Friday, May 8, 2009

The hero's piercing blue eyes narrowed as he...

I want to talk about the idea of writing exposition into action, and why I think it's generally a Bad Idea. First, you'll want to know what I mean, so here's an example:

I narrowed my brown eyes and saw Aeneas almost at once. He was sitting comfortably on the ground in his plain and worn soldier's clothes that were pulled tight over his well-muscled body, laughing at something one of the other men, also dressed in worn military garb, had said. One of the women handed him some flatbread piled with greens. He pushed back a lock of the long hair touched with gray that told me he was in his forties, took the food from the woman's matronly hands and smiled as he ate it. Beside him sat a boy, filling his teenaged mouth full of food. The boy watched Aeneas with his clear blue eyes in such a way that I could tell they were father and son. This must be Ascanius, I thought.

With him was a pretty boy his age. "Our meal is fit only for rabbits," this boy said, adjusting the red cap which sat askew over his thick black hair. The woman who had served the meal sat his cap straight with her strong, rough hands.

Ascanius adjusted his own worn tunic, shook his head covered in golden curls and said, "Well, it's not at every meal that you get to eat the table too."

Aeneas looked at him with clear blue eyes and sat motionless for a minute. Then he stood to his full height of six feet and spoke in a clear and solemn voice.

"That is the omen," he said. They all looked up at his handsome face.

That's just...bad. It's not as bad as I tried to make it, either, but I hope you know what I mean. We've all, I'm sure, read stories where the author is using constructions of the pattern:

[Character] does some action while [physical attribute].

Whole paragraphs, entire pages of this stuff until the author has exhausted all his description of the character while exhausting the reader as well:

"I'm not innocent," she said with a ruby-red pout, flipping her long beautiful blonde locks away from her face while batting the thick lashes over her sea green eyes.

This does not work. It's awkward, for one thing, and it's confusing to read if kept up for more than, say, a single sentence in a row. Heck, even a single sentence is too much.

I know we're all told that we shouldn't dump our exposition on our readers in solid blocks. We're all told that it's boring and it takes away from the action, so we try to mix our exposition into the action and feed our readers character descriptions while our characters are doing things. I believe this is a mistake; it is very bad advice and promotes bad writing. Mixing description into action like this weakens the passages. The action doesn't move, and the descriptions get lost. The reader takes little, if anything, away from passages like this.

There is nothing wrong--and quite a bit right--with taking a moment of the reader's time to describe your characters, if you want to describe them. The reader won't mind as long as you put the description in the right place (before or after the action, but not during it). The same goes with places and things. Separate the descriptions from the action. See how your favorite authors do it and try modeling your work on theirs to get a feel for how it's done.

Here, by the way, is the actual passage (from Ursula K. LeGuin's Lavinia) that I murdered above. Note how she takes the time to set the stage and give us the characters before she has them act:

I saw my husband almost at once. He stood out among them, not by any ornament of richness of clothing--they were all dressed like soldiers on the march who'd been on duty a long time and crammed into ships on the sea as well, all plain and worn and dirty--he simply stood out, the way the morning star stands out from other stars. He was a man in his forties, with a strong face. He was sitting comfortably on the ground and laughing at something one of the other men said. They were having a picnic there on the grass. Almost all of them were men. They had brought flatbread up from the ship, which were run up stern-first along the beach. They had gathered a great basket of wild greens to pile up on the rounds of flatbread, having no meat or cheese, evidently, as well as no plates or tables. The few women among them were none of them young; one matron, smiling, presented Aeneas with a round of bread heaped with greens, which he rolled up and bit into with gusto. Close to him sat a boy of fifteen or so, who looked enough like him, and looked up to him in such a way, that I was sure it was his son Ascanius. With him were a very pretty boy of his age and a beautiful youth a few years older, wearing a bent-forward red cloth cap. The woman who had served the meal sat down beside him and set his cap straight with an unmistakably maternal fussiness, adoring him.

Red Cap said something about the meal being fit for rabbits not men, and young Ascanius said, "Well, it's not at every meal that you get to eat the table too."

At that Aeneas looked at him as if startled. After gazing motionless for a minute he stood up. They all looked at him.

"That is the omen," he said, his voice ringing clear and solemn.



  1. Who do you think you are, Scott Bailey? I have to change a dirty diaper, or I'd let you have it right now. But, as it is, I simply want an answer to the question I asked previously (i.e., the one in the first sentence).

  2. I'm back, and you can imagine vengeance accompanies my return. Anyway, you're right, mostly, but I have a skeletal fragment to pick with you:

    "The woman who had served the meal sat his cap straight with her strong, rough hands."

    Stinks, but what about...

    "The woman who had served the meal set his cap straight with her rough hands"?

    I think what you did that made the italicized material over-the-top vomit inducing is described like 750 people in one or two pages. That's just crazy because it confuses the reader. "Who is 'portant here?" asks the dunce, and I can't blame him!

