What gets more attention? Description or action?

By Shelley Widhalm

If you want to keep readers turning pages, the key is balancing description with action. Readers get bored with too much description, and they get overwhelmed with all action and no breaks.

Action in a novel or short story keeps the pace moving at a rapid clip, while description can slow the movement within a scene. Description is what anchors a story and adds layers of meaning. (See https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/writing/guides/detail/

I’ve read books heavy in description, back story, and detail, often leading to tangential thoughts and more description, so that I lose the sense of the story. I’m working too hard at reading with little plot to pull me along. At the other extreme, if there is too much action, I don’t get a sense of the world of the story, as if I’m reading a white canvas with too little to absorb.

Components of Description

Description is necessary to flesh out the story, moving it from an outline of this happened and then this happened into something three-dimensional and real. Description adds life through the use of the senses of seeing, tasting, touching, feeling, and hearing.

To provide that description, choose words carefully, making sure every word has a purpose, such as establishing setting, developing character, fleshing out action around dialog, or moving the plot forward. (See https://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/how-to-write-vivid-descriptions)

Verbs are a key component of description, much less so than adjectives, which qualify a noun or noun phrase to provide more information about the object being described. The raven cut a path across the blue is more descriptive than the bird flew. 

Adjectives, when used, should be kept simple and not layered, such as the “brown-eyed, auburn-haired, tongue-tied girl” (that’s me when handsome men start talking to me). 

There are a few things to avoid in description, such as (PUT BULLETS HERE):

Using adverbs, which weaken writing when they are not specific. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. For example, saying that your character slowly jogged around the lagoon (here “slowly” modifies jogged) does not give the reader as good of a mental picture as: “She kept getting distracted by the ducks bobbing for bugs as she tried to clock in her two mile run.”

Writing in the passive voice, using “he was,” “they were,” and the like. The passive voice slows down the action, distancing the reader from what’s being said.

Relying on general words, instead of concrete details and specific nouns and verbs. Tree and bird are general nouns, as opposed to a birch oak or maple and a blue jay or black bird. 

Description can, just like action, add excitement to a story if the language is crisp, purposeful, and intriguing. 

Components of Action

Action gives the story pacing, tension, and movement. It needs to have a purpose to the development of the plot, while also making sense to the main character’s goals that push the story forward. Without it, the novel is reduced to random details, characters moving about, setting that’s just there, and dialog full of meaningless talk, going nowhere. 

The action doesn’t have to focus on a high stakes fistfight or an escape but can involve a surprise visit or a dose of bad news that forces the main character to quickly respond, rather than reflect. She not only responds but also acts, so that she’s taking control of her situation. 

If she’s reactive, she bores readers, because she becomes a victim of her circumstances, resorting to letting things happen to her. If she acts, she is showing her capacity to deal with her problems and the conflicts she encounters. For example in a fight, whether physical or verbal, she isn’t a victim if she resolves the conflict immediately, creates more of it resulting in even more tension, or continues on in the same vein, planning her next move.

Writing in Action

To write a good action scene, here are some techniques to keep the main character in motion and the pace at a quick tempo, while avoiding disrupting the flow of the story with unnecessary distractions (PUT BULLETS HERE): (See https://www.writersdigest.com/there-are-no-rules/expert-tips-for-writing-action-scenes)

Use short sentences that include high-energy verbs, like zap, whip, and snap, and subject-verb-object, the simplest form of construction in English. Also, use simple words and choppy sentences that keep the beat moving, instead of longer, more descriptive phrasing.

Keep dialog to a minimum, so that’s it short and snappy. Use few descriptions and dialog tags, such as “she said, while gazing into her wine glass, contemplating how the red seemed almost pink in the middle.” When characters are excited with adrenaline flowing, they aren’t going to use long sentences or philosophize about their situations; they won’t have time to think but will be acting and reacting.

Avoid long descriptions of character and setting. The setting, however, can be described if it’s exciting, such as a roof’s edge or a dark alley where a false move or a lurking danger makes it more difficult for the characters to act and move about. Putting in a “ticking bomb” creates a deadline for the characters’ needs to accomplish something or to get away. If the characters fail, there will be consequences.

Make sure to keep actions in chronological sequence and in real time. Don’t put in any back story.

And don’t analyze what’s happening. Just explain the “what” without the “why” or “how.”

In essence, an action scene ends up revealing character in how the main character responds and the choices she makes without time to think. It gives her identity.

Shelley Widhalm is a freelance writer and editor and founder of Shell’s Ink Services in Loveland, Colo. She provides copy editing and developmental editing, as well as consultations on writing and editing. She has more than 20 years of experience in communications and holds a Master of Arts degree in English from Colorado State University. She can be reached at shellsinkservices.com or swidhalm@shellsinkservices.com. For more writing and editing tips, follow her blog at shellsinkservices.com/blog.

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