How to Balance Character and Action!

How to Balance Character and Action  by Julie Hyzy

Characters, whether sympathetic or despicable, are the fuel that keep a plot moving. I’m sure you’ve heard many writers—whether plotters or pantsers—compare writing a novel to taking a trip.

Characters are fuel

Whether they start with a detailed road map or simply with an idea and a general direction, writing is likened to driving from one place to another with stops at interesting sites along the way. While that’s a fine analogy, allow me to offer an addendum: Drivers/authors aren’t going to get far without fuel. Compelling characters are what provide the power to keep a story moving. Without them, readers won’t feel an urge to join the journey. In that unfortunate case, even the most exquisitely devised route—with all its fascinating must-see attractions—may never be fully explored. Put another way: Until a reader is emotionally invested in a character, any actions in support of or against that character’s well-being fall flat.

A guy and a truck

Allow me to offer a very basic example: In an opening scene a guy gets run over by a truck.Let’s say the author manages to incorporate a measure of suspense into the story. Our unlucky guy—staring at his cell phone—steps onto the street as a truck barrels around the corner.

A talented author may do a phenomenal job of drawing out the seconds before impact with descriptions of the man, the truck, weather conditions, and time of day. This same author, knowing that details are key to believability, may work hard to depict an accurate accident scene, using, say, three pages of exposition to illustrate the horrific destruction.

After the collision occurs and the guy has been smashed to bits, readers may keep turning pages if they wonder why this guy’s death was important or why the truck didn’t stop. But unless this story comes from a trusted author, readers will only keep turning pages if they care.

In the example above: Do you feel any sadness at the street-crosser’s demise? Do you feel anything at all?

Probably not. It’s hard to truly care about the dead pedestrian yet because we readers know nothing about him yet.

But what if there’s more?  Let’s back up a little.

What if, moments before the poor fellow steps onto the street, he’s on the phone with his pregnant wife who called to tell him she’s gone into labor, that there’s blood everywhere, that she’s called an ambulance? Worried for her and their child, he steps up his pace and swears he’ll meet her at the hospital soon. His car is on the next block. He looks up from his phone to face the oncoming truck.

Now, how do we feel about this character?

While the example above is no one’s idea of a brilliant opener, I’d suggest that the second approach—the one where we learn a little about our soon-to-be-deceased’s family life—provides enough characterization, both for him and for her, to provoke an emotional reaction from the reader. And it does so without slowing the action. I’d argue the characterization adds to it.

In this imaginary tale, if the next scene shifts to the wife at the hospital, we’re immediately invested in her welfare and that of the baby. She’s unaware of her husband’s death but we readers know that the news will be hitting her soon.

That kind of tension—knowing that at any moment her world will come crashing down—is what keeps us turning pages.

Along the way, while the wife shifts from angry to worried, we also learn more about her character. And again, the action hasn’t slowed down one bit.

Conversely, if this same story started with the guy waking up in the morning, taking a shower, going to work, thinking about the baby and having that trigger a memory of his own childhood and playing on the swings and running with his dog, and, and, and… (see also: no action), only the most determined of readers will make it past chapter one.

How can writers effectively balance characterization and action, then, in a way that captivates readers and keeps them engrossed into the wee hours of the night?

Action is the accelerator, but characters provide the power!

According to the title of Christopher Booker’s oft-quoted tome, there exist only seven basic plots. Even if Booker’s estimate is off by several dozen, that still leaves millions of books per story line out there. Whether the story is tragic, comic, follows a protagonist on a quest, or one of the other plots Booker describes, what sets a tale apart is its cast of characters.

Because I believe this so firmly, I subscribe to this notion: While action moves a story forward, it’s the characters that truly drive the plot.

Action is key, and not only in crime fiction. To extend our take-a-trip analogy, action as the accelerator—we step on the gas if we want to get anywhere. When we exert pressure on the gas, our speed increases, just as action pumps a reader’s adrenaline to get those pages turning even faster. As our speed increases, however, we use more fuel. And that’s when we must rely on character power.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, taking time for character internalization during an exciting action scene can serve to intensify your reader’s experience. I’m not talking about slowing the action with a detailed flashback. Slowing the action is not our goal. But taking the time to include a sentence or two—perhaps a mere phrase—not only keeps your reader grounded, it has the potential to deliver buckets of delight.