    Really, in my opinion, I think, let's add some humility before I continue, the problem isn't exposition plus action, it's irrelevant or excessive exposition plus action.

    Examples (as demanded):

    "I moved my hand to caress her soft face."

    Bad? Not too much, eh?

    "As I moved my hand to caress her soft face, I blinked my eyelids over my blue eyes."


    "I moved my thick, hairy hand to caress her fleshy face."

    Ew! And that one made plain the importance of word choice. Ha ha.

    Anyway, interesting post, but I thought I'd come in and blast you with a semi-coherent verbal assault.

    Enjoy. Oh, and feel free to retaliate. A fancy attack might include, "only one of us has an agent." I wink at you, with an emoticon in mind.

  3. This is a really good post. Despite the evident criticism, I think you presented this really well. I may (I don't know, I'll have to check) have done this many times in my own writing, and I probably never thought much about it. I will be looking for it now though, so thanks alot.

  4. Eric,

    I'm only critical of him because we're friends. Friends don't let friends say this: "Heck, even a single sentence is too much." Not without a fight, anyway. Of course, this fight might be a bit one-sided since his job requires more of him than mine requires of me. Someone defend this poor man! Mary?

  5. I'll defend Scott because he's right. You have a good point, though, Justus. Many times when I see this happening it is excessive and irrelevant exposition plus action, like what Scott has shown.

    I blushed when I read this post and immediately went over to my own manuscript to see if I do this. A quick glance through proved that I do it here and there, but nothing glaringly terrible (in my opinion). Fixable stuff.

    Scott, I think one of the traps writers might fall into as they try and fix this problem is falling into the "was" trap - "Her hair was blond and curly, reaching down to her waist. She was in her early twenties. Her eyes were a soft blue."

    That's a dumb example, but you get the idea. Any specific thoughts on how to avoid list-ish paragraphs of description?

  6. Scott, I think this is an important thing for us all to keep in mind. It can be easy to slip into this sort of thing without noticing when we're trying to stay away from the info-dump. I think we'll all be paying attention from now on to avoid it. Thanks for the gruesome example. I have to admit that Justus's examples were more gruesome than yours though. Yikes! Have a great weekend.

  7. Oh crap. Another thing to revise.

  8. Excellent points. The question is then: why does this slip by so many editors? I see these kinds of things all the time lately. And particularly in dialogue tags (as you noted in one example). Those drive me crazy.

  9. Great example. I'm happy to say never have done bad exposition such as the example given. However, it is something I struggle with and begs the question.

    When is the best time to describe the physical features of a character (if they are important to the story. When they come onto the scene? When you have an intense scene - the minute the other person sees them - such as scary guy crashes through the door. Do you get into actual physical or impression of physical if they are menacing?

    How important is it to know her hair color, his skin tone, etc.?

  10. Arg. Left something out in last sentence and pressed enter too soon. How important is it to the story to know the physical characteristics such as her eye color, his skin tone.

  11. Michelle,

    "I took another swig before double taking to observe that blue-eyed beauty. She looked early twenties, with plenty of pizazz, the way her blond curls rolled off her waist as she played dirty with the pole. Just my kinda woman."

    Success? Failure?

  12. I think there are two distinct questions about this:

    1. When do you describe characters, and

    2. How much description is necessary?

    I'm going to answer these questions in reverse order (and these are only my own highly-biased opinions).

    How much description is necessary? As much as the reader needs. Let's face it: if you paint a vivid portrait of your character, from eye color down to the buttons on their shoes, your reader will forget most of it by the time they get to the next page. They'll carry a general impression forward, but most of your beautiful details will be lost. Is their eye color important? Probably not. If you don't tell your reader, they'll still manage to imagine that your character has eyes. Readers are smarter than we think they are.

    When do you describe characters? Well, it depends. If your story has a running start with lots of action, you need to focus on the action. Your reader will follow the action even if you say absolutely nothing about how your characters look or are dressed. Really, they will. Do your action and then describe. In the problem Robin (oMTB) suggests, you can have the scary guy break down the door and not describe him, or only enough to get the action right ("He was huge and terrifying" or whatever). Later, the characters can think back over the events ("He was very tall, with scars over the left side of his face and long black hair that smelled of mildew. Robin had never seen anyone so ugly." or whatever).

    The point is clarity. Action or description. One or the other, one at a time.

  13. Michelle said exactly what I was going to say...probably while eating a handful of cashews, as I know we both love them. I was sure I was doing this. I quietly opened my Word file to check before commenting. Luckily, I had separated the description from the action, but I used a lot of to be verbs in order to that. "They are poor boys in this fishing town. Their feet are bare."

    I think some of the fused sentences are okay. For instance,

    "He was sitting comfortably on the ground in his plain and worn soldier's clothes, laughing at something one of the other men, also dressed in worn military garb, had said. One of the women handed him some flatbread piled with greens. He pushed back a lock of hair, took the food from the woman's matronly hands and smiled as he ate it."

