Motivation over Movements

July 21, 2012

In this previous blog post, Anna commented to ask about finding that she was writing way too much description, and how she could address that in her first draft.

Audits before Edits

I say leave it in. But plan on editing it later. Plan on running a future audit about why it’s there. Your writer’s instinct told you to get all that extra description down. So plan on working with it once it’s on the page. You can ask all the descriptions some questions in a later edit.

Figure that for every 50,000 words you write there’s a good chance once you audit, ask some questions, reconsider your intentions, then have individual goes of at least 5 rounds of targeted edits, that you may remove a good 18,000 of those words and re-build from there.

Anna said,

How do you know when you’re using too much description? Is it like how you’re supposed to take off an accessory before you head out the door? I’m afraid I’m getting too descriptor-happy and I can’t seem to stop. :-/

Physical motions come easy to novices.  They can see their characters moving around and so they grab that information and put it on the page. But, there are times when describing physical action gets confused with telling the story. What happens is, novices get very involved in describing physical actions, (how the characters are moving) and forget that, all that movement doesn’t always tell a story.

There are certainly times to describe physical actions but there are also times when novices describe way too much. The key is this: are you writing an action scene? Or recoding the movements of a character in this scene?

Character movement is not always story action. Action has  to have an intent in a story.

Mentioning too much of you character’s movements are akin to reader-feeder or story-facts. Without motivation for those movements that will tell a story or advance a plot point, your writing down all those movement descriptions are like a camera following someone with no voice-over, recording what is done, but leaving the audience not knowing why.

What readers want to see on your pages is action, but, we get awfully bored watching each hand, foot, or eye twitch your character makes if it’s just on the page for no good reason.

Look at this line.

Sue tripped on the stairs. Bob glanced over and witnessed how her worn-heeled shoe gripped the cement of the last step; balance lost and found in a quick second.

Your Characters are PuppetsHere, Sue has movement – tripping. And Bob has an action – seeing Sue trip. The narrator’s ‘action’ is the comment on Bob’s action of seeing Sue’s movement.

The question becomes, why does the reader need to know that Sue tripped? That Bob saw her trip? Why does the narrator feel the need to describe this? Because it happened? This is always the least valid reason to use up your words in a paragraph.

Is there any subtext in the narration on what Bob is seeing?

The why

A novice writer doesn’t set out to includes things in their story because they are trivial, but because the writer saw these things in their mind. A novice writer includes things in their story because they feel those things lead to a better story. A more riveting one. The story with depth to it.  I will show you it all. You will see what I see.

The problem is that all that movement for the sake of movement is not something the novice can escape in their first draft. It seems to be a default. We start by explaining what we see in our mind. The work we have to do is to move beyond explaining what we first saw in our mind, and begin to thin that out and replace it with the subtext that brings a common story into the place where it can be an extra ordinary story.

The how

Here are tools to use to run an edit for clarity and flow of narration. These tools help delete that ‘too much writing about what they did with their bodies’ so that there’s more room for the further edit of bringing in intent and story expectations.

Bringing in intent and story expectations is where you stop telling us stuff and start in on storytelling.

Let’s go back to Sue and Bob. They’re finished with their tripping up the stairs and now they’re in a hotel room.

First draft: This is what Sue sees (and what the narrator tells us she sees)

Sue saw Bob bend at the waist ands scrunch down to peek into tiny little half-size fridge. A frown grew on her face, and she narrowed her eyes. And pursed her lips. Amoment passed then Sue sat with one leg over the other watching Bob reach in to withdraw a can of mixer; the only item in the fridge besides olives, and fumbling the pop top on the can open he then searched for a swizzle stick for mixing. Sue just frowned at the emptiness of the tiny little fridge. Pulling out a cigarette from the pack in his pocket, Bob poured them both drinks.

What we are editing for here:

  • too much body language?
  • movements used instead of reactions and emotions?
  • not enough story action, too much body movement?

Ask yourself some questions – why all this description? What’s at stake here? Why does the reader need to know this? How can this be moved from story-fact to subtext? Where can word choice make a difference?

