Friday, January 08, 2016

Pardon Me, Passing Through: Describing Movement

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There's an old saying in the movie biz, "cut to the chase."

Basically, it means skip the boring stuff about how someone got there and just jump into the action. Good advice for both movies and books, but sometimes getting there is something we can't avoid.

Such as when a character needs to move around.

Describing every little thing a character does can get tedious since there are only so many "he walked across the room"s we can do. But if we don't do enough, the reader can't follow what's going on and might get lost--and thus get pulled out of the story.

Luckily, readers are really good at filling in the blanks if we give them enough context. Like playing Hangman or Wheel of Fortune--we get a few letters, and the phrase is clear.

Choose the Right Words to Describe the Movement

We have the basic ambulatory words: Walk, run, dash, charge, sneak, tiptoe, went, crawled, etc. Most of the time these work just fine. They're like "said." We can slip them into the text and readers gloss right over. But if there's a lot of running around, such words start leaping out at the reader.

(Here's more on writing stage directions)

When you find yourself reaching for a thesaurus for one more word for "walk," try looking for things that suggest movement through a space instead.
Bob went over the maps spread out across the table. Sally had marked the areas most likely to be infested with zombie dens, and from all the red lines, getting to the supply depot wasn't going to be easy.

He looked up. Jane was struggling with a crate of dynamite, unable to grab the door.

"Wait," Bob said, "let me help you with that." He opened it for her.
Did you see Bob cross the room? No, but you know he did, because he opened the door. And the "wait" suggests a delay before he could do it, thus the time when he crossed the room.

Granted, you could easily say, "dashed over and opened it for her," but what if you needed to show him walking back to the table? You might end up with a lot of movement tags in there. Eliminating one would most likely make the scene read smoother. Which movement you choose to focus on is up to you, as you might want him to dash over to show his eagerness to help Jane, or walk back to the table in a way that suggests something else about the scene or character.

(Here's more on dealing with the passage of time between scenes)

Movement details are another opportunity to show motive and character. They're one more example of the "why" mixing with the "how" to make your stage directions do more than just say where people go.

Show Movement By Not Showing it

Sometimes it's better to eliminate the movement altogether. How many times have you read or written a scene that's all about how a character got from point A to pint B? Probably boring right? It's nothing but a quick transition paragraph (or longer) that doesn't actually do anything to move the story because it's too busy moving the character. 

So cut to the chase.

(Here's more on moving from scene to scene)

Scene breaks are perfect in these situations. If your character says they need to go somewhere, or it's clear they're done where they are, simply break the scene and start the next with the characters already where they need to be. Open with something that lets the reader know what's changed (if it's location or time) and then move on with the story. No one needs to know how they got there if nothing happened during that journey.

How do you feel about movement scenes? Do you prefer to write out the transitions or do you break scenes? 

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is a fantastic post, I am still in the learning process of writing - I know it never stops, *laughs* - however these tips are nice to remember. I get discouraged by using the same words but I liked the movement you had with Bob and Jane! Thanks for the insight!

  2. I always have this problem! Thanks for another great post.

  3. Excellent post! I am also very conscious of the overabundance of descriptive movement in my stories. In my SEIP (second edit in progress), the characters do a lot of walking through city streets, and believe me, that gets tiring. So I mostly fill their journey with dialogue and only indicate when they've reached their destination. Thanks for the suggestions!

  4. Great post, Janice. A lot of new writers have trouble figuring out how to get around the boring descriptions that get one from place to place. One common question is how to skip large periods of time. But much smaller segments of time can still drag on a story, and “mini-cuts”, such as your dialogue with Bob are a great way to avoid repetition and move the story along. It’s also possible to go strictly with dialogue, omitting the tag all together. Because of the “-ing” construction, that sentence is still a little awkward. But if Bob simply says his line and the story goes from there, you’ve made a fairly smooth special transition.

  5. Great post! I have one scene in my WIP that has a lot of movement and I've had trouble figuring out how to quit using so many forms of the word "walk". Now I have an idea of how to fix that. Thanks!

  6. Is there another way of saying "great post"? Well anyhow, great post, since this is something I always struggle with. I think the best advice I've ever gotten was to assume that the reader is smart. Don't insult them by thinking you have to explain everything to them. At the same time, give them a lamp for the dark tunnel; don't leave 'em in the dark.

  7. Thanks all. Stage direction is such a funny thing. We need it so the reader can keep up, but it's often the first place we can trim back to tighten the prose.

  8. Most of the time I cut a scene for transitions and just establish the new location. Unless I have something interesting happen along the way or its an opportunity to up the tension or show some character growth... I do seem to have people pace a room too much though and find myself trying to find other ways to show agitation...

  9. Excellent reminders that less can be more. Sometimes, a simple one-word transition can do the trick. I had a character working in an upstairs bedroom, but she needed to check on something in another character's downstairs office. The word "downstairs," worked as a simple transition. I trust my readers will assume she got there in the usual way.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  10. I've always hated transitions. They're so boring to write that I've normally cropped them and talked about something else until the character pops up where they're supposed to be. With proper preparation of course (most of the time).

  11. I have cut scenes to transition to where the character needs to be but the fine art of using dialog to insinuate movement is a new one to me. I mean I've seen it done, I just haven't seen anyone use it as a writing tool.

  12. I have this problem with the word "look." How many times can you say one character looked or gazed at another before you've overdone it? Great advice.

  13. Sometimes I think writers forget readers are intelligent people who like to fill in some of the blanks. Great post!

  14. Angelaquarles, there are some emotions that are a pain to show in different ways. Surprise is one that always gets me. There are only so many times you can use "his eyes widened" in one book, LOL.

    Terry, absolutely. Great example of how the right word makes all the difference.

    Imogen, it's funny, because I usually start off breaking scenes, then later in the draft I find myself writing them out. And I'll write "trans" when I just don't want to bother with it at that time.

    Big Guy, you've probably seen it and not noticed since it works so seamlessly. But I don't know how many folks talk about it specifically.

    Scw1217, oh goodness, look is so annoying sometimes, lol. One thing that might help, is to remember that any time your POV describes something, they ARE looking at it. So you can just describe it and readers know they looked at it.

    Tasha, thanks! Sometimes that's true. We don't always give readers enough credit.

  15. Great post, Janice! I find myself using the verb 'smile' far too much. Any suggestions on how to avoid it becoming repetitive?

  16. Na'ima, I do it, too :) I don't worry about it on a first draft (it's a great placeholder word), but I'll do a search for it in revisions. Then I'll cut it and use something better, unless smile is the perfect word for that instance. I find this is much easier that stopping and trying to come up with other ways to show happiness/humor/teasing/etc when the writing is flowing along. I do the same with frowned. And probably sighed. Those are my big three "emotion to be described later" words :)