Plot Devices ~ Description as Action



Did I really just say that? Do I mean you have to describe your characters as part of the action?

Yes, I did, and here’s why.

Have you ever been caught up in a book, breathlessly looking forward to the next action sequence, and along comes a new character. Suddenly, instead of the desired action, you’re plodding through a three paragraph long treatise about this character. You finally finish the description, now knowing the person from fruits to nuts, as the saying goes, and have lost any sense of what’s about to happen. Your eyes pop wide open as you discover this new character is very minor to the scene and you have to move backward in the book to understand what’s going on.

Let’s use a couple of examples of just how to put description into an action scene and how not to.

Scene 1:

The rumbling, quaking ground heaved upward. Jack and Mark froze in place.

“Earthquake?” Jack asked.

Mark opened his mouth to reply but before he could say a word, a girl burst out of the wooded area in front of them. Her arms pumped up and down as she ran. He stared at her, remembering this was Kat.

Kat was a totally cool girl, cheerleader, top of the class in grades. Her waist length black hair flew in all directions. She had bright green eyes he admired and legs that went on forever. She was the girl of his dreams, and oh what dreams those were. Of course, those dreams vanished into dust after a very bad and very short dating relationship with the girl of all of his dreams.

Mark gulped, thinking of the one date he’d managed to talk her into going on with him. First, he was twenty minutes late, due to a flat tire. He’d had to change it himself, and it was the only time he’d ever done that without his dad around to tell him when he was about to mess up. Then, when he got to Kat’s house, her brother challenged him to a game of one on one. Not wanting to appear the wimp, Mark had shot a few baskets. Well, make that more than a few. Kat was cool with it though. She was as good at hoops as any guy in the eleventh grade.

Once they got started on their date, they discovered they didn’t have a single thing in common. She was into sports, sure, but she also loved hanging at the mall, going to chick flicks, which he hated, and eating vegan, when he was a carnivore all the way. The date, if they could have called it that, ended in less than an hour, when they couldn’t agree where to grab a bite to eat before heading to a movie. He was sure they would have argued about that too.

Scene 2:

A crack snapped through the air. Jack stopped hiking toward the wooded area in front of them. They were midway through the meadow, and Mark figured they had about half an hour before they could investigate the noise.

“Wonder what that was?” Jack commented.

“We’ll find out soon enough.” Mark was more than ready to turn around.

This expedition into the forbidden woods had already gone wrong in so many ways. They’d been late starting. Jack was such a wuss when it came to getting out of bed before noon. Then they’d had to talk their way past a ranger determined to make them leave the park.

“Want to turn around.” Jack glanced at Mark.

“Nah. We’ll—”:

A loud rumbled inched toward them. All around the two seventeen-year-olds, the ground heaved up and down. Rocks thrust upward into massive monoliths, a harbinger of doom.

Jack gulped and backed away from their destination. Mark didn’t blame him. The stories about Hamrick’s Forest were legendary, but none of the legends spoke about anything like this.

The loud rumble moved closer and closer. A girl’s scream had both boys on edge, staring at the outer perimeter of the forest.

“Who was that?” Mark asked.

The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it. Before he could put a face to the screechy voice, Kat burst out of the woods. Her waist length black hair streamed behind her. She glanced over a shoulder once and then, arms pumping up and down, raced toward and then past them at the speed of light.

“Kat, wait!” Mark yelled and took off, never checking to see if Jack was behind him.

All Mark could think about was that wasn’t the Kat he adored. His Kat would never run from danger. Her bright green eyes would narrow with interest and she would pounce forward, determined to save an animal from what she called criminal hunters.

“Wait for me!” Jack’s shout faded into a loud gulp.

Mark could hear his heart thudding in his ears. He wished he’d listened to his dad, and not just about changing a flat tire. Girls totally mystified him, and Kat more than any other. Their one date ended in disaster when she wanted to try out a new vegan place and he was in the mood for a monster all meat pizza.

The movie would have sucked too. All she could talk about was chick flicks. Yuck!

A thud-thump, thud-thump, thud-thump invited Mark to stop and check out what was coming after them. He settled for a glance over his shoulder, and had to swallow hard to put his heart back where it belonged.

“What is that?”

A bellowing wail that promised all of his nightmares were coming true sent him racing after not only Kat but also Jack, who had somehow mustered the wind and enough fear to outpace all of them.

Scene 1 is an example of how most of us do description. We dump all the information into one section of the book and expect our reader to remember all of this later down the road. It just sits there with no purpose other than to give the reader everything they want to know about the person in one swallow.

Scene 2, on the other hand, incorporates action and description. The description is part of the action, with the action drawing the reader back into the tense moment before they get bored. The reader never loses the tension of the scene, nor do they have to wonder where they left off.

Remember, combining action and description is all about a sense of timing, of knowing what to put in when. Many of us draw up beautiful birth to moment of the story biographies of our characters. Those are nice to reference, but it’s not necessary to include every word once we introduce a character. Drop bits of information here and there, as necessary to move the plot along.

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