Write out your answers – those are your intentions for the scene and you’ll need to know that stuff to move onto a new draft. It’s okay of the answer is ‘I don’t know’ because that will lead to further questions.

‘Sue saw Bob…’, ‘…then Sue sat…’, and, ‘… Sue just frowned…’  are the bits of  narration that are written ‘out-of scene’. It is the reader being told things.  You can do two things with this type of narration once you move on to a new edit. Leave it in but surround it with storytelling…

Second draft:

From the vantage point of the couch Sue saw Bob bend at the waist to peek into tiny little half-size fridge. Crossed her arms, sitting back, she moved one leg over the, her high heels dangling from the toe of her right foot. He reached in to withdraw a can of mixer; the only item in the fridge besides olives. It took him a second but he fumbled the pop top on the can open, then searched for a swizzle stick for mixing. Sue just frowned at the emptiness of the tiny little fridge. The deep lines cutting across her forehead made Bob turn away. He hated her looking like that. Snaking out a cigarette from the pack in his pocket, with shaky fingers, the blood pounding in his temple, he poured them both drinks. But thought a moment before handing Sue hers.

The questions to ask: What is going on with these two folks? Who is in charge? What is at stake? That’s the auditing mentioned above.

You can next move the paragraph further into scene with a stronger edit that brings in all the unspoken problems of this couple and have their body-language speak to the reader were the characters are keeping silent. That’s the subtext. And it rarely comes in at a first draft.

What readers want from your stories is the reveal. Notice the word reveal here. We are talking about the revelation of who these characters are and what drives them to do what they are about to do. This is not the telling of plot points by explanation.  Readers want to realize what your characters are like. And readers can’t realize something if you are explaining to them.  That is reader-feeder.

Realization has to come from the readers’ own discovery. Again, to realize what is being revealed the reader cannot be told it. Let’s look at Sue and Bob in that hotel room.

Draft three: Where subtext is added and the remaining body language, that isn’t removed, now does double duty in revealing a bit more of who these people are.

From her vantage point on the couch Sue sized Bob up as he bent to peek into the half-size fridge. Sitting back, her high heel swishing from the toe of her right foot, she held off from all she meant to tell him. He reached for the only item in the fridge besides olives. It took him a second but he fumbled the pop top on the can he’d withdrawn, then searched for swizzle stick. Anything to hold off hearing what she might have to say once she pounced. Sue focused on the emptiness of the tiny fridge; deep frown lines cutting a ‘V’ between her brow. With shaky fingers, Bob took a moment snaking out a cigarette, the blood pounding in his temple. He hated her staring like that. He poured them both drinks, but thought a moment before handing Sue hers.

Look at some of the word choices and verbs here that can replace too much body-language and descriptors of movements:  Sue is almost cat-like in the subtext the writer’s added in. the word choices for Bob’s actions, rather than his body-movements are those of Sue’s nervous prey.

SueVantage point, Sized up

Swishing, Held off

Pounced, Focused

Cutting, Staring

Bob  Bent, Peek


Withdrawn, Shaky

Snaked, Pounding

During a later edit these words were selected on purpose.


Sue saw Bob bend at the waist to peek into tiny little half-size fridge. (story-facts)


From her vantage point on the couch Sue sized Bob up as he bent to peek into the half-size fridge. (subtext- the opening salvo that will show us who is in charge here)

Which line tells your reader something about who might have the upper hand?

Of these two characters, whose verbs are weaker, thus showing which person may be weaker?  Did you notice the word weak and upper hand were not used at all here? Hat would be telling, rather than storytelling.

So if you find a lot of describing, leave it in your first draft.  Make note of it with ‘subtext’ if you think it’s a candidate for a revision.  Audit – ask your questions as to the intent for your scene. With those audit questions, look at your work again and revise. Descriptions are not a bad thing; they are the first step toward storytelling.

You need to get them down in order to get on with taking them out.

Draft 1: Write it all.

Audit it.

Drafts 2 and beyond: Edit it. Edit it again. And again. each time for a new editing goal.

This one post is just for cleaning up over-descriptions.

Have a further question? Post a comment. I’d love to hear from you.



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