In a key scene near the end of my new book, Virtual Sabotage, protagonist Kenna Ward doesn’t know if certain individuals in a virtual reality scenario are real or simulations. As she fights for her life, she takes precious seconds to evaluate and then re-evaluate whether to fight for their lives as well. These quick moments bringing the scene’s characters into sharper focus also serve to intensify the action.

Soul-searching

Another concern when balancing characterization and action is keeping your character’s soul in mind. Would he or she take the steps you need them to? Would he or she react the way the plot requires them to? If not, the story won’t work. Characters must follow the rules of their own souls. Plots can change on a whim.

Remember that your characters are always right—about themselves, that is. Try to figure out why they refuse to behave the way you need them to. Is it because you haven’t laid the proper groundwork for this behavior? You haven’t explored a dimension of their personality that a certain action depends on? Maybe that means rewriting a prior scene.

While there are few absolutes in writing, I will defend this as one of them:

Do not ever force your characters to do something against their will.

To clarify: I’m not suggesting that characters can never be encouraged to act against their wills. Putting a gun to your protagonist’s head often serves as ample encouragement. What I’m advocating against is forcing behaviors that don’t make sense and that your characters balk at performing. When an author forces such action from his or her characters, it shows. That author loses credibility. And readers.

Action vs. activity

Don’t confuse action with activity. Action propels the story forward. Activity describes what’s going on. And while well-placed activity can set the groundwork for action (think of the phobias and OCD tendencies of detective Adrian Monk, brought to life by the actor Tony Shalhoub on the TV series, Monk), activity for activity’s sake (filler) risks putting your reader to sleep.

Some of the best examples I’ve found that balance characterization and action come from the late, great Sue Grafton. In her excellent alphabet series, scenes are presented to the reader through Kinsey Millhone’s personal filter. Every one of Kinsey’s wry observations not only delivers sharp detail, it allows us to peer into her soul as well. Pick up a Grafton book to see what I’m talking about. The stories move at such a quick clip you almost don’t realize how well you’ve gotten to know Kinsey along the way.

There are so many complexities about balancing character and action that I’d love to have an afternoon of conversation to dig even deeper into what works, what doesn’t, and why. Next conference, let’s chat! Or let’s talk now on the Career Authors Facebook Page!

Julie Hyzy is the New York Times bestselling and Anthony Award-winning author of the standalone thriller, VIRTUAL SABOTAGE (October 23, 2018, Calexia Press), the White House Chef mystery series, the Manor of Murder mystery series and the Alex St. James mystery series

Top 10 Reasons Your Book Will Sell: An Agent’s Checklist Posted by Paula Munier

 

Writers are always asking me how I decide to sign new clients—why this writer with this project, and not that writer with that project. As an agent, my primary job is to sell my clients’ work. Ergo, I sign writers whose work I think I can sell. And remember, we agents work on commission, so I don’t make any money until I sell the work. I can’t afford to take on a project, however wonderful the project and/or however wonderful the writer, if I don’t think I can sell it. Literally.

How do I know if I can sell it? It’s more art than science.

And God knows there are no guarantees in this business. That said, there are certain criteria that can help me predict what may work in today’s tough marketplace:

  1. I totally LOVE LOVE LOVE the work.
  2. I can pitch the story in 50 words or less.

In other words: It’s based on a high-concept (or at least unique) idea written by the writer born to write it. As in:

Everlasting Nora is a middle-grade novel about 12-year-old Nora, forced to live in Manila’s Cemetery City after her home burns down in the fire that takes her father. When her mother goes missing, Nora must find her—before it’s too late. A heartwarming debut by Filipino-American Marie Miranda Cruz.

  1. Readers will fall in love with the protagonist, just like I did.

Give me Bosch, Bridget Jones, Harry Potter, Stephanie Plum, Atticus Finch, Everlasting Nora.

  1. The story is written in a distinct and engaging voice.

Think Alice Hoffman, J. D. Salinger, Maya Angelou, Anne Lamott, David Sedaris, Isabel Allende, Pat Conroy, Roxane Gay, Sue Grafton, Lee Child.

