and broken glass. Some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are to accommodate garbage trucks, so they are always littered and feature garbage and recycling receptacles. Those in turn tend to attract scavengers and prowlers, either the two-legged or four-legged variety. Is there access to backyards from this alley, or are there featureless walls of tall buildings? Are there doorways and loading docks? Do homeless people shelter in the alley? Are there guard dogs chained up in narrow yards that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras?

What does this alley look and smell like? What … but wait! You’re feeling overwhelmed. You want me to stop.

Are you thinking, Sheesh, Chester, why do you go overboard with so many questions and details? I just want a corpse found in a dark alley because I want to put a crime scene in my story. I don’t want to count how many plastic straws are lying in the potholes.

Well, fine. Allow me to focus on other questions, such as … How did the body get there? Who put it there? Again, why was this alley chosen as a dumping point as opposed to any other alley in the community? Was the victim killed in this alley and left, or was the victim killed elsewhere and brought here? If the latter, how was the body transported? Were there any witnesses?

If this is Smalltown and it’s a muddy alley where the trash cans are kept, is the villain seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew?

If your story is set in Metropolis, is the villain seen by a homeless person? And if that option’s worn too thin for you, is the villain seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater?

Get the idea? When you think through your setting and work out the details that go with it, you’ll reach less often for simplistic cliches or boring backdrops that contribute nothing.


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Adversary Versus Adversity

I think my last couple of posts on scenes managed to confuse a few folks, so let’s look at things from a slightly different angle.

A novel isn’t split totally between scenes and their sequels. Other types of material are utilized as well. So there might be segments devoted to description of a setting or a character. There might be sections centered around providing information or background. There can be condensed portions where the author skims over a huge event–such as the WWII invasion of Normandy–without supplying a lot of detail.

Let’s focus for now on story action:

Dynamic story action can be presented in two ways.

One way is through a scene. The protagonist is pitted against a sentient, reasoning, foe or one that’s intelligently directed.

The other option is known as narrative summary. This is where the protagonist is pursuing a goal and encountering obstacles, but–despite harrowing danger–the story action is not actually a scene.

Now, let’s define and differentiate these two forms of action a little better.

A scene pits the protagonist against an adversary, right here, right now, and right in the protagonist’s face. The scene focuses on that encounter without summary. Every moment, every line of dialogue, and every move/countermove between the two characters is depicted.

So, for example, if James Bond is standing handcuffed in front of Dr. No and they are sparring verbally as one demands information and the other refuses to supply it, we have a scene.

Narrative summary pits the protagonist against adversity or obstacles or random bad luck. The event is summarized, supplying the gist of the action that’s happening without depicting every moment. Dialogue may be indirect or omitted entirely.

An example of this would be when James Bond is crawling through Dr. No’s horrific tunnel and meets dangerous obstacle after dangerous obstacle. With each new danger, Bond’s predicament grows worse. The suspense level increases, and audience sympathy for Bond rises. But he’s not in a scene.

Each form serves a purpose. Each can be quite effective. Mixing them up varies the pace within the story and keeps things from becoming monotonous and predictable.

If there’s no antagonist present, then utilize narrative summary.

If the antagonist steps out through a hidden door and blocks the passageway, then you’re in a scene and should slow things down fractionally to present the give-and-take conflict occurring between your protagonist and his adversary.


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Jump Off the Bridge

When your protagonist has reached a decision about his or her next course of action, it’s important for that individual to take immediate action.

Stalling at this point accomplishes nothing except reader frustration. Yet I see this mistake repeated often in student fiction. Polly Protagonist has dried her tears, weighed her options, and decided what she’ll do next.

Ah, good, thinks Rita Reader. Atta girl! You get out there and take action! Let’s go!

Instead, in the hands of the unskilled writer, Polly Protagonist immediately calls her best friend and they yak in a bar for eight pages about how miserable they are.


What’s happened to the plot? It’s fizzled. All the building of the reader’s anticipation during the sequel has been wasted effort.

Writing tip: Fiction isn’t real life, where people talk and procrastinate in order to avoid taking risks.

Your protagonist must take action on the decision. Anything less is a disappointment. Too many disappointments in your story will crash it.

Also, when you don’t write the action that should happen next, you’ll find yourself losing your way. Stay on track.

This isn’t to say that you can’t be unpredictable in what’s going to transpire. Plot twists can work beautifully here.

Just get your protagonist off the sequel bridge and back into scene action.

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Plotting Sequel: Decisions, Decisions

The trouble with letting the story action pause while your character processes his or her problem is that the story has P-A-U-S-E-D.

It’s not advancing.

How do you get the plot going again? By having your protagonist reach a decision.

The weighing of options has to reach an end. None of the choices should look attractive or easy, but the character must choose something to do next.

That decision should connect to the story goal, the overall objective. The decision should be a specific choice of the next course of action. It should acknowledge the motivation that lies behind it. It should point out the risks to the reader and share why the protagonist is going to take that risk anyway.

Then the reader can think, Go for it! I’m right there with you!

Reaching a decision is a critical turning point in the sequel because it signals to readers that the interlude is coming to an end. Action is about to follow.

This signal launches a feeling of anticipation or expectation in the reader. A plan has been laid. We’ve looked at the risks and dangers. We’re going to try to circumvent them this way.

Okay, the reader thinks, so what’s going to go wrong? How can we squeak past the danger point? What if we’re caught? I have to keep reading. I can’t put this book down now.

Reaching a decision is all about the protagonist forming a new goal for the scene that will come next.

You are, in effect, positioning the character for the conflict to come and positioning the reader to eagerly await it.

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