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Description vs. Action

I know, I know, I have not written a post for about two months. It is terrible. But now it’s the summer holidays, and things are actually going to be happening– in real life, and to do with Tacita (I’m hoping to get on and send it to an agent soon)– so I actually have something to write about. I found this post in my drafts, so I figured I might as well write it!

One of the points that was raised when my family and friends were editing Tacita was that there was not quite enough description to really feel immersed in the settings. So, I got to work on adding some more. But it was difficult, because there was a lot of action in there that would have been slowed down by description. I thought, then, what are the best circumstances for writing description and action?

First of all, I should define what I mean by these two words. Description is easy: a passage about how something or someone looks, and in this case I will widen it to extended passages about, for example, a character’s feelings. Action is pretty much the opposite of this: it could be dialogue, but most notably it is where things actually happen, like a fight.

Let’s now talk about the pros of including a lot of action in a novel. First of all, action means that the story can race along at a fast pace, and you can really focus on writing an exciting plot. With action, you can really raise the tension and evoke all sorts of emotions in the readers, something that cannot be done as easily with description. Another pro is that you can get across the character’s personality in an effective way through what they say and do. You can, of course, tell the readers about the character’s personality in a description of them, but that is pretty boring. The readers would probably rather learn about the character through their actions, rather than a huge paragraph telling them. It comes across as that the author doesn’t think the reader is intelligent enough to work it out for themselves.

There are some pros, though, to having a lot of description. Mainly, it means that the reader can visualise what a character or setting looks like, and in the case of passages about a character’s feelings, it gives an insight into exactly what’s in their head at that time. You can also evoke some emotions in the readers, or at least provide a precursor to some emotions being evoked– for example, by describing a creepy setting in a horror novel. Having a lot of description is also good if your novel is not overly focused on an action-packed plot. If there is a lot of character development, including lots of description shows the readers in what ways the characters have developed over time and how they are at that moment, as opposed to what plot points made them develop and how they got there (which is closer to how it is for action-packed novels). Ya get what I mean?

However, there are some cons to having too much description. It can slow the story down a lot, especially when put in the wrong place (I’ll get to when and where action/description is appropriate a little later). It can also be difficult to write an interesting description, and if it’s boring, it will really put the readers off. If your novel is more focused on action, but you feel like you have to include description, you could fall into the trap of tacking on an incredibly cliché passage that adds nothing. For example, you could just quickly pop in something like “She had short brown hair and blue eyes, and she was not too tall”. That is a primary-school type of description. It’s better to cut out the description than have a bad one.

There are cons to having a lot of action, too. Most notably, the readers may not feel immersed in the novel because they can’t imagine what everything and everyone looks like. If there is a quiet moment in the story (ie. nothing huge happens), the flaws in having little description will be shown– if you rely too heavily on action, and don’t include much, or any, description, points where nothing big happens will drag on and seem slow. There might not be as much character development, since it is more focused on stuff happening. For that reason, some readers might feel that the novel isn’t ‘clever’ enough, or that it’s more of an airport read, or a book that you just read and then forget about. If you are going for that, then great, it’s not a con, but if you’re not going for that, then it’s not brilliant.

There are certain situations in which either action or description is more appropriate. Obviously, in a fight scene, there is not going to be a huge passage on the surrounding environment, and including that will make it seem unrealistic. If you’re in a fight, it’s unlikely you will observe your surroundings in too much detail. In that situation, action is more appropriate. But, in a moment where it is more contemplative or reflective, description is quite apt. For example, the aftermath of a huge battle might be a good time to describe one of the character’s thoughts and feelings on the death and destruction they have just witnessed, or describe the devastation on the battlefield itself, with bodies piled high, soil churned up, all that lovely stuff. It slows the pace down a little, but in a good way.

But overall, how much action or description do you include? It really depends on the type of novel you are writing. For example, Tacita is a novel about gladiators, obviously meaning that there needs to be a lot of action. That is mainly what the novel includes, but there are also a few reflective moments, since the novel is in the first person, lending itself rather well to extended passages on Tacita’s emotions. Other types of novels that will need a lot of action are, let’s say, a military-themed one, or something to do with spies and crime. I’m not saying that in these types of novels, there will be no description, but there will be plenty of action and it fits. On the other side, if your novel is more about characters and how they change, having less action would be more prudent. In general, genres like fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk and all of that are more actiony. But, I would totally read a more descriptivey or contemplative fantasy/sci-fi/whatever novel. If pulled off well, it could be stunning.

I thought, since this is my blog, I might as well pop in some of my own opinion. What is my favourite sort of action, and my favourite sort of description, to write? Well, fight scenes are definitely my favourite in terms of action. There are a lot in Tacita, so it would kind of suck if I didn’t like writing them. There is just so much variety you can include in fight scenes: which weapons they are using, how many combatants, the place in which they are fighting (and how it affects the fight), the skill of everyone involved, everything. It’s just so much fun. My favourite type of description to write is probably describing a character’s emotions. I am not a great fan of writing lots about what a setting or person looks like, since it normally ends up sounding awful (I’m working on it!), and since I actually know about emotions, being a hormonal teenager and all, I can go on for a while. It’s fun to really get into a character’s head and really unpick how they feel, and it’s even more intriguing if they are feeling something that you don’t feel, or don’t agree with. The challenge of trying to make it sound realistic is great.

So, time for some questions for you all. Do you prefer a more action-packed or descriptive novel? What is your favourite type of action and description to write or read?

Your action-packed blogger, Jaz

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