  1. The story falls within a known genre.

Which means that: a) I know where it fits on the shelf; b) I can reference good comparable titles within that genre; and c) The publisher will know how to sell it.

  1. The protagonist drives the action from beginning to end.

Imagine your story as a film—would the A-list actor you want to play your hero agree to take the role? Hint: He’d have to do all the good bits, that is, take down the bad guy, get the girl, save the baby/world/universe.

  1. The structure is sound.

The plot works. The heroine’s dramatic arc is in place. The writer has remembered that: The first page sells the book. The last page sells the next book.

  1. The writer has a strong idea for a second standalone or the second in the series, whichever applies—and is already working on it.

The writer is in this for the long haul.

  1. The writer is professional, cooperative, and collaborative.

The writer understands that editing is part of the process—from my notes to the acquisition editor’s notes and beyond. Resistance is futile.

  1. The writer is prepared to make the transition from writer to author.

Notably: The writer is an active participant in his/her writing community, and is willing and able to do the promotion work required to publish successfully in the 21st century.

How’d you do? Are you ten for ten? Let’s discuss on Facebook.

Paula Munier

PAULA MUNIER is a Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services. She boasts broad experience creating and marketing exceptional content in all formats across all markets for such media giants as WGBH, Disney, Fidelity, Gannett, Greenspun Media Group, F+W, and Quayside. A dedicated writing teacher, Paula is a popular speaker and lecturer at writing conferences, workshops, and retreats both online and on-site across the USA.

An Interview With Judy Rumsey Bullard, Book Cover Designer, This Saturday, October 20th!

 

 

 

 

 

As writers and authors, we know or should know, the importance of creating a book cover that shines. The cover should also represent as much as possible what the novel is all about. On October 20th, 2018, I will be interviewing Judy Rumsey Bullard, a very talented Book Cover Designer, who will talk to us about Book Cover Designing. She will be displaying 6 more of her great designs, and will talk to us about what it takes to be a successful Book Cover Designer! Here are three Book Cover designs that she designed for three of my novels and I love each one!

 

The Soulful Arc of the Universe

 “….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand dark midnights. Let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

MLK

Three Fiction Lead Magnet Ideas

3 Fiction Lead Magnet Ideas at  https://buildbookbuzz.com/

Posted on July 18, 2018 by Sandra Beck with fiction lead magnet  

“Lead magnet” is a marketing term for the gift you give readers as an incentive to add themselves to your email list. Think of it as an ethical bribe.

This isn’t optional. To get people to sign up to receive occasional author updates or a regular newsletter, you need to offer them a free, downloadable gift. It has to be something your readers, fans, or audience need or want.

My primary lead magnet is a one-page PDF file with my “Top 5 Free Book Promotion Resources.” Authors receive it when they complete the form on the right side of this screen or on a page I’ve created specifically for that purpose — a “landing page.”

The big question for you is: What should I offer as my incentive?

Not an easy question for novelists That question is easier for nonfiction authors to answer than it is for novelists. Nonfiction authors can create quizzes, templates, cheat sheets, and samples, among other options. More often than not, if they’re using any kind of lead magnet, fiction writers are using a sample chapter. But is that your only option?  Nope. Here are a few suggestions to get you thinking.

Fiction lead magnet idea #1: How to do something.

Bear with me on this. It’s possible. When I read Jane Green’s Saving Grace, which made frequent references to food that sounded delicious, I wanted the recipes. I wanted them so badly that I searched for them online. Unfortunately, she didn’t provide them.If Green had offered a collection of recipes featured in that book as a lead magnet for her list, I would have “opted in” — marketing-speak for “added myself to her list” — without thinking twice.

Fiction lead magnet 2 T

The author of The Language of Flowers could create a one-page illustrated guide to flowers as symbols (daisy is innocence, calla lily is passion, aster is wisdom, etc.).And how about a tongue-in-cheek sheet of instructions for “how to be a crazy rich Asian” to go along with the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy? It’s not that hard after all, right?

Fiction lead magnet idea #2: A cheat sheet

Imagine a lead magnet for How to Make an American Quilt that offers the best quilting tips from top quilters — even though it isn’t a nonfiction how-to quilting book.

