W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Friday, July 14, 2006

No. 46 Describing Action


When we think of description we usually think of scenery, weather, the way a place looked. However describing actions is another way of moving the plot forward. In movies the camera pans for the viewer or moves into a close up of the action they want the audience to see, but writers must put the words in print so the reader can focus on the action and then glean the meaning.

Action in this sense does not necessarily mean shoot-‘em-up cop stories or violence in any form. Some can be quite subtle, as having a character reach over and take another character’s hand to show acquiescence after a small argument or sympathy after bad news.

Like anything we write it is the choice of details that give our readers an insight into what is happening. The importance of the action is weighted about how the characters (point of view) react to it or don’t react to it.

We can choose distance or close ups just like a movie camera. A car can pass in the street as someone looks out a window and thinks that it the third time the car has gone by. Or we can be in the car with the driver. The type of car, age, speed, all can give a reader a sense of what is important. If the character draws the drape, rushes to the phone or ignores the car tells the reader what is happening.

A door slam shows anger. If it is so hard that paint flakes off, the mood, is intensified have the handle fall off and still another fact is conveyed either about the condition of the door or the degree of anger of the slammer

Very different is a subtle change of a facial expression: a lip that quivers, an eyebrow that is raised. Often this type of description shows an underlying emotion without the writer having to tell what is being felt.

Sometimes the character assigns words to the action so the reader gets the message loud and clear. Other times the actions tell the reader something that the character hasn’t caught on to. A man who hangs up the phone suddenly when his wife enters the room, but the wife doesn’t see it, lets the reader know he is up to something sneaky. The tension builds waiting for the wife to find out what that is.

Writers don’t necessarily separate descriptions of scenes actions and dialogue, but weave them in and out to help the reader live the writing.


Both are from MY SISTER’S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult. The speaker is the younger daughter, born to provide body parts for her older sister who is suffering from cancer. Mostly the girls get along, but sometimes they fall out as normal sisters will.

1. “A minute later she (the mother) left, and returned with potholders, dishtowels and throw pillows. She placed these at odd distances, all along Kate’s side of the room. ‘Come on,’ she urged, but I did not move. So she came and sat down beside me on my bed. ‘It may be Kate’s pond,’ she said, ‘but these are my lily pads.’ Standing, she jumped on a dishtowel, and from there, onto a pillow. She glanced over her shoulder, until I climbed onto the dishtowel. From the dishtowel to a pillow to a pot holder Jesse had made in first grade, all the way across Kate’s side of the room. Following my mother’s footsteps was the surest way out.”

Note: Kate and her sister had divided their room with a line down the middle and neither sister could enter the other’s territory. The narrator had chosen the side with the toys and had played happily while her sister had no access to her playthings. However, lunchtime came, and the narrator could not cross the line to leave the room. The door was on Kate’s side. The mother comes to the rescue. Notice the props the mother carries: pot holders, dishtowels and pillows and the extra two details that the pot holder was made by her brother in first grade. The mother renames the props lily pads. Not only does the mother put down an acceptable escape room she demonstrates by walking on the newly named lily pads. We get the emotional story in the last sentence. The actions of the mother tells a lot about her attitude toward her daughter. She takes her problem seriously and finds a solution. Because of other things in the book, it is unusual for the mother to do this, so it builds in another aspect to the mother that we haven’t seen before.

2. “In our living room we have a whole shelf devoted to the visual history of our family. Everyone’s baby pictures are there, and some school head shots, and then various photos form vacations and birthdays and holiday. They make me think of notches on a belt or scratches on a prison wall – proof that time has passed that we haven’t all just been swimming in limbo.

“There are double frames, singles 8x10s, 4x6s. They are made of blond wood and inlaid wood and one very fancy glass mosaic. I pick up one of Jesse – he’s about two, in a cowboy costume. Looking at it, you never know what’s coming down the pike.

“There’s Kate with hair and Kate all bald; one of Kate as a baby sitting on Jesse’s lap; one of my mother holding each of them on the edge of a pool. There are pictures of me, too, but not many. I go from infant to about ten years old in one fell swoop.”

Note: At first this looks like the description of an ordinary family shelf of photos. However the author adds a few details that make the section emotionally charged. Kate is bald after she has hair. We know from earlier in the book Kate has cancer, the baldness drives it home. The narrator’s reaction is negative. Notches on a belt or prison scratches are not happy comparisons. Swimming in limbo also adds to the negative feelings of the scene. That there are photos of the older sister and brother through out childhood, by nine years are missing from the narrator’s life also shows volumes about the narrator’s place in the family. The narrator also chooses action words in phrases like coming down the pike and one fell swoop in a stationary scene. In a way the setting up of the shelf of pictures is action that went before and gives an insight into the family’s dynamic. The first two children are important, the second is not.


1. Take any book and mark in yellow all action description. That means the non-dialogue, non-scenery description…

2. A man decides to jump out of a plane to prove to himself he has the courage to face his wife’s final illness. He is terrified of heights. Write a description of his actions showing his reluctance as he parks the car at the airport where the jump will take place. Use no dialogue.