I'm struggling with figuring out a way to describe subtle movements in a scene that wouldn't normally be picked up on if not shown. For example:

A character is being put in a prison cell and another character slips them a key or a small pin behind their back.


Like in the movie Gladiator, when Maximus kneels before Commodus in the Colosseum, he picks up a broken arrowhead and conceals it behind his hand and forearm.

How does one describe a simple, subtle action/movement that would be unknown had it not been focused on or shown at all? Or would I just not describe that and then jump straight into what happens next? Would I just jump right into the character "fumbling to get the pin in the key hole while the guards are distracted"?

3 Answers 3


I think you just reveal it to the audience (reader or viewer). I think you have to, or you will create a deus ex machina; the audience will say "WTF? How did he get an arrowhead?!?"

In a movie script, this would be Action description; no dialogue is spoken. (In fact in movies visually passed information without any dialogue is often preferred.)

In a novel, it is a narrator's job, and the time restrictions of a movie do not apply:

The second cop cuffed Darius, his hands behind his back, and leaned in to speak in his ear.

"I don't why we even bother with your kind. Fucking traitors."

Simultaneously, Darius felt the cop press something cold into his palm. Metal. A key. He closed his fist over it.

Darius turned his head toward the cop. "Fuck you!"

The cop slapped him in the back of the head. "Load 'im up!"

  • 1
    Just to be clear, would this also work for something subtle that an inanimate objects does, such as a loose nut on a cars wheel, foreshadowing an accident, a broken hinge, foreshadowing something is going to come it, or a small pin of an opposing clan hidden in someones' neckerchief, giving hints to a double-agent, or does it only work for actions the characters themselves do? Dec 24, 2021 at 21:22
  • @KevM It still works, you just have to show it. Of course it depends on the voice you are writing in. If you are in 3rd person limited, the narrator follows one character, and can describe only that character's feelings and thoughts, what they see and nothing else that is going on in the world (although the character being followed may change by chapter; but this leaves a problem when multiple POV characters meet...) To show a loose nut on a wheel, you'd have to be an omniscient narrator, and that is difficult to do well, audiences feel cheated if the narrator could have told them but did not.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 25, 2021 at 12:22
  • @KevM but the character may intentionally wear a hidden clan pin for some reason, to identify themselves in a pinch. so we could show that in 3PL. I write in 3PL, I tend to not like stories written in omniscient (the narrator knows everything everyone is thinking, and sees everything); those feel contrived to me. As a writer, twists are much more difficult to pull off with an omniscient narrator; there are no secrets, and it feels like cheating if a character has a dark secret and the narrator that knows everything neglected to tell us that.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 25, 2021 at 12:29
  • That's why I write in 3PL, only switching when necessary, such as when the main character is unconscious, or showing the opposing side, or just showing the pov of the person who has the most to lose. I agree with your statement about the "all-knowing" omniscient narrator holding back info, seems strange to me. So, basically, it works for inanimate objects, I just have to show it from a pov that would be able to give that info to the reader, such as the pov character "eyeing the vehicle inquisitively", for example, just giving the reader something to go off of, correct? Dec 25, 2021 at 18:48

Go Bold or Go Home or Be Chill Little Fonzies

The examples you cite from movies take great pains to ensure the audience knows what action the character. It's only implied to be subtle from the in-world characters sharing the stage with Maximus.

From the storytelling viewpoint, do the same thing in your writing that the filmmakers did and show the moment clearly. How much you weight it depends on the consequences of that action.

For instance, if it is a thing of no great matter. Then describe it an action beat. "John's fingers brushed his wallet." This might suggest a character is wary of pick pockets or is speculating about making a purchase. A few sentences later, resolve whatever it is that caused the action. This is the kind of thing to do when you've decided in this scenario, it's not truly important, and that a skimming reader might miss the action beat, and it still works.

On the other end of the scale, you decided it is really important. It might start as an action beat or it might get is own first sentence of a paragraph, or it might get setup and described in narrative action.

"Max saw Empii walking towards him. Kneeling to the sands, making his obeisance, his fingers dug for a broken eclair. Its creamy goodness, filled him with joy, knowing Empii's allergies were about to be his death."

But it gets the action, then the character reacts emotionally to that action, Bells and whistles telling the reader this is important, because you don't want a skimming reader to miss it.


Don't go for the obvious.

You want to describe a subtle, but highly significant action, don't describe the action. Describe the effects.

Your about-to-be-imprisoned character might feel cold metal against their palm which quickly closes around the object, releasing a surge of hope. They look down, wary of revealing anything that might result in the guards finding out.

In the Gladiator scene, rather than focusing on the positive action, you could focus on nobody noticing it, and spend more time describing what other people's attention was focused on, building tension that way.

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