If you’ve read Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, you can appreciate how a map of the Vatican or a guide to Bernini’s art might have enhanced your story enjoyment. You’d add yourself to his mailing list to get that, right? If you write fantasy novels with many characters with unusual names, consider creating a one-page PDF character guide with names and descriptions. It will be a Godsend to fans who read in many small units of time rather than in long sittings.

Fiction lead magnet #3: Your book’s first chapter

This is the go-to option for most novelists. It’s what most recommend doing not because it’s the only idea they can think of, but because it’s the easiest to offer and implement. Just save your first chapter as a PDF file and set it up in your system for downloading.It’s a smart option because it lets readers sample your storytelling and writing skills. (Because of that, if you’re not a good writer, this could work against you.) Because it will help readers who aren’t yet familiar with you take your book for a test drive, it’s a solid option for first-time novelists.If you’re a seasoned writer with an established fan base, though, start getting creative with options one and two. You’ll have more fun with it, and so will your readers.

Creating your lead magnet

You can create an attractive, effective lead magnet with low-cost resources. I’ve used each of the following:

Fiverr Fiction lead magnet 3

On Fiverr site (and that’s my affiliate link), search for “lead magnet design.”To make sure you have a vision for what you want your designer to create, I recommend adding yourself to lots of email lists that offer lead magnets so you can see what fiction lead magnet 4 other people are doing.Your other option is to scroll through the design samples offered by Fiverr designers to find something that resonates with you and your book’s personality. In general, I find that I get the best results on Fiverr when I can give the designer an example of the type of look I’d like to have.

Designrr

Designrr is my new favorite toy, and because of that, this is also my affiliate link. I paid $27 for this web-based software that lets me take content I’ve already created on my blog, in  a Word file, on Facebook, or on a web page — and turn it into a range of end products. When I wanted to create a special free gift for a conference I spoke at recently, I used Designrr to turn a blog post into a short report. The nerd in me enjoyed exploring the templates and imagining the many design options for the audience handout.

****You’ll get a PDF as well as a URL that houses the PDF. Give that URL to people who add themselves to your list.

Canva: http://www.canva.com

fiction lead magnet 5

While Canva is free, if you aren’t familiar with it already, it will be your most time-intensive option as you review templates and learn how to customize or replace elements. On the home page, select “more”  in the upper right, then scroll down to documents, blogging and e-books, marketing materials, and events. Click around each collection to find something that speaks to you. “A4 document” in the “documents” collection and “announcement” in the “events” collection are both good starting points.

Need a lead magnet idea for your book? Join the Build Book Buzz book marketing group on Facebook and start a discussion. Tell us you’re looking for help with a lead magnet idea, provide your book title, and give us a short book description. Let’s rally the troops to help you if you need it!

What are you using as an incentive to get people on your list? Tell us in a comment.

Three Secrets to Great Storytelling!

Whispering

 

 

 

3 SECRETS TO GREAT STORYTELLING as presented on Writer’s Digest. I found this article by Steven James helpful in forming the structure of scenes.  (this is a re-blogging from 2014 but I thought it deserved a revival now, because it is simple, straightforward, and to the point.)

As a novelist and writing instructor, I’ve noticed that three of the most vital aspects of story craft are left out of many writing books and workshops. Even bestselling novelists stumble over them – Steven James But they’re not difficult to grasp. In fact, they’re easy.And if you master these simple principles for shaping great stories, your writing will be transformed forever. Honest. Here’s how to write a story.

Secret #1: 
CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE KING.

Everything in a story must be caused by the action or event that precedes it.  As a fiction writer, you want your reader to always be emotionally present in the story. But when readers are forced to guess why something happened (or didn’t happen), even for just a split second, it causes them to intellectually disengage and distances them from the story. Rather than remaining present alongside the characters, they’ll begin to analyze or question the progression of the plot. And you definitely don’t want that. When a reader tells you that he couldn’t put a book down, often it’s because everything in the story followed logically. Stories that move forward naturally, cause to effect, keep the reader engrossed and flipping pages. If you fail to do this, it can confuse readers, kill the pace and telegraph your weaknesses as a writer.

Secret #2: 
IF IT’S NOT BELIEVABLE, IT DOESN’T BELONG.  

