In screenwriting, where economy of space is at a premium, it is important to write action and character descriptions crisply and effectively. Although this article applies mainly to screenwriters, novelists ought to take some of these suggestions to heart too.
In describing characters or incidents in the action block: a) Write in the present tense: the story is unfolding right in front of you after all. b) Be concise: Describe only what is essential to the character and the story. Limit your descriptions to three or four lines, or less. c) Cut to the chase—describe only the essence of an action or incident. d) Have every word count. Use strong nouns and verbs. Don’t bolster weak words with adverbs and adjectives—choose better verbs and nouns.
In his book Story Robert McKee implores us to write using only apt nouns and verbs that capture the essence of character and action. The words should immediately paint vivid pictures in the minds of the readers.
In GI JANE the character who propels the protagonist on her mission, a US senator, is described in this way:
‘DEHAVEN is a tough-hided old Southern-belle, Scarlett O’Hara at 60. In her arsenal she carries conversational hand-grenades — and she’s apt to pull a pin at the slightest whim.’
“Be concise and impactful in describing characters and action. Make every word count.”
This description not only imparts information about Dehaven, it conveys her attitude and general demeanour, too. Not bad for two sentences.
Sometimes even the shortest of descriptions will capture the essence of the character:
‘Slimy Piet is short, rough, with the hygiene of an army privy on a hot day.’
Notice how the use of a figure of speech makes us wrinkle our nose. Figures of speech, used as vehicles of exaggeration or comparison, are powerful conveyers of the writer’s attitude towards a character. They are communicators of atmosphere, attitude and detail. Use them sparingly, but do use them.
In writing action, too, we should also use every opportunity to characterise, and convey ‘posture’ and demeanour. Never waste the opportunity to pack as much as possible into a verb or noun: Never write ‘walk’ when you can write ‘saunter, stroll, meander, mosey, and wander. Or if more energy is required: stride, march, storm, dash, streak, and the like. Each of these words says much, and does it economically.
As an exercise unearth one of your neglected stories. Pour over each character description and action block and implement some of the suggestions on offer here.
Be concise, precise, and impactful in describing characters and actions. Your writing will be the better for it.