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I was just wondering if anybody had some tips on how to avoid repetitively describing characters' actions in the same way? Here is an example which I'm struggling to reform, mostly because I keep using 'he/she did this' etc as I'm sure you can tell:

“Oh, of course!” She urged, taking the snacks from his arms and moving aside to allow him in - remembering that there was an actual reason why he was meant to be there. He entered, thoughtfully glancing around the place and taking it in. He circled the room for a few moments in inspection, barely easing her nerves as she locked the door and moved towards the seats she’d placed out around a canvas in the centre. “Where should I sit?” He asked suddenly. She sat down, caution in her voice as she guided him to the chair opposite. “Just here, please.”

Do you think I should describe the characters' emotions more than their actions?Or is that too cliche? I've always struggled with dialogue/action, so I'd love your opinions! Hopefully you can understand where I'm coming from.

Thanks so much in advance!

  • A proofreading note: Lowercase "she urged" to make "'Oh, of course!' she urged, ..." a single sentence. Same with "'Where should I sit?' he asked..." – Ken Mohnkern Nov 7 '17 at 14:19
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First and foremost, I would suggest that you resist the urge to describe everything that happens in a scene. In a movie, all the actions of a scene like that are acted out and are visible on screen, though it might take several viewings before you actually saw everything that every actor was doing. But that is the nature of how we operate in the world. We don't take in every detail of every action of every person in every moment of our lives. We practice selective attention. Without selective attention, we would not be able to function in the busy complex noisy environments we live in. (Defects in our ability to practice selective attention can be debilitating disorders making it impossible for people to live normal lives.)

So, a movie can throw all that detail up on screen and allow the viewer's natural talent for selective attention to take in the scene as they will. If they did not saturate the scene in that way, I suspect, the viewer would find the scene very unnatural, even though they are not actually taking in all the details of the busy scene.

But prose is very different. Prose forces each word and sentence into the foreground one at a time. It gives the reader little opportunity for practicing selective attention (except by skipping, and we obviously don't want to encourage that). So the writer has to practice selective attention on the reader's behalf. Much of the power of the novel as an art form lies in this as it allows the writer to direct the reader's attention to a greater degree than any other art form.

But it also means that we must work very hard to make sure that we only bring forward those elements of a scene that really matter. Detail for detail's sake, detail to show off how keen an observer you are, is never a good thing. Detail must serve the arc and theme of the story. Neither brevity not richness is a virtue in itself, it is all about how the details chosen and the way they are presented serve the arc and theme of the story.

If your text seem repetitive, therefore, the problem is very likely not in the prose but in the choice of detail. Choose the right detail and the prose you choose to express it is not the first concern. Simple and straightforward is usually best, but even that is not the make or break concern. It is all about choosing the right detail to show, much more than it is about the right way to show it.

No one could say for certain which details in the passage you shared are the right ones, because that depends on the larger context of the story, but it seems to me that much of what is there is mere busy detail, not crucial to what is going on in the scene. Everything in a scene should mean something? Is that the case for your scene?

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    Thanks so much, I think that was just the answer I was looking for. I do tend to get a bit carried away with describing everything! I suppose we can assume that the character is going to shut the door - I don't need to state that. – Soph Nov 5 '17 at 18:16
  • @Soph, you could skip this whole paragraph and start the scene after they're seated and speaking. There's a story about a student asking some famous writer about how to know their story is done. Without even looking at the manuscript, the writer said, "Throw out the first 25 pages and you're done." It's pretty common to have some amount of rummaging around before the scene or story begins. Your sample came across to me like that. – Ken Mohnkern Nov 7 '17 at 14:16
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You have a couple easy options.

  1. You can simply prune some out. If the dialog conveys the action then it's redundant and you should prune one or the other out anyway (current trend is more dialog, less narration).

  2. You can change the structure. Instead of pronoun-action in every instance, you can mix it up.

Example:

Jill threw the ball, saying "Catch it! Catch the ball!"

Jack missed the ball, and said "Rats! Let's try again!" He snatched the ball from the ground and threw it to Jill.

She caught it, and said "See? This is a fun game."

Can be:

Jill threw the ball, saying "Catch it! Catch the ball!"