    That's not so bad is it? It cuts some of the details but still has the fused structure.

  14. Justus,
    I think your example is a solid piece of prose, but it still relies on using some form of the verb "to be." Your example doesn't have it exactly, but if you made it grammatically correct, it would say something like "She looked to be in her early twenties..."

  15. Davin:

    It all depends on context, don't you think? My beef is with this being the way character description is first introduced. Writers start telling us a story but give us a mishmash of details and action and it makes my head hurt, it's hard to follow, and I don't want to read more of it.

    It's problematic to discuss my example, because we've all read it now and have an image in our heads, go going back and seeing it as if for the first time is impossible. But if your first exposure to this set of characters is (your example):

    "He was sitting comfortably on the ground in his plain and worn soldier's clothes, laughing at something one of the other men, also dressed in worn military garb, had said. One of the women handed him some flatbread piled with greens. He pushed back a lock of hair, took the food from the woman's matronly hands and smiled as he ate it."

    I'd cut everything italicized. Why? Because it's not needed. I like the way LeGuin did it; I think it's a fine example of exposition followed by action.

  16. Davin,

    "Grammatically correct" doesn't fly with the narrator I chose. Duh! Fine, I cheated. Ha ha.

  17. A bit much. The info could be spread out through the chapter, maybe the novel.

  18. Justus:

    I raised my hand, a nicked wedding ring on one scarred finger, and took another swig of bourbon from the chipped glass before double taking through the scratched lenses of my horn-rimmed spectacles to observe that blue-eyed beauty in her early twenties and with plenty of pizazz, watching the way her blond curls rolled down to her waist as she played dirty with the pole. Just my kinda woman.

    My dirty pin-striped suit strained against my bulk as I shifted on the barstool. The bartender squinted out of his one green eye, the other covered with a black patch, and he limped over to me on his artificial leg.

    "Another round?" he growled in a voice like a cement mixer, his thick uppper lip catching on one tooth that stuck out an a curious angle.

    "Hit me," I nodded, in a well-groomed voice that spoke of childhood summers in the Berkshires, incongruous with my battle-scarred and weary face.

  19. Wow. What have I started?


  20. Man with avuncular prerogative,

    Perhaps it's unfair that my office lies tucked away while yours dances in the limelight. I can laugh and laugh, with no repercussions!

  21. Holy cow! The melodrama is drowning me.

  22. What's really sad is that my first novel (unpublished and unpublishable) is filled with exactly that sort of overdone, melodramatic writing. I even have a one-eyed, bucktoothed bartender.

  23. Ha ha. Scott, you are what some call "comical." In a tragic sense, I suppose, but I'm with ye: the first draft of my first novel makes for a brain-breaking read. Ever had four names for the same character, in one chapter? It's pretty cool.

  24. Oops, excuse me,I have something to fix on my manuscript. :)

  25. LOL, I also rushed to check a scene I just revised to work more of the description into the action. Scrutinizing it, I decided I hadn't made this particular error, although I found a few awkward sections which were clunky for other reasons.

  26. Thanks, Scott.

    Clarity. I'll have to remember that. The problem I have with some stories, like the one I'm reading now, is the author leaves the description of the character totally up to your imagination. To me, in those instances, the character seems totally one dimensional. You have no impression at all.

    By the way, what is oMTB?

  27. ouch. I'm going to have to go back through my manuscript. 'cause you're right- it does not work. And I'm likely guilty of it.

  28. Duh, I just got it. (oMTB) Of my two blessings. Slaps self on side of the head. :)

  29. Robin, it took me a minute, too...

    Yes, Scott, you're right. Clarity. You do what works. What doesn't work is pulling you're reader out of the action, and I think that's what you're getting at. Why stop the reader in their tracks while trying to pull them into the story? It's confusing and frustrating. I have a lot of this to fix in my manuscript. Add another layer to the pile!

  30. T. Anne, the problem is that usually this kind of thing is itself an attempt to spread the exposition throughout a scene. Usually, the writer (ahem) has started with a clump of exposition, followed by some action. The exposition is clumpy and dull, so the writer is the advice to work it into the action. The writer then produces a page or two of this, making the action clumpy and dull too.

    By complete coincidence, I just encountered this problem. In the opening scene of my wip, my heroine meets Death incarnate. I have two things to convey: a description of Death and the heroine's interaction with her (the action).

    So I have several options:

    1. Describe the tableau before starting the action
    2. Intersperse the description with the action
    3. Don't describe until after the action
    4. Cut the description

    What I see from the examples in this post is that (2) is not automatically better than (1).

  31. Tara,
    Thanks for your really thoughtful response!

  32. I'm going to comment without reading the other have said, so that I don't get too shy, but I think descriptions within actions can work really well, and are, in fact, preferable. But any formulas must go. sa

  33. Ania: Can you give an example of description within an action sequence that's done well? I'd like to see it.


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