Describe through Action

Cartoon Stock Chris Wildt cwln3939

Actions Show Character and/or Motivation

From Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

Because we know everything about our character, we know why he does what he does. The reader won’t care a whit that Bill was frightened by a dog when he was three years old because that would get in the way of the story. But we (as the  writer) know that when Roger chases Bill out of the restaurant and Bill jumps that fence, and there’s a dog in that yard, Bill will lose ground by running as far around the dog as he can instead of on a straight line past it. When Roger follows him, Roger will run right past the dog — perhaps even jump over it — to catch up with Bill and tackle him. The reader doesn’t need to know why Bill is afraid of dogs, only that Bill is afraid of dogs.

Readers Are Intelligent. They Don’t Need Things Spelled Out

She stepped into the slaughterhouse and immediately wrinkled her nose. It smelled like dead animals in there.

Do we need the underlined bit in the above passage? Slaughterhouse = dead animals. Wrinkled her nose = something reeks.

Actions Show Physical Characteristics

Let’s go to a library for a minute.

If we know exactly what Janey, our librarian, looks like, we won’t be making the mistake of having her extend her arm horizontally to the second shelf from the top of the stack to grab a book if she’s only 4ʹ10″. We don’t have to tell anybody how tall she is, they will see how tall she is by her actions.

Janey rose to her tiptoes to place a kiss on Tony’s lips.

Janey bent down to place a kiss on the top of Mikey’s head.

How tall is Janey, relatively speaking? How tall is Tony? How tall is Mikey?

For a Reader, Familiarity Breeds Content

It’s important to give as much information about a character as we can as this makes them familiar (like family) to the reader, but rhyming off a series of characteristics will leave a reader cold. If they want a list of traits, they’ll read non-fiction.

Compare using details:

Tom was an old man. He was over six feet tall. He used to be an auto mechanic in his home town, Shaw Falls. He was very friendly so everybody in town knew him and liked him. He was a really nice man.

… with using actions

Whenever Tom sauntered along Shaw Falls’ main street on his daily morning walk, he would pause to chat with almost everyone he met along the way, both parties smiling warmly. Tom would take these opportunities to lean on his cane, his gnarled hands still bearing years-old grease in their knuckles’ cracks. Shaking with the effort of pulling breath into exhaust-fume-damaged lungs, he would curl his bent shoulders down, especially for the children, to get his ear closer to their words so he could reply to their questions with accuracy.

I suddenly like this old guy. I think he needs a love interest …


We mustn’t throw in any old thing to get this business of describing with action working. Create the opportunity to show character, toss in a bread crumb, or advance the plot.

And always “beware of unmotivated actions.” — James Scott Bell.


Next post — Don’t Stalk Your Characters

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s