Missing her throw, Jack said "Rats! Let's try again!" and returned it to her.

She caught it, and said "See? This is a fun game."

I pruned one and changed the structure on another.

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If I am not addressing your question about repetitiveness, clarify it and I will edit.

I do see a few problems with your prose. In no particular order:

1) I don't understand the value of "urged". The speech doesn't sound like urging, it sounds like agreement, and speaks for itself. Just 'said' would suffice.

The part following should be in past tense, like the rest: 'as she took ... and moved aside ...'. For myself, I'd break the sentence to say 'She'd almost forgotten there was...', but that sentence is not clear. It sounds like he thinks he is there for one reason and she has an ulterior reason; in which case I would likely write it more explicitly, like 'She'd almost forgotten the ruse that brought him here.'

Also, "he glanced," not glancing. I think you are trying to 'tack on' actions to dialogue or other actions, when another sentence would be fine, or a recast sentence would be fine. "As he entered, he glanced around the room, as if finding his bearings."

2) Thoughtfully: If the POV is hers, what makes her think his glances are thoughtful, rather than say, suspicious or cautious or gaining his orientation in a new room?

3) 'circled the room'. This is generally used in a literal sense, physically walking around the room. Which cannot be done in 'a few moments'. Maybe he looked about the room, or scanned the room, or surveyed it, or found his bearings.

4) 'Barely': Why would somebody inspecting your apartment or property "ease your nerves" even the slightest bit? Inspection implies judgment and few people become more at ease being judged.

5) 'Suddenly': This implies an unexpected action; but surely she was waiting for him to say something.

Use alternatives to "he said" and "she said" very sparingly. It is fine to add characterizations of vocal intonation separately. "Oh, of course!" she said, her jangled nerves apparent in her voice.

For readers "he said" and "she said" are nigh on invisible, other single word attributions [urged, whined, whispered, cried, exclaimed, etc] are harder to process, and separate descriptions actually flow better. If you need one of those words, it may be more clear to put it up front. Kristen whispered so only Jack could hear her. "Try that again and I'll break your finger."

You should be breaking up dialogue with action or thoughts or setting exposition (description of the environment). You could have put your 'canvas and chairs' in such an exposition while the guy surveys the room, or in HER thoughts about what HE might be seeing, or thinking.

In this case, I might write (depending on your POV restrictions):

He entered and took a few steps into the room, looking about to gain his bearings. As he did, she put the snacks on the table against the wall, locked the door, and turned to approach the closest of the two chairs she had set, on opposite sides of the canvas in the middle of the floor. His inspection did not ease her nervousness.

He turned to ask, "Where should I sit?"

The question surprised her.

In the most obvious possible place? she thought.

Instead she said, "Just here, please," gesturing to the chair opposite her own.

Don't be in a rush to finish the scene "efficiently". In fiction people are reading for entertainment, they are almost never in a rush to have their entertainment over as soon as possible. So while we don't want to be repetitive in our descriptions, and do not want to describe what is irrelevant to the story (it might be irrelevant to describe the snacks, chairs, or previous history of the canvas as a painting tarp, or how well this guy is dressed, or his apparently self-taught haircut), it is okay to spend as many words as you like on what should be described in the scene.

You want economy in writing only in the sense that you need to pick a handful (around three) elements to describe, but there is no need to mince words too severely in those descriptions.

Where I think you have gone a little awry is that you have stumbled into an "efficient" method that doesn't use many words or sentences. Then a reluctance to use more words, sentences and paragraphs leaves you with a monotone style. Which becomes tiresome.

  • Thank you, that's really given me some food for thought. I often find it difficult to find the perfect midpoint in between being overly-wordy and not descriptive enough, (here I suppose I went to the latter extreme) but I'll definitely try applying these ideas. – Soph Nov 5 '17 at 18:23
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To add to the other answers, if you have specific words or phrases that you know that you overuse don't worry about correcting them while you write. Go through afterwards with the "find" function on your preferred word processor and highlight all the instances of the phrase. That will give you a visual indication of how often you use the phrase, and help you to decide if you need to replace some instances.

Another fun trick is to remove the words you use from your word processor's dictionary so that it automatically highlights them as you write. Afterwards you can decide which ones you want to keep.

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