Now cut that out!

One area I have been emphasizing in my own writing of late is cutting down on what I refer to as “play-by-play descriptions” of my characters’ physical movements. Too many new writers feel compelled to describe every movement a character makes, no matter how small or irrelevant, in the belief they are painting a picture for the reader. It’s not enough to know a character lights a cigarette. We need step-by-step details of how it got lit.

Michael pulled a rumpled pack of Marlboro’s from his shirt pocket and shook out a cigarette. He returned the pack to his pocket and stuck the cigarette between his lips while searching the end table for the lighter he always left there. He found the lighter hiding underneath a stack of unpaid bills, struck it three times before it fired, and lit his cigarette. He returned the lighter to the table and leaned back in his chair, puffing away. What a day.

I don’t know about you, but after reading that, I have no interest in smoking. Who knew it took so much effort to light a cigarette?

Let’s break that paragraph down. How many different character movements did the author describe?

  1. Michael took out a pack of cigarettes.
  2. He shook out a cigarette.
  3. He put the pack back in his pocket.
  4. He stuck the cigarette between his lips.
  5. He searched for the lighter.
  6. He struck the lighter three times.
  7. He lit his cigarette.
  8. He put the lighter back in the table.
  9. He leaned back in his chair.
  10. He puffed on his cigarette.

Ten different steps at eighty-two words to describe the simple act of lighting a cigarette. Now let’s look at this version.

Michael lit a cigarette and leaned back in the chair, ignoring the unpaid bills in the end table. What a day.

Two movements and twenty-one words to describe the same thing. This paints the same picture, keeps the one piece of scene-setting (the stack of unpaid bills) and enhances the pace of the story. Does the reader need to know where he kept the lighter? That it took three tries to make the lighter work? Do you have to tell the reader Michael put the pack of cigarettes and the lighter back? Wouldn’t the reader assume that’s what he did?

Unless a particular detail is relevant to the story—e.g. the location of the lighter comes into play later—then leave it out. Don’t bore us with descriptions of mundane actions (the key word here is mundane. If your character is defusing a bomb during a shootout, showing the steps builds tension and puts the reader right there with the character.).

If this passage is part of a larger scene with back-and-forth dialogue between Michael and another character, the movements can serve as action beats for Michael.

Michael pulled a rumpled pack of Marlboro’s from his shirt pocket. “You wouldn’t believe the day I had.”

Steve sat in the chair across from him. “What happened?

Michael stuck a cigarette between his lips and searched the end table for the lighter he always left there. “I walked in on my boss having sex with a co-worker on his desk.”

“That’s disgusting. What’s his wife going to think?”

“She’s going to be sick to learn her husband is gay. He was having sex with Adam.”

Steve’s mouth fell open. “What did you do?”

Michael found the lighter hiding underneath a stack of unpaid bills. He lit the cigarette and leaned back in his chair. “I ran out of there as fast as I could. Man, what a day.”

In this example, the reader is not bombarded with a laundry list of mundane details about lighting a cigarette. Instead, interspersing the movements throughout the passage breaks up a long stretch of dialogue.

As with anything in writing, finding the right balance is key. Including just enough so we know what the character is doing keeps the story moving and the reader engaged. It also frees up your word count to provide more real estate for your story—you know, the plot, character development, action scenes, dialogue, scene-setting, etc., that are the real reasons people read your novel.

Many times I will read someone’s 3,000 word chapter and challenge them to rewrite it in 2,000 words. It’s amazing how much fluff you find when you have a limit you can’t exceed.

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