The narrative world is also shattered when an action, even if it’s impossible, becomes unbelievable. In writing circles it’s common to speak about the suspension of disbelief, but that phrase bothers me because it seems to imply that the reader approaches the story wanting to disbelieve and that she needs to somehow set that attitude aside in order to engage with the story. But precisely the opposite is true. Readers approach stories wanting to believe them. Readers have both the intention and desire to enter a story in which everything that happens, within the narrative world that governs that story, is believable. As writers, then, our goal isn’t to convince the reader to suspend her disbelief, but rather to give her what she wants by continually sustaining her belief in the story. The distinction isn’t just a matter of semantics; it’s a matter of understanding the mindset and expectations of your readers. Readers want to immerse themselves in deep belief. We need to respect them enough to keep that belief alive throughout the story.

Secret #3: 

IT’S ALL ABOUT ESCALATION.  

At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. At its core, a story is about a character who wants something but cannot get it. As soon as he gets it, the story is over. So, when you resolve a problem, it must always be within the context of an even greater plot escalation. As part of the novel-writing intensives that I teach, I review and critique participants’ manuscripts. Often I find that aspiring authors have listened to the advice of so many writing books and included an engaging “hook” at the beginning of their story. This is usually a good idea; however, all too often the writer is then forced to spend the following pages dumping in background to explain the context of the hook.

IN CONCLUSION

By consistently driving your story forward through action that follows naturally, characters who act believably, and tension that mounts exponentially, you’ll keep readers flipping pages and panting for more of your work.

 

Word Painting – The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan

Word Painting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description that Rebecca finds to be very important in writing descriptively.

  1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.

  1. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage .

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”

 

  1. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair. In the same way, his oxford shirt could become “a white oxford button-down that he’d steam-pleated just minutes before” or “the same style of baby blue oxford he’d worn since prep school, rolled carelessly at the elbows.” These descriptions not only bring forth images, they also suggest the background and the personality of the father.

  1. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination. When I write about Uncle Leland, I describe the wandering eye that gave him a perpetually distracted look, as if only his body was present. His spirit, it seemed, had already left on some journey he’d glimpsed peripherally, a place the rest of us were unable to see. As you describe real-life characters, zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality: gnarled, arthritic hands always busy at some task; a habit of covering her mouth each time a giggle rises up; a lopsided swagger as he makes his way to the horse barn; the scent of coconut suntan oil, cigarettes, and leather each time she sashays past your chair.

  1. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.

If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond. Let’s say you’ve written several descriptions of an elderly woman working in the kitchen, yet she hasn’t begun to ripen into the three-dimensional character you know she could become. Try putting her at a gay bar on a Saturday night, or in a tattoo parlor, or (if you’re up for a little time travel) at Appomattox, serving her famous buttermilk biscuits to Grant and Lee.

  1. In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.

Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her. In addition, Flaubert describes the book that held her attention during mass and the images that she particularly loved—a sick lamb, a pierced heart.

Living among those white-faced women with their rosaries and copper crosses, never getting away from the stuffy schoolroom atmosphere, she gradually succumbed to the mystic languor exhaled by the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the holy-water fonts and the radiance of the tapers. Instead of following the Mass, she used to gaze at the azure-bordered religious drawings in her book. She loved the sick lamb, the Sacred Heart pierced with sharp arrows, and poor Jesus falling beneath His cross.

  1. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.

What items would your character pack for a weekend away? What would she use for luggage? A leather valise with a gold monogram on the handle? An old accordion case with decals from every theme park she’s visited? A duffel bag? Make a list of everything your character would pack: a “Save the Whales” T-shirt; a white cotton nursing bra, size 36D; a breast pump; a Mickey Mouse alarm clock; a photograph of her husband rocking a child to sleep; a can of Mace; three Hershey bars.

  1. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.

Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff. Which items is she practically giving away? What has she overpriced, secretly hoping no one will buy it? Write your character’s Last Will and Testament. Which niece gets the Steinway? Who gets the lake cottage—the stepson or the daughter? If your main characters are divorcing, how will they divide their assets? Which one will fight hardest to keep the dog?

  1. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.

