Daily Archives: November 13, 2015

Descriptions inserted into action

Yesterday’s post about using a party or other types of crowd scenes to add to your word count made me think of other ways that you can do the same sort of thing—add to your word count, that is. But rather than adding entire new (and perhaps unplanned-for) scenes full of people, just so you have an excuse to go into detail about those scenes, you can add words in other ways, within existing scenes. The main way is by writing descriptions, either of characters or of the setting in which they find themselves.


Word cloudDescriptive writing tends to raise a great deal of dread in a lot of people. I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve been writing stories since I was ten (this was some time ago, I assure you), and I’ve always had a great many problems, myself, with descriptions. I’ve never been all that interested in reading gobs and gobs of description, because I frequently find them boring—though that may in fact say more about the skill of certain writers than it says either about me or about description itself. And I’ve always had to labor hard to write good descriptions in my own stories. It doesn’t help that I have trouble picturing scenery in my own mind to begin with. (I’m great at imagining people, but not so great with their settings.)

Remember that the NaNo, for some, is about word count as much as it is about writing good stories. But here are some ideas about writing descriptions that might help you add value to the story itself, without just adding blocks of words for their own sake when you describe things.

ConversationSay you’ve got a character whose appearance you need to describe. It’s very likely that your first impulse will be to write two or three paragraphs doing just that, mentioning how tall the person is, what color his or her eyes and hair are, what the person is wearing, who he or she is related to or how the person relates to what’s going on in the story (why does this person appear right at this moment?), and so on. You might want to add another paragraph about extra distinguishing characteristics or quirks, whether those involve appearance or character traits. So you might mention that the man has a high, squeaky voice or that the woman’s deep eyes hint at an unacknowledged sorrow. She might have a lock of hair that wants to stand up, and he might constantly jiggle his keys in his pocket. On and on you go, for what might seem (to your reader as well as to you) to be hours, reciting a list of descriptive points.

But what if you could work some of that description into the action itself? Don’t lay out a big block of description all at once. Give just enough to provide a context or at least an entrance into the story for this new character, and then weave tidbits of the rest of the description into the story as it unfolds. Here’s an example of how you might do that.

He was met at the door by a small, brisk young woman who barely gave him a glance through her blue-tinged metal-framed glasses. She pulled down the white cuffs of her shirt peeping out from the sleeves of her navy power suit and said, “You would be Garth, I presume?”

“Yes,” he nodded. “I was wondering—”

“I don’t know how much help I can be,” she blurted, shoving a stray lock of short black hair back behind an ear. She straightened the hair for a second as she looked past him down the hall, her red-painted nails glimmering in the sterile light of the hall lamps. “I’m not very familiar with the field of study you mentioned over the phone.” Then she focussed a pair of disconcertingly direct blue eyes on him and added, “But do come in. I can at least hear you out.”

And there you have some important details already: this woman is short; she is also young. She wears glasses (whose frames are made of blue-tinged metal), and she’s wearing a navy power suit with a white shirt under it. Her hair is short and black, and her eyes are blue. And she paints her nails red.

Now look at the paragraph I just wrote, summarizing the description of the woman, and compare it to the conversation I wrote above it. Wasn’t the conversation more interesting than the block of description? One common approach would be to write all the description first and then start writing the conversation between the two people. But when you can work some of the description into the conversation itself instead, you get the conversation accomplished (which you wanted to do anyway), but you did not have to pause in moving the story along while you gave a lot of description first.

Remember the issue of using language that does not make the story drag? This is another way of doing it, even while you’re providing the description necessary to reveal someone’s appearance. The action keeps moving without a pause, but you work the snippets of description one by one into the action itself.


Dark alley

You can do the same thing with descriptions of scenery. You can add descriptions of locations in the same way that you can add them into conversations. Take, for example, that chase scene I was mentioning in the post when I was talking about using a party or other crowd scenes to add words. Here’s an example of how you might insert some description into one part of the chase.

They burst out the rear door, hardly noticing as it banged flat against the wall of worn, grimy red bricks in the alley. They clattered past several dented garbage bins that had been set out for pickup overnight, barely managing not to tip them over, and fled the short distance to where the alley came out onto the street.

“Slow down!” gasped Susan as they neared the streetlight at the alley entrance. “Try to walk normally, at least till we get around the corner.” She slowed her wild flight to something resembling a walk as she approached the alley exit, glancing casually but cautiously at the myriad little two- and three-person groups of people strolling down the wide sidewalk. She recognized the blazing lights of the theater marquee across the street and realized that the lightly milling crowds must have just left a performance—she peered at the sign—of Phantom of the Opera.

“Where to now?” panted Jason, skidding on the gravel at the alley opening as he slowed down, moving to her side.

A taxi sped by, raising a light spray from a couple of puddles along the curb; the light from the streetlights sheened on the surface of the road, telling them that there had been a light rain while they were inside. Susan could feel it as she breathed, in fact, that freshly washed air and cool humidity that misted the skin.

“This way.” She jerked her head in the direction of the corner to her right. She glanced back over her shoulder into the darkness of the alley, watching the faces of their other three companions gradually materialize out of the murk.

Before Lori appeared, her disembodied voice reassured them from the rear of the group, “No sign of pursuit yet.”

“Good. So let’s get out of here while they aren’t sure where we are.” Susan slipped around the corner of the building at the alley’s end and marched quickly down the sidewalk, weaving her way among the groups of people, trusting the others to follow her and thankful for the cover.

Jason pulled up to her side again, and she saw him glance past her at the warm interior and welcoming light of a wine bar as they passed its wide windows and walked under the swinging wine bottle that hung over the sidewalk. “I’m thirsty,” he muttered.

Here you have the five characters getting away from their pursuers (for the moment, anyway), but you’ve also established that they came out into a dark alley, at least some of whose walls are made of red brick. There are also some metal garbage bins set out there, just outside the rear door of whatever store or other establishment they’ve just run through. (And the pickup is tonight.) The alley opening, which has a bit of gravel in it, faces a theater with a big marquee, and the theater is currently featuring an old favorite. Many people have just left that theater, in fact. There is a rather inviting wine bar near the corner, and its sign hangs over the sidewalk in the form of a big wine bottle. It has also rained enough to form at least a couple of puddles and to film the road and sidewalk with moisture. It has made the air fresh but kind of damp.

But all of these facts have been established while the action was happening. You didn’t pause at all in these characters’ dash to freedom just so you could make the reader wait while you recited some descriptive facts, as I just did in the kind of boring paragraph I wrote after writing the action. You wove the descriptions into the action itself, and we noticed the details along with the characters, as they ran or walked past those places.

Wine bar

And you might have noticed that the addition of these descriptive details didn’t just let us know what sorts of surroundings the characters now find themselves in. These details also made the action itself a little more active—more vivid—more real and alive. These characters didn’t just “run out the door and run quickly down an alley.” They banged the door and almost overturned a bunch of garbage bins as they ran.  The fact that they almost overturned the bins does more to indicate the swiftness of their running than just saying the word “quickly.”

Remember that descriptions, of people and of scenery and locations, does not have to be boring even if it is a necessary part of your story. You do want to establish what your characters are like, and you want your readers to be able to picture at least some of what the surroundings are like. But you do not have to introduce this information in big, dead, boring blocks of text. Work descriptive details into the story more gradually, bit by bit as part of the action itself. When you can do this, not only will your description be more interesting and palatable, but the action itself will come to much more vivid life.

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