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Author Topic: On the limits of the description of actions
KoDe Nichols
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I'm wondering about the amount of description that needs to be given of the actions in the story.
IE, a series of descriptors might go as follows...

Ian left the alleyway and followed the edge of the building towards his target, the large private estate of an elite merchant.
The house was silent, dark. By all appearences it was, in fact, empty.
Ian let his magic explore the lock... ...with a small exhertion of force, the lock clicked open.
Once in the house...

Now, obviously there are some descriptions of things that I've excluded, but as for the actions, is it necessary to mention him arriving at the door? Is it necessary to mention him looking at the windows of the house? Is it necessary to mention him turning the knob, pushing the door open, stepping inside and closing the door behind him?

Is it safe to assume that the reader will "understand" that these things obviously happened?

[This message has been edited by KoDe Nichols (edited August 20, 2010).]

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Hm. I think the answer has to do with what effect you want to communicate to your readers.

If it's important to your plot that the character looked in the windows, tried the doors, etc., then you might want to mention it to your readers.

On the other hand: if it's not important to your plot that they know these things, you might want to mention them too. Minor details can be useful in setting mood, tension, etc.

Realistically, it only takes a few words to describe it anyway, e.g. "He arrived at the door of the house and looked in the windows".

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Pacing dictates some of this. You don't want a lot of lush detail in a fast-paced escape sequence, just as you don't want a drumming of subject-verb subject-verb in a leisurely stroll through Eden. Usually I try to let the pacing dictate how long and complex sentences are and how many details (esp non-essential details) my character notices. What he/she notices can be useful in characterizing as well.

And, no, it's often not necessary to specifically state a minute detail (such as arriving at the door before turning the handle). Readers will fill in details - the trick is to make sure you don't give them leeway to fill in details that damage your story.

e.g. He entered the room. The door irised closed behind him.

Here, I've been given latitude to imagine how he enters the room. If that makes no difference, no problem. But when the door irises closed I have to reinvent what I just imagined unless I've already been primed to imagine irising doors earlier. It's a bit of give and take between giving a reader too much detail and too little.

[This message has been edited by SteveR (edited August 20, 2010).]

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I was going to mention pacing as well. I recently had a story rejected in part because the editor felt that the level of description/pacing was inappropriate - he liked the slow pacing at the beginning, introducing the character and the world, but found that the writing for the action sequences was also slow, which didn't work for him. On the other hand, some people really like stories with (for example) very precise descriptions of combat, taking pages to describe only seconds of real-time action. So it's totally dependent on what you want to convey, and thus my advice would be to read more and actually study what authors do and do not say/specify, and think about why they are making those choices so you can better make your own.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I have to say that I found Brandon Sanderson's detailed descriptions of his fight scenes in his Mistborn trilogy (with every Push and Pull and coin usage to accomplish them) a little too detailed, and very dragged out. So even though I liked the books, and they have sold well, they had that kind of pacing problem.
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And don't forget to flavor the description with characterization.

I've always found that action sentences should be used rarely, if at all. Ian walked to the door for example leaves out WHERE he is, WHAT he is feeling, and most importantly WHY he is walking towards the door.

I say add some dread. For example, Ian walked to the door, could become...

Ian felt their eyes on his back. He felt bare, naked without his weapon, and turning his back to "them" fought against every instinct. Remembering his training, he moved with stealth past the winding staircase. The door nob was cold against his fingers. Ian fought the need to look behind him as the icy wind from the open door slid through his hair.

Takes longer, but you know who he is, you learn he's been trained, and there is a mystery of the "Them". The descriptions are tactile, what the POV character is experiencing. You are reading from the inside of the character, as opposed to watching a character with an awesome name walk to a door.

Go deeper, use the characters perceptions, and add tension. Readers will stick with you through description, if there is enough dread. Just ask Dean Koontz.


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I think the Mantlepiece rule applies to how much description is used on anything inanimate.

The Russian playwright Anton Chekov coined "The Mantelpiece Rule" which states, "If you place a gun above the fireplace in act one, it absolutely must be fired by the final curtain."

How much detail goes into how the door opens is only important if its going to play an important part in events to come. How Shimiqua changes the focus from the door to the character, placing then that same importance on how these skills will effect events forthcoming. This is technique I'm still learning about, but I figured I'd share. Hope it helps,


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I find myself again oddly agreeing with tchern. Its all in what you want to do (this is true of most things in writing in my opinion.) Description is definitely a thing about which everyone has their tastes. We're discussing the whole "detailed combat description" thing on my blog

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited August 24, 2010).]

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited August 24, 2010).]

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Ohh and I also agree with Sheena.
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(I don't know how to do nifty link things like Meredith does on this forum.)

In brackets [], put url=your web address here,

then the text you want to be the link, like "my blog"

then, in brackets /url

That's it.

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Thanks, Spectacular Cat Girl and beloved Lovely Assistant.
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In my experience, there is no perfect amount of description. There's a range that works. And then there's your objectives with the part of the scene you're writing and if the description works with or against it.

You will find great discussions of this in stimulus-reponse sections of TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Swain and SCENE AND STRUCTURE or WRITING AND SELLING YOU NOVEL by Bickham.

Beyond that, my advice is to identify some action scenes you think work well in published books and those that don't. Then underline the description to see exactly how they've done it. You may find you like the level a certain author gives, but that your preference isn't shared by everyone. That's okay. Just as long as you see what you do like and how to achieve the effect. For example, I didn't have any issues with the MISTBORN level of detail.

Run your stuff past your wise readers without saying anything about it. If most of them question what's with all the knob turning and measured paces and tedious nose itching, then you'll know you've probably gone too far. If they don't, then you're probably good. If you want a specific test, write up two versions of a passage, one with the extra detail and one without, and ask them to rate each on clarity and interest.

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