The earlier “all-points bulletin” description of the father failed not only because the details were mundane and the prose stilted; it also suffered from lack of movement. To enlarge the description, imagine that same father in a particular setting—not just in the house but also sitting in the brown recliner. Then, because setting implies time as well as place, choose a particular time in which to place him. The time may be bound by the clock (six o’clock, sunrise, early afternoon) or bound only by the father’s personal history (after the divorce, the day he lost his job, two weeks before his sixtieth birthday).

Then set your character in motion. Again, be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.

  1. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.

However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.

Notice the strong verbs Robinson uses throughout the description. The mouth “bowed” forward; the brow “sloped” back; the hair “hovered,” then “sprouted”; the hem “swept” the floor; hats “fell” down over her eyes. Even when the grandmother’s body is at rest, the description pulses with activity. And when the grandmother finally does move—putting a hand over her mouth, closing her eyes, laughing until her shoulders shake—we visualize her in our mind’s eye because the actions are concrete and specific. They are what the playwright David Mamet calls “actable actions.” Opening a window is an actable action, as is slamming a door. “Coming to terms with himself” or “understanding that he’s been wrong all along” are not actable actions. This distinction between nonactable and actable actions echoes our earlier distinction between showing and telling. For the most part, a character’s movements must be rendered concretely—that is, shown—before the reader can participate in the fictional dream.

Actable actions are important elements in many fiction and nonfiction scenes that include dialogue. In some cases, actions, along with environmental clues, are even more important to character development than the words the characters speak. Writers of effective dialogue include pauses, voice inflections, repetitions, gestures, and other details to suggest the psychological and emotional subtext of a scene. Journalists and other nonfiction writers do the same. Let’s say you’ve just interviewed your cousin about his military service during the Vietnam War. You have a transcript of the interview, based on audio or video recordings, but you also took notes about what else was going on in that room. As you write, include nonverbal clues as well as your cousin’s actual words. When you asked him about his tour of duty, did he look out the window, light another cigarette, and change the subject? Was it a stormy afternoon? What song was playing on the radio? If his ancient dog was asleep on your cousin’s lap, did he stroke the dog as he spoke? When the phone rang, did your cousin ignore it or jump up to answer it, looking relieved for the interruption? Including details such as these will deepen your character description.

  1. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.

The novels of Milan Kundera use little outward description of characters or their actions. Kundera is more concerned with a character’s interior landscape, with what he calls a character’s “existential problem,” than with sensory description of person or action. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas’s body is not described at all, since the idea of body does not constitute Tomas’s internal dilemma. Teresa’s body is described in physical, concrete terms (though not with the degree of detail most novelists would employ) only because her body represents one of her existential preoccupations. For Kundera, a novel is more a meditation on ideas and the private world of the mind than a realistic depiction of characters. Reading Kundera, I always feel that I’m living inside the characters rather than watching them move, bodily, through the world.

With writers like Kundera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes.

… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …

Later in the book, when Agnes’s sexual relationship has led to pregnancy, then to a life-threatening abortion, she describes the farm in quite different terms.

It was August, high summer, but there was something definite and curiously insubstantial in the air. … In the fields near me, the cattle were untroubled, their jaws grinding the last of the grass, their large, fat tongues drinking the clear brook water. But there was something in the air, a sad note the weather played upon the instrument of the bone-stretched skin. … In October, the leaves would be off the trees; the fallen leaves would be beaten flat by heavy rains and the first fall of snow. The bony ledges of the earth would begin to show, the earth’s skeleton shedding its unnecessary flesh.

By describing the farm through Agnes’s eyes, Schaeffer not only shows us Agnes’s inner landscape—her ongoing obsession with sex and pregnancy—but also demonstrates a turning point in Agnes’s view of sexuality. In the first passage, which depicts a farm in winter, Agnes sees images of beginnings and births. The earth is curved and full like a woman’s fleshy body. In the second scene, described as occurring in “high summer,” images of death prevail. Agnes’s mind jumps ahead to autumn, to dying leaves and heavy rains, a time when the earth, no longer curved in a womanly shape, is little more than a skeleton, having shed the flesh it no longer needs.  ****originally posted  Writer’s Digest by Rebecca McClanahan